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Another Woman

I used to go to all of Woody Allen's movies back in the day, but this one slipped past me. Maybe I didn't rush right out to see it cuz it was not a comedy. I don't know. But it was on TCM the other day, so I watched it. It wasn't what I expected, and that's a good thing.

I must say up front, I have not seen enough Ingmar Bergman films to pick up on the supposed "homage" he was paying to one of his favorite auteurs, so I can't judge it by that measuring stick. I was afraid it would be in the typical vein of that era, something like "An Unmarried Woman," where heartbroken women struggle to create a life without a man at the center. It is not.

It's about a woman who has created a life for herself that seems to be working fine. She's had success in her career and seems to find it very rewarding and she's married to a man who seems to be a good companion. They seem to have a busy social life with lots of interesting friends, doing interesting things.

She's taken a sabbatical to write a book, but there's noisy construction near their home, so she rents an apartment where she can work in peace. (Must be nice to be able to afford that, I can't help thinking!) But she discovers her new apartment is next door to a psychiatrist's office and has very thin walls. She can clearly overhear the conversation of "another woman" who is bitterly unhappy, pregnant, and suicidal. Something about this unseen woman's confessions causes her to reflect on her own life. And when she looks deeper, she discovers how fundamentally unsound it is.

Gina Rowlands is so beautiful, it's enough to just look at her face without her saying a word, but as she listens, we watch her face. We watch for a reaction. She never gives it to us. Whatever is going on with her, it is internal. At no point does she frown, grimace, roll her eyes, or smile. She just listens.

There is a quietness in her listening. Unselfconscious, at rest, open. Most of us listen by restlessly anticipating where the other person is going. We silently prepare our response, thinking ahead, distracted by momentary digressions or echoes of parallels in the past. Our minds wander while we check in on our mental to-do list. None of that happens here. There is no one to respond to, there is reason to anticipate, no reaction to prepare. She simply listens. She wants to understand.

When she uses that same restful openness, that willingness to listen in her own life, she realizes her life is not what she thought.

I expected this to be a dusty relic from a time gone by, but it's as relevant and poignant today as it would have been in 1988 when it was made. I don't blame you if you don't like this movie, but I really do, having had some experience with this myself. We humans have this uncanny ability to see only what we want to see, and not see (or hear) what doesn't fit the story we're telling ourselves in our heads.

This movie's accidental on-purpose voyeurism is a foreshadowing of the Internet of the future, where people can eavesdrop on other private conversations, hidden in anonymity. During the 1990s and 2000s, there would be a great unfurling, a momentous uncovering of private thoughts, private confessions, when we all got to see what happens when people feel safe expressing themselves in anonymity, and what happens to the people who listen.

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I found myself waiting for the laughs. In many ways, this is a typical Woody Allen movie without the jokes, with Gena Rowlands as the hapless Alvy Singer-character. The uncomfortable confrontation with her husband when she wants to know why they never have sex is a beautiful reversal of the sex roles we see in his other movies of that time. I love movies where the women get to complain about not getting enough sex. Like Olympia Dukakis in Moonstruck: "Now he's going to play that damn Vikki Carr record, and when he comes to bed he won't touch me!"

The Revenant

I'm not a big fan of Leonardo di Caprio and I've never cared much for Westerns; this you may already know about me. I think it comes from having grown up knee-deep in the TV westerns of the 1950s (reruns) and 1960s, which (I was able to recognize even at that tender age) were sentimental clap-trap, for the most part. The Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone were the exception, of course.

But there's been a reinvention, a sort of renaissance of the genre in the last 10-15 years, and some of them (the ones I've seen) have been pretty good. It was "Deadwood" that broke this new ground, or maybe it was Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven." In any case, today's filmmakers seem to have found a new approach for stories about the American west, and I like it.

So although I did not rush right out and see this film in theaters, and I did not rush to rent it when it was first made available digitally, I did notice it was on HBO and I did record it and I did watch it promptly, expecting to be disappointed.

I am happy to report that, contrary to expectations, I liked it very much.

I'm glad to see that I'm open-minded enough to admit when Leo di Caprio is good. And though this movie really didn't take much in the way of acting, I give the guy credit. He did what was needed to serve the story, and that's plenty.

There's a way to use the American West as a kind of moral no-man's land where anything can happen. A purgatory, a world in between worlds where the laws of man and the laws of nature clash and contend in the most unexpected of ways. "No Country For Old Men" comes to mind.

This film is one of those. The world is full of meaningless brutality and incidental kindnesses. The men who seek to impose order into chaos are as powerless as a corpse borne down that river. (This movie could have been called "The River," because it seemed like no matter what was going on or where they went, the river was a constant. It was almost like another character in the action.) These murderous men, whether trappers or soldiers or Indians, one tribe or another, were all pawns on a chessboard, single individuals or clusters, trying to survive, looking for someone, seeking revenge. The natural world was throwing everything it could at them: the men slogging through freezing water, the heavy clouds, the fog, a mother bear, the ice and the sleet, an avalanche, the herd of bison and the attacking wolves, the horses chest deep in snow. It's a world where you can turn around and find yourself staring at your own death in so many different ways.
Everything that happens is connected and yet it all feels so entirely random. So many little moments, turning points where a character has a choice to make, where one word could make all the difference.

I loved the direction. The dreamy point-of-view, the camera drifting in and out of the action, the lingering looks at the beautiful, cruel world around these little human dramas. Yes, it was a little self-conscious, but that was OK with me. I love the classic 3-part structure of the story. I loved the paucity of dialogue. I love the shitty homemade-looking clothes. I loved how everybody looked like they hadn't had a bath in six months.

I must also give props for the excellent music by Carsten Nicolai and Ryuichi Sakamoto. What restraint! What purposeful delicacy! Music is so important to me -- if this film had been given the traditional big orchestral score, I would have just hit "DELETE" and not even bothered to finish it. So bravo to whoever chose the music.

Yes, there were too many visions of the dead wife, but that's forgiveable. Yes, it was gory and gross. Yes, the CGI was cool but also cartoonish. I am pretty sure the only way a guy could survive a bear attack like that is if he was wearing a cast-iron union suit under his clothes.

shipwreck at Tromelin Island

The world is full of so many fascinating stories, and yet movies today are scraping the bottom of the barrel for material. Comic books have given way to cartoon characters. We get nothing but sequels, prequels, reboots, and remakes, as if there is a shortage of writers or original stories. I stumble onto fantastic stories all the time which beg to be filmed, or low-budget movies from years past that are ripe for an upgrade.

This is a story I ran across some years ago which has always stayed vivid in my mind as absolutely perfect for film. Not only has nobody made a movie about it, but nobody has written or published a fucking BOOK about it. (There's some French language books that cover it, but nobody has translated it.)

In 1761, a ship carrying slaves from Madagascar to Mauritius was shipwrecked on a tiny desert island. (I'm thinking "Lost" in the 18th century.) Some of the crew drowned and most of the slaves because they were locked into the hold. The crew took all the water and food, so some of the surviving slaves died from lack of water. They eventually dug a well and survived on sea turtles, seabirds and shellfish. After six months, some of the surviving crew used the ship's wreckage to build a raft and departed, promising to send a rescue ship. It was 15 years before anybody came back for the survivors. FIFTEEN FUCKING YEARS living on a tiny, naked island. By the time they were finally rescued, there were only 7 women still alive, with one baby.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/shipwrecked-and-abandoned-the-story-of-the-slave-crusoes-435092.html

updated -- film festival: Ghosts

Sometimes a movie stays with me, in spite of not having made a deep dent in my consciousness at the time I saw it. I saw this movie “Ghosts” at the Seattle International Film Festival in 2007, and I wrote a rather dismissive post here about it (see below). I didn’t expect that movie to stay with me, but it has. The movie recreates the experiences of a young Chinese woman whose husband has left her and who must support herself and her young son. There simply are no jobs where she lives. She decides to take a desperate risk: to pay a human trafficker to get her into England, where she can earn money to send home. She leaves her son with her mother and puts herself into the hands of total strangers. For six long months, she is smuggled from one place to another, shut up in containers in the cargo holds, stuffed into the back of trucks, never knowing where she is, where she is going, when she will next be able to eat or drink. The passage of time blurs, locations are vague, the people handling her come and go.

Eventually she finds herself one day in the back of a van driving into an anonymous suburban neighborhood. She’s taken into a house. It looks like an ordinary house, but inside it is empty except that every square foot of floor space is occupied by a bed roll. This is where she will sleep when she is not working. The house is crammed with workers like herself. Some work day shifts, others work nights, so that all the bed rolls are always full.

She begins her new life now, working very long days, seven days a week at menial jobs. Each day the boss drives them somewhere, they are told what to do and are picked up when their shift ends. These are shit jobs, the ones nobody wants to do. For example, for a week or so she works in a hospital doing laundry. She is invisible to others, silent, eyes down, with a mop and bucket, pushing a trolley heaped with filthy laundry down a dim underground corridor. The boss knows exactly how long she can work there under the radar and pulls her before anyone discovers she’s illegal.

She works exhausting hours and never has any contact with the outside world. She is never left alone and has no freedom. She speaks no English, cannot read signs, or even ask anyone for help. If she runs  away, the boss’s friends in China will come down hard on her mother and son, so she must toe the line. The boss discourages them from chatting at the house, so she doesn’t even really know the other people there. Her only link with the outside world is her cellphone. Once in a while she can call home and talk to her mother and her son.

She will never be able to repay the debt, because she is paying back the money she owes for getting her into England, plus for her room and board and for finding jobs for her. Everything she earns goes against that ever-increasing debt. So she is essentially unregulated, invisible slave labor.

One day the boss loads them up in the van and drives out onto a wide flat beach. They “happen to run into” a local who will pay cash for all the cockles they can dig up. So they drive out onto the sand and start digging. The hours go by, and soon the sun is sinking in the sky. They keep digging. Finally the water is starting to come up around their ankles and they get in the van to go back, but then realize they have no idea which way to go. In all directions, miles of empty sand beaches stretch out as far as the eye can see. Meanwhile it’s getting dark, the water is rising quickly, and their van is soon swamped. The woman ends up standing on top of the van with the others in utter darkness, trying to call her mother so she can hear her son’s voice one last time, as waves crash around the van. Thankfully, someone got through to some emergency services and they were found and saved, but not before 23 people drowned. The young woman survived. This happened in Morecambe Bay in Lancashire on Feb. 5, 2004.

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Since seeing this film in 2007, I’d had the idea this happened in East Anglia, probably because so much land is reclaimed from the sea there. But lately I’ve been reading about West Yorkshire and Lancashire and ran across a reference to Morecambe Bay, and suddenly realized this had to be the location from that movie. Indeed, it was.

Morecambe Bay lies on Britain’s west coast, halfway up the side. It is actually an estuary, the mouth of five major rivers and their peninsulas along with seven islands. It is the largest expanse of intertidal mudflats and sand in the UK, covering 120 square miles. At low tide, you can walk between the islands and far out onto the sands. But the bay is notorious for its quicksand and fast-moving tides. It is said that the tide comes in "as fast as a horse can run." For centuries, there have been royally appointed local guides called “Queen's Guide to the Sands” to take people across safely. The Chinese boss probably did not know this.

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When I saw this film, I had a hard time understanding how these people could become so lost out on the sands. Even if you got turned around and couldn’t see dry land, wouldn’t the sky or the sea tell you which way to go? Couldn’t you follow your car tracks?

I suppose it comes from growing up in a land-locked state, but I’d always imagined the tide coming in like you see in movies. Nice big waves coming from one direction, in toward land – in other words, with a discernable direction. But I know now that in mudflats, the water just seeps in around you. You look down and your feet are wet. And with 120 miles of sand, there's plenty of ways to get turned around and lose your bearings.

And if the sky is heavily overcast, there is no way to know where the sun is, to find west or east. And if you had no comprehension of where you were in relation to dry land, it wouldn’t do you any good anyhow.

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I’ve been caught by surprise by the tides. Once I was on an island with a guy who was in the Merchant Marine for years and he got caught by surprise by the tide. His boat was left high and dry and far from the water for hours. We just had to wait for the tide to turn. I’ve looked down from atop Mont St. Michel and seen the tides rushing in across the acres of flat sands. I delayed walking out to St. Michael’s Mount to grab a quick bite once only to find it cut off 10 minutes later. You know the old saying: Time and tide wait for no man.

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The title of the film is problematic; many people probably expect a paranormal thriller. But I understand why the filmmaker chose it. Ghosts are beings who live among us but are invisible. Like two parallel universes, two different realities living layered together but separate and invisible.

The overall tone of the film reflects that very well. The action may seem mundane, but the sense of disconnectedness is powerful and memorable. The Chinese woman is helpless, powerless, lost, like being in suspended animation. Time loses all meaning except for your work shift. There is no context, no cushioning reality outside your own. Psychologically, the woman was utterly alone.

“Ghosts” is a low-budget film with amateur actors, nearly all the dialogue ad-libbed – there is nothing particularly memorable about the film as such. And yet it comes back to me when I see video of desperate Syrians carrying only a water bottle, telling about loved ones lost in the water in the dark. I remember that tiny Chinese woman, how alone she was, how powerless, how disconnected. Europe is full of people like her, and probably so is the US. When you take them as a group, you see the bigger political picture, the logistics, the impossible problems. But when you take them as individuals, you see a human being who needs help. In that regard, I have to say, eight years after seeing this film, “Ghosts” stays with me.

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Here is my original post from June 5, 2007
..
This film was a re-enactment of a true story about the plight of illegal immigrants in England. Again, we begin with a climactic incident, then jump back in time to follow the events that led up to that incident. (Yawn.)

The story concerns a young mother in China, whose husband left her so she and her baby son live with her family. They are poor and work hard, but can't get ahead. Someone tells her she can make a lot of money in England, so the family borrows money to get her smuggled into the UK illegally. It takes six months to get her there. When she arrives, she is put to work doing grunt work, living in a house with 10 or 12 other illegal Chinese guys. They are all led by a boss guy, who knows how to work the system to get jobs for these people "under the table." They encounter nasty racist people but also nice people too. Between the debt at home to the moneylenders and the money she owes the boss man for room and board and connections, her situation is hopeless. The film's climax comes when they are all nearly drowned while out collecting cockles on a deserted beach. They don't keep track of the tide and then get disoriented. This actually happened, and 23 people drowned.

This young woman didn't drown, however, and got some help as a result. She was able to fly back to China, where she happily greeted her son and mother and sister, no doubt thinking that if she can't find her heart's desire in her own back yard, maybe she never really lost it to begin with.

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There were about 15 people at this showing, which I suppose is a reflection of the lack of interest and sympathy in our country right now about illegal immigrants. The closing frames told us that X number of illegals in the UK are burdened by X zillion pounds of debt and that the British government continues to refuse to do anything to help them. While I cringe at the demonization of illegals in our country now, I don't feel it's a government's responsibility to pay their debts, unlike the makers of this film.

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Personally, after seeing the movies about Uganda and Darfur, the plight of these people didn't seem so awful. But it's not fair to compare so I won't dwell on that. Not long ago I wrote about that series of "Prime Suspect" that highlights the experience of eastern Europeans trying to find a better life in England. Also it brought to mind the episodes of "The Wire" about the dead girls in the can. There are a lot of very unhappy, poor people out there who'd give a lot to have the problems we have. I can't condemn them for taking a desperate gamble.

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As to the film itself, it's a pretty standard approach. I do think I will remember the image of these desperate people standing on top of the roof of their van in the darkness with wild waves crashing in on them, up to their ankles, and the young girl calling her mother in China on her cellphone to say goodbye to her baby. What a jarring image.

xx
In spite of how bad it sucks, I am very fond of this movie. If I ever run across it on TV, I drop what I'm doing and watch it. Yes, yes, it was a massive disapointment, but squashed in between all the Suck, there's a lot of Awesome too. Not the least of which is the futuristic Medieval/Baroque look. Remember, this movie came out in 1984. The interiors and costumes and general production design are very cool. Everything has a vaguely steampunk look, 30 years early. I especially love the Bene Gesserit costumes. And the cool gadgets like the Hunter-Seeker and the suspensor lights floating around. And how I love Jessica and Paul's use of the Voice.  And the deflector shields they use in their combat training. I could go on and on.

Unfortunately, though, shortly after they arrive on Arrakis, things just fall apart. So let's go look at them.

FAILURES:

1. Special effects

-- Everything about the Guild Navigator's visit to the Emperor was so cool: the big container he floats around in, the expressionless bald footmen with their vacuum cleaner hoses -- everything EXCEPT the Guild Navigator! Who is a giant floating peanut! Hilariously stupid puppetry or whatever.

-- Folding space. Special effects just hadn't really been developed yet to the point where filmmakers could do justice to it yet. Or maybe they had and we got cheated. I don't know. But it looked like something from Johnny Quest.

-- The weirding modules were a total joke.

-- The sandworms were a major disappointment.

2. Was it the Acting, or was it the Script?

To me, the acting was fine for many of the characters. I really liked Leto and Jessica and the Mother Superior. The test she delivers to Paul was great. She and the emperor were great.

Kyle MacLaughlin was adequate, up to a point, but then he just got lost somewhere. Did the script let him down? Was he just not up to it? The film does a pretty good job of building up the idea of Paul Atreides being this Superman-Savior figure predicted in so many traditions -- but we never get the payoff. Paul never seems to really become Muad Dib or the Kwizatz Haderach. He just seems like a regular guy who knows some stuff.


The array of supporting characters is muddled, because there are so many of them, and they are not introduced to us or developed properly. Who knows Gurney Halleck from Duncan Idaho, and really who cares?

And of course Baron Harkonnen was so over the top, I can't even. When I watch the film now, I fast-forward through his creepy scenes. He's still an ultra-sicko villain. His sidekicks made no impression, with all apolgies to Sting.

A lot of the actors had to deliver a lot of really stupid lines with a straight face and I give them credit for that. It's like shooting fish in a barrel to make shit of Alia's very bad overdubbing or Linda Hunt's pronunciation of the word "housekeeper," but there are many small moments between individuals which are quite good.

Once Paul and Jessica are out running around in the desert, it all just goes to hell in a handbasket. I have read that by the time David Lynch reached that point in the shooting, he'd given up all hope and wanted to just get it over with. Nothing in the deserts, nothing in the world of the Fremen is done adequately at all. And the big climactic battle was a big nothing.

But it could have been a lot worse, really. The Sci-Fi channel did a mini-series version of Dune a few years ago and it was dull and lifeless, which should have been impossible with such a great story. I just watched Jodorovsky's Dune a while ago and so much wish that movie had been made. That would have been absolutely awesome.

Dune is a world that needs the Peter Jackson treatment: the first novel alone could easily be split into three, 2-hour movies with no padding necessary. The detail of the world created by Frank Herbert is every bit as layered, nuanced, sophisticated, and imaginative as Tolkein's world, the GRRM Game of Thrones world, or the Star Wars universe. It deals with the same immortal archetypes that make for the greatest art. I hope someday someone does justice to it.

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my IMDb review of Cloud Atlas

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This happens all the time. Someone strikes it rich and makes a big hit, and then forever after, everybody acts like they're geniuses and gives them carte blanche, expecting more hits.

This might have been a decent movie if:

1. They'd cut least an hour out. At least. WAY WAY too much everything.

2. They'd eliminated the flash-forwards (or whatever they were) from the opening, and jumped straight into some coherent narrative. Does every film need to feed us a preview of the climax to convince us to pay attention to that pesky exposition? Can we treat viewers like someone with an attention span?

3. They'd used subtitles for the "After The Fall" section. Or made characters speak normal English. I understood about 10% of what Halle Berry and Tom Hanks said.

4. They'd used different actors for different roles. Sorry, but this thing of using the same actor for different roles just made it confusing. The makeup was distracting and silly.

5. They'd constructed the story the way it was in the book. All this jumping around from one storyline to another is so overused. It screams of lazy writing. Especially the creation of "matching" climaxes. Yawn.

There's also a lot of good stuff going on too, but I'm still going with one star cuz 1) the source material was so fantastic and they really made a mess of it, and 2) this was an incredibly talented group of people with plenty of money and time to do it right. Very disappointed.

“A Problem from Hell"

I am reposting some older pieces. These are my thoughts after reading "A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide" by Samantha Power. (It should be noted that I wrote this around 2005. I am afraid there would be more examples if I updated this now.)

Though many men throughout history have sought to wipe out a civilian population, genocide on a widespread scale was simply not feasible before the 20th century. Technology has made genocide possible. What was unimaginable is now do-able.

These are the genocides of the 20th century documented in this book:


  • Turkey’s genocide of its Armenian minority in 1915, under the cover of the First World War. They pretended the Armenians were collaborating with the Russians.

  • Germany’s genocide of Europe’s Jews during WWII.

  • Cambodia’s genocide of its own citizens under the Khmer Rouge. They killed whoever they wanted. At one point they were killing anyone who wore glasses.

  • Saddam Hussein used Iraq’s war with Iran as a cover for his genocide of Iraq’s Kurdish population in the late 80s.

  • Bosnia’s Serbs did their best to wipe out their Muslim population after Yugoslavia self-destructed in the early 90s.

  • Rwanda’s Hutu extremists slaughtered more than 800,000 Tutsis in 1994.

  • After several years of relative quiet after NATO bombing, Milosevic began brutalized ethnic Albanians in the southern Serbian province of Kosovo in 1997. This marks the only time Western powers have intervened to prevent genocide pre-emptively.

What is genocide?

Here’s what it looks like: Deportation, forced removals, rapes, terrorizing people, destroyed homes, separating men from women and children, concentration camps or work camps, systematic killing, mass graves, attempts to hide mass graves, to the extent of moving bodies later on.

As defined by the UN genocide convention, any of the following acts committed with intent ot destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:


  1. Killing members of the group;

  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

  3. Deliberate infliction on the group the conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

For a party to be found guilty of genocide, it had to:


  1. carry out one of the aforementioned acts

  2. with the intent to destroy all or part of

  3. one of the groups protected

The law does not require the extermination of an entire group, only acts committed with the intent to destroy a substantial part. Hussein did not set out to eliminate every Kurd in Iraq. But he set out to destroy the Kurdish insurgency, and the way he chose to accomplish this was to destroy Iraq’s rural Kurdish population.

If the perpetrator does not target a national, ethnic, or religious group as such, then killings would constitute mass homicide, not genocide.

The perpetrator’s motives are irrelevant.

The convention requires action, even when it means interferring in another nation’s internal affairs.

Response: The range of options

We often act like we have one option: ground forces, a full-on war – or nothing. All you have to do is say “Vietnam”, it’s like a secret code for “not our problem”. But the US has so much clout, so many options, so many ways to act other than ground troops.


  • diplomatic pressure, public condemnations, public warnings

  • embargos

  • cutting off aid, economic sanctions

  • removing diplomatic staff

  • freezing assets abroad

And when we do decide to use military force, whether with the UN or independently, we have a broad range of options without going to a Vietnam-style war.


  • use of military to seize airports or create corridors for humanitarian aid

  • selective bombing (like we did for Bosnia)

  • enforce a no-fly zone in protected airspace

  • UN peacekeepers to monitor refugee camps or transport centers for detainees

Response: Futility, perversity, jeopardy

Economist Albert Hirschman observed that when faced with evidence of genocide, we usually cite these factors as reasons for our inaction:


  1. Futility – it won’t do any good, those people have been killing each other for centuries

  2. Perversity – if we go in now, it might make things worse

  3. Jeopardy – it’s not worth the risk to us, our national interests are not at stake, it’s not our job to be policeman of the world

Early warnings proliferate and are downplayed as unreliable.

Refugee accounts are ignored or downplayed as exaggerated.

We use the Holocaust as “a threshold for action”. If events don’t add up to the horror of the Nazi concentration camps, we discount their severity.

Despite plenty of information and media coverage, we are very slow to recognize evil. We assume the major players will act in good faith. We urge a cease fire and donate humanitarian aid. We trust diplomacy and naively have faith that the ringleaders will behave rationally.

Rather than react to events as they are, we have a tendency to “fight the last war”. In Cambodia, we were thinking about Vietnam. In Rwanda, we were thinking about Somalia. We don’t even examine the situation’s realities because of our preoccupation with other places, other times.

How they do it

Genocide is often hidden under the cloak of war:


  • Turkey used WWI as an excuse to kill off their Armenians.

  • The Khmer Rouge came to power as a direct result of our war with Vietnam and our relations with Cambodia (including the secret bombing).

  • Iraq’s war with Iran was the excuse for their systematic destruction of their rural Kurdish minority.

  • The breakup of the former Yugoslavia provided the excuse for Serbian aggression.

  • Rwanda’s civil war provided the perfect ruse for the Hutu ringleaders to launch their genocide.

Often the authorities use the excuse of a third force, some other group doing the killing while they are trying to bring the situation under control.

Or the authorities pretend the victims are collaborating with the enemy (Turkey).

It may be conducted under a veil of utter secrecy (Cambodia). Or it will be done in plain view (Bosnia) while agreeing to outsiders that it’s complying with requests for this or that when in fact the killing goes on.

Sometimes the operational plans for the genocide are documented thoroughly (Cambodia). Other times no evidence is left, documentation is destroyed as a way of denying the genocide.

Sometimes they leave the bodies to rot (Rwanda) or sometimes the killings are hidden. Mass graves are disguised and bodies removed and reburied somewhere else. (Kosovo).

The victims are blamed as having been “destabilizing” a situation, harboring rebels, consorting with the enemy (Turkey)

The victims are demonized and turned into “cockroachs” or dehumanized. Hate proproganda is disseminated using mass media.

The so-called peace process becomes a stalling mechanism. Milosevic was masterful at this. He reminds me of the Martians in “Mars Attacks!” They call out “We come in peace! Don’t run, we are your friends!” while mowing down the stupidly naïve earthlings.

Leadership? Nah.

The US government not only does not send troops but takes few (if any) other steps along a continuum of involvement.

“It is in the realm of domestic politics that the battle for genocide is lost.” How does this abdication of responsibility take shape?

Policymakers assume silence means indifference, while potential sources of influence are quiet -- lawmakers on Capitol Hill, op-ed pages in the press, the media generally, non-governmental agencies, as well as ordinary people.

Other Western powers wait for the US to take the lead, while we say it’s not our problem.

We stall, hoping matters will resolve themselves.

We convince ourselves the killing two-sided and unavoidable, not genocidal.

We avoid the use of the word genocide.

People who want to get involved are branded as emotional, irresponsible and even dangerous.

The three elements, futility, perversity, and jeopardy, are cited.

The enemy of our enemy is our friend… NOT

Although ethnic and religious conflict are constants in human communities, at least two of the 20th century genocides were directly rooted in US intervention.

Our war in Vietnam destabilized Cambodia’s government. After we pulled out, we didn’t care who was in charge in Cambodia, as long as they were against Vietnam. We stubbornly, repeatedly ignored horrifying news from Cambodia – for years. Not just us, the whole world. Long after it was abundantly evident that the Khmer Rouge were commiting genocide, we continued to support that government.

We let Hussein get away with murder as long as he was at war with Iran. In 1987, Iraq became the first nation to use poison gas against its own citizens. Imagine if the US government went into Wyoming and North Dakota and used mustard gas to kill the people living there.

The heros are the ones who won’t shut up

An apt quote from the book: “The sharpest challenge to the world of bystanders is posed by those who have refused to remain silent in the age of genocide.” Here’s a partial list.


  • Henry Morganthau was the US ambassador to Constantinople in 1915. He repeatedly sounded the alarm about the genocide, funnelled information to Washington, and eventually resigned in frustration. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, Turkey continues to deny the genocide to this day.

  • Raphael Lemkin was an international lawyer known as the Father of the UN’s Genocide Convention. Most of his family was wiped out in the Holocaust. Lemkin worked tirelessly for decades for the convention’s passage in the UN and its ratification by the member nations.

  • Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin made it his mission to get the US to ratify the UN’s genocide convention. To our shame, this took 19 years, thanks to some special interests’ paranoid fears. Proxmire made 3,211 speeches on the Senate floor urging ratification.

  • Sen. Claiborne Pell worked with Proxmire on the convention’s ratification and also led efforts to hold Iraq accountable for its genocide.

  • Foreign service officer Charles Twining interviewed refugees escaping the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and sounded the alarm when he suspected genocide. Sen. George McGovern and Rep. Stephen Solarz took up the cause. At a time when nobody wanted anything to do with southeast Asia, they continually urged action against the deadly regime.

  • Peter Galbraith of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee saw first-hand the evidence of mass deportations, destroyed and empty villages where Iraq’s Kurdish minority once lived. Due in large part to his refusal to shut-up, eventually we set up Operation Provide Comfort to provide a safe haven for the refugee Kurds. In 1993, he was appointed ambassador to Croatia.

  • UN commander Romeo Dallaire did everything humanly possible to save lives and alert the world to the genocide in Rwanda. His refusal to shut up cost him his mental health and eventually his career.

  • There are a number of individuals who made us pay attention to the mess in what was Yugoslavia. One was Rep. Frank McCloskey. A visit to Bosnia in 1991 convinced him to do whatever he could to help. He made over a dozen trips to the area in the next few years and refused to stop pestering people here about it. He was attacked as a warmonger. He lost his next election cuz voters felt he was spending too much time worrying about Bosnia.

  • Bob Dole also went to bat for Bosnia’s Muslims and through his efforts persuaded Congress to lift the arms embargo that was strangling them. Without his push for the NATO bombing, it would not have happened. Joe Biden helped. Madeleine Albright was also advocated aggressive action including NATO bombing.

The villians have names too

In Turkey in 1915, it was a man named Mehmed Talaat, the Turkish interior minister.

In Cambodia it was Pol Pot, whose real name was Saloth Sar.

Hussein’s right-hand man in wiping out the Kurds was his cousin Ali Hassan Al-Majid.

In Rwanda it was a group effort, but one of the main players was Gen. Theoneste Bagosora.

In Bosnia of course it was Milosevic, but there were others. Gen. Ratko Mladic was in charge of Srebrenica, a heavily populated Muslim “safe area” protected by UN peacekeepers. In July 1995, they decided to clean out this area, whether the UN liked it or not: they deported everyone, separated men from women and children, and a whole bunch of the men just disappeared. We just stood by and let them. It’s unknown how many died; mass graves are still being found.

xx

War, part 2

I am reposting some longer pieces I wrote some years ago. Here's another.

##

Now I want to contrast what I said in the first piece with what I’ve said about The Lord of the Rings and Stalingrad. One of the many morals from both those stories is:

Sometimes you must keep fighting even when it’s hopeless.

With my anti-war hat on, it’s easy to take pot-shots at the decision-makers of the First World War, but my biggest complaint about the Second World War is why we took so long to get into the fight. I would have been extremely uncomfortable as an American throughout the long months of 1939, 1940 and 1941, comfortable, safe, untouched by the horror around us.

I am bowled over with admiration for the courage of the British to stand toe-to-toe with Hitler ALONE for so long. I am embarrassed that we let them stand there alone so long.

And so I read the books and watch the movies on TV about that war through a very different lens.

Though Tolkien denies it was intentional, the Lord of the Rings story is a great parallel for WWII. The movie communicated that sense of hopelessness very well, the overwhelming odds against Frodo and Sam, the un-winnable war they had to lead against enemies too strong in evil to comprehend. They had to have faith that allies would present themselves. They had to go GET the allies, when there was no real hope. They had to face it down and put their best heart into it anyway. And they won.

It makes me think of Stalingrad. It was so bad, the Soviets suppressed the truth of it, feeling it would be detrimental to morale. In the post-Soviet era, we now learn just how dark those days were. Nobody can explain how the people in that city hung on for so long. They lived in the sewers and ate rats. They kept fighting even when there was no hope, no rescue, no cavalry coming over the hill. And they won.

We should all thank God they did.

How Do You Know When You’re Done?

Is it fair to say about a war – don’t get into it unless you have a way of getting out of it?

Could you say that about WWII? What was the objective? When did we know we were done? When we’d defeated Hitler, defeated Japan, end of war.

We were very lucky that it was that simple, but certainly we had clear-cut objectives in the Great War too. They wanted to shove Germany back within her own borders. What were the possible outcomes?


  1. Germany would give up and go back to their own borders.

  2. The Allies would give up and let Germany occupy the land they’d taken. Belgium and a good-sized chunk of northern France would become part of Germany.

I suppose there may have been variants involving a German or an Allied advance beyond those borders, but this was the third option that haunted everyone.

The Third Option

The war would go on and on. It would become a way of life. The War Machine had achieved a perfect harmony, scraping up the young men as they come of age and wiping them out while a new batch matures. The population would become a breeding stock to feed the war. The nations had converted their peace-time industries to full-throttle war production. The economy had adjusted, the populance had adjusted.

If Germany had been able to maintain that perfect harmony, the war could have gone on and on. But they had exhausted their economy and were out of bodies to throw into their trenches. We can again all that God for that too.

But what if…? It’s a nightmarish thought. The action would regularly quiet down for the winter, when the men would simply hold their positions and wait out the cold. Why not settle into that as a routine? The offensives are scaled back to accommodate the reduced ranks, but the same positions are attacked and defended in the same stalemate that had persisted for four years. Why not four more? Or forty more?

Conceptual Barriers:
You Can’t Account For What You’ve Never Imagined

The problem is nobody every envisioned an absolute stalemate. Only after that war was this concept introduced and thus available for consideration in managing future wars.

Nobody ever envisioned being able to hang in the air above an enemy and make maps of his position, or using poison gas to kill your enemy until the Great War.

Nobody ever envisioned a non-combatant commercial passenger ship being torpedoed and sunk without warning until the Lusitania.

The same way nobody envisioned using gas ovens to kill millions until the Final Solution.

The same way nobody ever thought a huge group of people would voluntarily commit mass suicide together until til Jim Jones and Guyana.

The same way nobody thought a person would drive a truck up in front of a building and blow it up until Oklahoma City.

The same way nobody thought an entire nation, a civilized nation, a nation with telephones and Mastercards would take big knives and start hacking one another's heads off until Rwanda.

The same way nobody envisioned using a commercial airliner as a bomb until 2001. Now the concept exists, someone thought of it, and so now we have that to consider.

The list goes on.

So as mankind evolves, societies change, new technology becomes available, and we devise new ways of killing one another. We integrate those upgrades into our planning as we go along. Nobody envisioned being able to kill on such a massive scale, to the tune of 60,000 British casualties in just one day, until the Somme. That concept made it possible for other men to envision giant ovens, mass extermination, numbers never dreamed of before.

How Far is Too Far?

The one that gives me pause is the poison gas. How many times has man walked up to the brink and voluntarily turned back? Not often. During this war, we discovered a way to kill a lot of people, and we abandoned it as too costly, too risky, too hard to control. That’s some admirable self-restraint.

We’ve done it again with nuclear weapons. We’re trying to back down from the brink.

If we’ve walked up to the brink of nuclear war and have backed down, what does that mean about how we will make war in the future?

Rules of War

It used to be there were some rules. We all kind of agreed that we would not kill civilians needlessly. If a guy delivers bread to a munitions factory and we bomb that factory and the guy is killed, well, too bad. But we won’t necessarily go bomb the delivery guy’s house too.

All that went out the window during WWII. We only pretend now to avoid non-combatants, but that’s mostly just PR for the squeamish. It became expedient to bomb civilian targets, and we accepted that. “If they do it, we have a right to do it too!” You don’t have to look far. The Rules of War are bendable.

Good Wars and Bad Wars

Which brings us back to this, cuz if it’s a Good War, it’s worth it to bend the rules.

The classic Good War is of course WWII. We had no moral ambiguities about any of it. Japanese prefidy was only surpassed by Hitler’s horrorshow genocide machines.

Let’s make a list:

Good Wars: WWII, the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, the Gulf War

Bad Wars: Vietnam, Korea, the Crimean.

I can’t even remember all our wars. There was something about Spain that involved William Randolph Hearst, but that wasn’t quite a war… but whatever it was, it was really bad since we don’t even know what it was. We have a few of those wars, the ones we don’t really understand: the War of 1812, the French and Indian War, the Hearst War, Korea, the Gulf War Part I, and of course Vietnam all fall between the cracks, definition-wise. Wars that were not real wars.

We feel better when there’s no ambiguity. We like it when a good unambiguously bad man or bad nation step over the line. Invade your neighbor, attack. Instigate conflict.

It’s War Unless It’s Not War

Aggression against others is bad. Aggression against self is allowed. That is called Civil War. Officially we all agree to stay out of someone’s civil war most of the time, unless there are extenuating circumstances (“national interests”). If you have nothing of vital national interest to us, you can kill as many of your own people as you like. That seems to be a rule.

This is an article about how war has come to include the mass murder of civilians.

http://www.bostonreview.net/BR20.4/Forbes.html --

Here are some excerpts from this article:

<quote>

Rhodes claims that Bomber Command killed at least 45,000 men, women, and children at Hamburg. By contrast, the bombing of Coventry killed 554 civilians and the heaviest raid on London 1,436. Civilian deaths in London during the nine months of the Blitz amounted to 20,083.

The "estimated" 135,000 who died in Dresden amounted to "more than double the number of civilians killed in Britain by German air action in all six years of the war."

Germany broke the civilian bombing barrier at Folkestone and at London in 1917, at Guernica and Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, and at Warsaw and Rotterdam at the start of World War II. There was no turning back then, and there is no turning back now--consider Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Somalia, Bosnia. Civilians are now treated as combatants--which is yet another reason for preventing wars from breaking out in the first place.

Why did we bomb a defeated Japan? Not for military reasons. Some justify the use of nuclear weapons by reference to the likely costs of a land invasion. The United States certainly should not have invaded a crippled, militarily emaciated Japan. But there was no need to use nuclear weapons either. We could have bombed Japan at will; they had neither flak nor fighters left. We could have blockaded them for a decade, or for however long it took to bring them to their senses. We would not lose one man. Farrell was right; Groves was wrong: for all practical purposes, the war was over on 16 July 1945 with Trinity. If President Truman had sent one million young Americans to their death in a mindless invasion, he would have committed a major war crime. The invasion canard was a brilliant public relations ploy; it "laundered" the dropping of two atom bombs.

The reasons for killing so many civilians were political. The United States had emerged victorious from wars in Europe and in the Pacific, and we wanted the world to understand that we were the dominant power on land, on sea, and in the air. Stimson put the bombs in succinct perspective: they were a "badly needed equalizer" to Soviet power. We dropped the bomb on Japan to demonstrate our new power to the Soviet Union. According to Leo Szilard, the Hungarian-born physicist who as much as any man, deserves the honorific, Godfather of the Bomb, the result was "one of the greatest blunders of history." In the sixth volume of his autobiography, Triumph and Tragedy, Churchill apostrophized the atomic bombings as a "miracle of deliverance." The bombs may have "delivered" us miraculously from one war, but they delivered us unmiraculously into a Cold War and arms race. To forestall defeat in this thermonuclear competition, the Soviet Union and the United States seeded the world's oceans with missile-firing submarines, mounted daily thermonuclear "Fail-Safe" raids with B-52 bombers, and planted ICBM's like winter wheat in their arid zones. The Soviet Union and the United States also decided that if deterrence failed, 100 million deaths each--95 percent of them civilians--would be an acceptable price to pay.

<end quote>

Men Like Wars

I think men are genetically inclined to like busy destructive activity and so when there’s a war, they’re secretly glad cuz now they get to blow stuff up, but they hope hope hope it’s a good war so they don’t have to pretend to hate what they’re doing so much.

I don’t think that’s an unfair thing to say or sexist. I think like anything, there are exceptions, but in general, I think guys tend to enjoy a lot of the stuff that goes into making war.

So if they’re lucky, they’ll get a Good War.

What is a Good War?


  1. We have to win.

  2. There is a clearly defined villian, preferably one who has invaded another country, committed war crimes, crimes against humanity, moral outrages, etc.

  3. We have a clear idea of what victory means. There is no ambiguity about what we’re fighting for. We know how we want it to end.

  4. The public supports the war.

  5. Our allies support our decisions.

  6. The war provides opportunity for heroic displays and showcases the impressive military might that helps justify the expense to the public.

  7. The war supports a strong economy, causing trickle-down prosperity.

Let’s review: US criteria for the use of military force

In 1984, Caspar Weinberger, defense secretary for Reagan, created this list of criteria. Armed intervention is warranted when it is:


  1. to be used only to protect the vital interests of the US or its allies

  2. to be carried out wholeheartedly, with the clear intention of winning (decisive force)

  3. to be in pursuit of clearly defined political and military objectives

  4. to be accompanied by widespread public and congressional support

  5. to be waged only as a last resort

  6. to include a clear exit strategy

In consideration of the situation in Bosnia in the 1990s, Colin Powell resurrected this list and added the last item.

Nota bene: I’m talking about the US here, not the UN. I’m going to talk about the US’ role in the UN as regards armed conflict in my genocide pieces.

This Is The Thing That Worries Me

How do you know if you’re a Stalingrad where you keep fighting beyond hope – or the mindless of the meatgrinder killing machine of the Great War? What do you do when you find yourself in thrall to a killing machine?

What do you do when you find yourself in a stalemate where nothing works like WWI?

Conceptual Barriers Again

In “The Fog of War” Robert McNamara talked about how LBJ insisted on viewing Vietnam through a Cold War lens.

You gotta be willing to let go of some fixed idea, some idée fixe that you’re attached to. You gotta be willing to step back and see it from a different angle. You gotta have people around you who’ll give you that reflection. You gotta be willing to consider it.

We Need A New Ethical Paradigm For War

Is it now a free-for-all? Killing civilians is part of the deal? In “The Fog of War” Robert MacNamara admits one could say we’d committed war crimes. You gotta know where your moral and ethical boundaries are. Do we? Do we really?

So is it really OK with us to kill as many as you want as long as it’s inside your own nation’s borders? In “Shake Hands With The Devil,” Romeo Dallaire talks specifically about how we need a new paradigm for handling crisis areas like Rwanda. He claims the wrong thinking that propelled the UN to abandon the people of Rwanda comes from an old Cold War-style mindset that don’t work anymore. You gotta have a current, relevant approach to your Yugoslavias, your Rwandas, your Cambodias, not some old outdated autopilot plan.

Rules do change. Before the Lusitania was sunk in 1916, you left non-military ships alone. Nobody would consider shooting a non-military ship, even if it was in a war zone. They’d signal, take off the passengers, and then sink it. Germany’s outrage was to break that unwritten rule. Now nobody was safe.

And so now, step by step, we move down a path where we have technology to kill more and more, more efficiently. The practical barriers of the past have been removed. We now have the means to destroy whole masses of people very tidily.

Efficient Methods Of Mass Murder

There’s been a lot of ambitious killing over the years of human history. The Nazis were not the first to seek to wipe a people from the face of the earth, but it was 20th century technology that finally made it a realistic goal.

There would have been no Auschwitz without the mustard gas and phosgene of the Great War. One atrocity leads to another.

Though we had airplanes during WWI, we didn’t have their best use figured out until WWII. Bombing was clearly part of modern military strategy.

We were less clear on the ethics. At the start of the war, we wanted to bomb only military targets, trying wherever possible to avoid civilian targets. Bombing civilian targets started by accident but soon became a regular item of the menu. Here are a smattering of numbers:


  • The Battle of Britain – aka the Blitzkrieg, killed 27,000–40,000 civilians

  • Coventry: The British had to pretend not to know the Germans planned to bomb the city of Coventry and so they let all those people die. Betraying their knowledge would have tipped their hand and told the Germans they know how to break their code. 1,200 civilians killed.

  • The Firestorm in Hamburg: Here is a link to an excerpt from a book about the Allied bombing of Hamburg in 1943. It’s called “The End: Hamburg 1943,” and was written a few months later by a witness. The 1,800 bombers that darkened the sky above that city must have looked like the locusts descending on Egypt when Moses called down God’s curse. This was one of the first instances of a firestorm as a result of bombing.


  • The Firestorm in Dresden: Many people believe we bombed Dresden only to make a point to the Russians about how tough we were. Estimates as low as 35,000 to many as 135,000 civlians dead.


  • The Firestorm in Tokyo: MacNamara talks about how we bombed the hell out of Japan, long after there was any possible military advantage. You can see he is troubled by this. To the tune of 100,000 civilians dead.

  • Nanking -- Chinese murdered by Japanese: 200,000-300,000

  • The A-bombs we dropped on Japan: 140,000 for Hiroshima, 70,000 for Nagasaki.

Why Bother With Ethics Anyway?

We feel the need to impose a cookie-cutter of ethics on our warfare so that we can tell ourselves we have the Moral High Ground, right? We’re the good guys, we wear the white hats.

Why? What gives us the moral high ground? What IS the moral high ground?

During WWII, the Nazis routinely starved Russian prisoners-of-war as a matter of standard procedure. They simply had no line item on their monthly budget for food for their prisoners. Geneva what?

We like to tell ourselves we’re not barbarians. We are civilized people. Civilized people conduct wars according to some basic moral guidelines.

Those guidelines have never been hard and fast. This is the tricky part.

Moral justification has to follow the technology, so we’re always playing catch-up.

That means we may decide something is unethical after we’ve done it, cuz it was a war and we were in a hurry and so we had to use this new weapon first and ask ethical questions later, sorry.

I can buy that. As McNamara says, you may have to tip your toe into some evil shit to win a war, but just make damn sure you minimize it. That’s what he said.

And When That White Hat Gets In The Way Of Your War Effort?

How do you minimize the evil shit? SPECIFICALLY? We need specific guidelines and I have a feeling we have none.

What Does The Geneva Convention Say Anyhow?

Here’s some random stuff I found, but it all looks pretty much like what you’d expect.

Customary Laws

The following are rules applicable in all conflicts, regardless of whether the countries in question are signatories of the Geneva Conventions – and regardless of whether the warring party in question is recognized as an independent state.

Prisoners of war and wounded combatants must be protected from murder; discrimination based on race, religion, sex, and similar criteria; mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; humiliating and degrading treatment; and sentencing or execution without a fair trial.

In addition, the following are forbidden towards any persons in an area of armed conflict:


  • Torture, mutilation, rape, slavery and arbitrary killing

  • Genocide

  • Crimes against humanity – which include forced disappearance and deprivation of humanitarian aid

  • War crimes – which include apartheid, biological experiments, hostage taking, attacks on cultural objects, and depriving people of the right to a fair trial.

International Rules About Civilians During War Time


  • Civilians are not to be subject to attack. This includes direct attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks against areas in which civilians are present.

  • There is to be no destruction of property unless justified by military necessity.

  • Individuals or groups must not be deported, regardless of motive.

  • Civilians must not be used as hostages.

  • Civilians must not be subject to outrages upon personal dignity.

  • Civilians must not be tortured, raped or enslaved.

  • Civilians must not be subject to collective punishment and reprisals.

  • Civilians must not receive differential treatment based on race, religion, nationality, or political allegiance.

  • Warring parties must not use or develop biological or chemical weapons and must not allow children under 15 to participate in hostilities or to be recruited into the armed forces.

What an interesting list!

I’m glad someone made an effort to codify an ethical paradigm of war – some fundamental parameters, some ground rules that would apply to anybody in a war, no matter what or where or how. But how unrealistic this list seems to me. Does anybody ever really stop torturing someone cuz of the Geneva Convention?

And So In Summation

I can’t remember why I started writing this, or why I went on and on as I have, but now months later, I think it’s time to wrap it up.

I do know McNamara’s face and voice stay in my mind, even now, months after I saw that movie. I’m nowhere near well enough informed to condemn him or defend him. But it seems to me that he’s spent a lot of years going over this stuff in his mind. I like that he’s willing to rake over the smouldering coals of the past, to be willing to see things differently.

McNamara seems to me to at least tries to live according to an ethical yardstick I can recognize, and that’s sure more than you can say for a lot of people these days.

And all this reading about the Great War, the War To End All Wars, the war that put the pieces in position for the war that followed… It isn’t so different from today, nearly 100 years later. There are very recognizable lessons right at hand.

xx

War, part 1

I am posting some longer pieces I wrote several years ago.

##

You know I read a lot about both the world wars. And I watch all those shows on the History Channel, Discovery, the Learning Channel, PBS, all that good stuff. In particular, I’ve been reading a lot about World War I. Between that and The Fog of War, I’ve been thinking about war a lot lately. So I thought I’d tell you about what I’ve been thinking.

In many English town squares you can find a beautiful memorial to the men of that town who died in the Great War, which is what they called World War I when there only was one world war. It always is a moving sight.

Often somewhere on that memorial will be another plaque added thirty years later to commemorate those who died fighting Hitler.

Imagine a war so bad, the dead of WWII would be a footnote.

Well, you and I both know that’s not true. The more I learn about WWII, the more I marvel at the guts it took for the Brits to stand alone against Hitler until we got into the fight.

But I’ve always wondered what made it so bad. The First World War.

You Started It! No, You Started It!

It always strikes me how nobody can ever really explain what that war was about. It’s almost comical. Imagine a war so messy, they can’t even tell you why it started.

Those nebulous reasons break into a couple categories:
1. The assassination of the Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo.
2. Entangling alliances.
3. German militarism.

My only mental association with item #1 is the movie “Mayerling.” I think I saw this movie when I was quite young. I can only remember something sad, tragic, royal, ancient, and romantic.

Someone once told me the biggest lesson of the first world war was that it’s bad to have too many entangling alliances. Probably my grandfather. His parents came from Germany not all that long before the war.

This is pretty much what I’ve decided about this. The reason for the war was that they wanted to. They all just collectively and separately decided they wanted a war. Austria didn’t have to declare war on Serbia. Nobody held a gun at the Tsar’s head and made him declare war against Austria, and the same is true of the Kaiser.

The Germans wanted a war with France, and set about finding a way to make it happen by whatever means was necessary. That’s why.

Now you’re going to ask me why Germany wanted a war with France. I could tell you about how Kaiser Bill had a new navy he wanted to try out. How he felt like the “poor relation” in the family of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren, how he had a withered arm and tended to overcompensate for his shortcomings with a military obsession. How the Germans wiped up the floor with the French during the Franco-Prussian War 20 years earlier and they wanted more. And all of that might be true but I’m not gonna stand by it. So you make your own choice about that.

Hell on Earth

Somewhere in my life, I absorbed certain images that added up to leave me with an impression of that war as a kind of hell on earth.

In the Classics Illustrated comic-book version of The Time Machine, the Rod Taylor character learns from the spinning discs of the terrible war that led mankind into utter destruction. I’ve retained an image of a flashback frame showing a WWI-era gas mask.

And in the movie version of that story, the sirens signalling the Eloi to walk off to their death were the same sirens used in England for air raids in WWII. My mother must have told me this, otherwise I have no idea how I’d have known that. So to me the sound of those sirens was associated with the image of horrid Morlocks leering at me in the dark, not bombers in the skies.

I learned only a couple years ago, thanks to the movie “Gods & Monsters,” that the man responsible for the vision of desolation we see in the first two Frankenstein movies was only recreating what he’d seen in France during the war. Something in me recognized that as soon as I heard it. I’d always known that the cracked, broken, torn earth of that movie was hell on earth.

The Deepest Horrors

The deepest horrors of that war are not the stuff they tell you about, like poison gas or drowning in mud. The deepest horrors of that war was this:

1. Death on a massive scale. That mankind is capable of and would with a will devise such an efficient killing machine, a mechanism to kill soldiers, millions of them.

2. Dying in horrible ways. But it wasn’t just death. It was the dying that made it worse. The dying would be a psychological torture and physical torment unlike anything we’d concocted before or since.

It might be worthwhile to consider all the ways men died or were wounded:

  • Bullets or shrapnel, from a rifle, a machine gun, or a shell

  • Skewered by a bayonet (very few deaths from this, actually)

  • Being blown to bits or having parts of you blown off by a shell (by far most common)

  • Burned with flame throwers

  • Poison gas. You could die, you could be blinded. Or it choked you to death. It could kill you in a few agonizing moments or in the case of phosgene, it could take 48 hours to kill you. Mustard gas blistered you to death, inside and out. Dying from mustard gas was slow and excruciating. It could take up to 3 days to die. They had to be strapped down. Very few died of this after 1915, once they figured out a good gas mask.

  • Buried alive in earth or mud in a shell explosion. Pretty common.

  • Drowning in mud.

  • Drown in water.

  • Trench fever, which was from a germ carried by the ever-present lice.

  • Trench foot, which was from standing in water for days on end. Your feet begin to rot. There were actually a handful who died of it

  • Gangrene in a wound. A wound would begin to go septic in six hours without treatment.

  • Something called gas gangrene. The earth of that area was so rich in fertilizers, when a bullet of a shell fragment tore through your uniform as it hit you, it brought bad germs from the cow manure and stuff into the wounds, which would cause a horrid infection. This was very common.

3. As if that all isn’t bad enough, while you’re waiting to die horribly, you live indescribably inhuman horrible conditions.

For days, weeks, months on end, waiting for death or a wound (which was the only way out), for the day their number was up, praying that when it did come, it would come quickly. Hoping there would be enough of you left to ship home and bury. This is what you have to endure, beyond the exhausting marches, the rotten food, the water that tastes like petrol, and the horrible extremes of weather:

  • You are put in this narrow grave-like hole, great gashes in the earth. We poured millions of lives into this grave and left them in that hell, and ordered them to stay. They were trapped, unable to move. Surrounded by mud, buried by mud, never seeing anything except a strip of sky above you.

  • You are required to squat on heaped corpses and to shovel through disintegrating bodies. You’d see your friend literally blown to bits and find your pal’s body parts sticking to your clothing.

  • You live side-by-side with thousands of rats, rats big as cats gorging themselves on the rotting corpses all around. They’re waiting for you to be next.

  • Being subjected to unendurable noise for days and days without pause.

4. That’s just what they do to your body. Then there are the Exotic Psychological Tortures:

  • Being given a challenge that you have no hope of winning. Success is not possible. Failure is a certainty. You have to do it anyway, not once or twice, or even enough times to count. You stopped counting.

  • Your manhood is questioned if you show any reluctance. Consequences can be severe.

  • With no faith in the higher-ups. Knowing the people making decisions don’t give a fuck about you, but worse – are capable of making devastatingly stupid decisions that not only will get you killed, but will also make all your efforts futile, so you know your life will be lost for nothing.

  • And so in spite of all that, you have to keep going so that the others will keep going. You owe it to them. If you don’t go ahead, you let them down, and they are the only ones you can believe in.

For example, the “Pals Battalions.” The British had time to raise an army of volunteers and get them into action. They called it Kitchener’s Army. He was the Secretary of State for War. Men were urged to join up with their pals, that those who joined up together would serve together. Those slaughtered of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 were young men from the same town or area who’d joined up together. Probably lifelong friends, brothers, cousins. A special affinity beyond the brotherhood of military devotion.

So Many New Way to Kill So Many

In The Great War, we were introduced to lots of new technology:

  • Tanks

  • Machine guns

  • Barbed wire

  • Telephones

  • Flame throwers

  • The whole war in the air: zeppelins, observation balloons for tracking enemy positions, airplanes for the same, dogfights…

  • Poison gas (chlorine, phosgene, mustard gas)


Now On The Menu: Mass Murder From The Air

What a conceptual barrier that was! Imagine the thrill of being freed from a ground war? But airplanes were still newfangled in WWI. We hadn’t quite figured out the best way to use them, and so used them for aerial recognizance mainly (apart from the odd dog fight). That had changed, of course, by the time WWII came around.

All Their Assumptions Were Wrong, Nothing Worked The Way They Planned, and Nobody Had A Backup Plan

The war did have small successes here and there, some spectacular, but most of the time, it was a case of wearing each other down, not wins and losses. This is called A War of Attrition. We don’t like those.

Why did this happen? It was like a jinx. Nothing ever worked the way it was supposed to. You could pretty much figure that if they told you this shell was going to hit that target at this distance, it would not. Or that if the bombardment before the attack would wipe out their machine guns, um, nope.

They’d plan a big offensive and it would bounce off the Germans like bullets off Superman’s chest. They’d wheel out their new secret weapon -- and it would break down.

It was more than bad luck though. In one incident after another, the people making decisions fucked up. They made decisions with wrong information or they forgot to account for obvious factors. Either their subordinates were incompetent in not giving them the information they needed to make a good decision, or the decision-makers deliberately decided to turn a blind eye to certain things.

It was like this for four years. Nothing they tried worked, everything they tried failed. They weren’t little failures either – they were big ones, over and over.

I was flabbergasted at how stupid they were.

How Stupid Were They?

You can break most of the stupidity down into a few major categories:

  • You don’t thrust people out in an advance to attempt to break through enemy lines if you don’t have the reserve troops behind them to back them up, to exploit the breach. Time after time after time, efforts to bust through a line would fizzle out cuz they couldn’t be sustained.

  • Lack of ammo. It took a while for the war machine to crank out enough shells and they really didn’t want everybody knowing it. It took a year to rev up the War Machine, and the war required way more shells than they ever dreamed, waaaaaay-haaay more, and then twice that, and then more after that. They had no fucking clue how much artillery would be needed to win this war. It was a huge issue.

  • In order to move more shells to the front faster, they suspended their Quality Control measures. A lot of the shells meant to take out the German positions before the offensive at the Somme were duds, which helps account for the severity of the slaughter that first day and in the days that followed.

  • This is a huge issue. They were unable to fine-tune the aim on their artillery well enough to hit targets accurately. They were all the time killing their own guys. Where they were meant to go in ahead of an attack and soften up the enemy before sending in the infantry, they’d miss badly enough that the soldiers would charge into No Man’s Land only to be cut to pieces instantly by machine guns. Essentially making the preliminary shelling pointless. They shelled nonstop for a week before the Somme and even with the ones that weren’t duds it was pretty much useless in a lot of places.

Digression Alert When I was reading about this, I was reminded of this article about mammography:  http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?041213fa_fact

  • Crappy communication. There was no real wireless communication, so everything had to rely on phone lines. The phone lines were often the first thing to go, so after that it was runners or maybe pigeons.

  • Inability to go to Plan B in a timely fashion, which could just be an extension of #5, but why did it take them months to call off offensives that were simply slaughter, day after day, week after week? You gotta have a Plan B and you gotta have a clear idea of what conditions call for a mass movement to Plan B, and then you gotta make it doable.

And the Biggest Questions: When Do We Stop?

Nobody expected the war to stalemate so quickly and so finally, but it did. As the months stretched on, it became apparent that there was no quick decisive victory and that both opponents were about evenly matched. It could go on forever.

That was the soldier’s nightmare. There was no way out. The war would go on and on, until he himself was dead or wounded – and the wounds during this war were pretty horrible. Those options were not good.

Go look at the map, see the line of where the war started in August 1914, where it was by Christmas 1914, and where it was four years later. They fought for, died for, lost, retook and lost again the same land over and over. The earth was saturated with corpses, relentlessly.

We can run some numbers:

war1

Let’s take a look at some individual battles during WWI. Different sources cite different numbers, so I’m going to put down an assortment of what I found.

war2

The big problem with pinning down numbers on these battles is the fact that a lot of these battles tended to linger on for months. The initial offensive might last for 2 months, but the whole operation doesn’t shut down for another 2 months after that. When do you stop counting?

Just for reference, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, total deaths worldwide are listed variously as 13-30 million.

The reason you see so many listed as missing is cuz very often if you died, there wasn’t enough of you left to prove it. You were blown to bits or you lay out in No Man’s Land until you rotted. Huge numbers were lost this way.

After the war, so many families in Britain had lost a son, husband or father, but had no grave to visit, nothing to memorialize their loss. This is why they set up the first Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey, so that these families would have a grave to visit and a place to grieve.

Institutionalized Ritual Infanticide on a Global Scale

Reading Robert Graves’ biography “Good Bye To All That,” I was struck by the way the tone of his voice changed once he arrived in France. He talks about that experience with a coldness, a detachment that I can only assume was necessary in order to not go mad. He said the first thing he saw upon arriving and the last thing he saw before leaving were suicides.

He was there when the British used poison gas for the first time and found out the hard way about how you better make sure you know about wind direction before you go messing with this shit.

The thing that blew my mind about that book was that after the war, all his friends were dead. Everybody he knew, people he hung out with, they were all dead, except for a very small handful of survivors. Throughout the book, he’ll introduce you to a friend or relative or school chum and tell you where he died on the Western Front, one after another after another.

And the ones who came back felt like they carried the mark of Cain on them. Their survivor’s guilt was the fuel that set the Roaring 20s on fire.

Broken Trust

It was then that we knew without question that the old ideas of how the world was run were now and forever broken. We learned that the leaders, without question, the people in charge, the people who were supposed to know better, the educated people in whom we place our trust – would stand by and let millions die, would set events in motion that they did not know how to stop, and would lie, misrepresent, and manipulate all to obtain their ends -- and would profit by these actions.

An implicit understanding that had lasted for centuries was destroyed, the trust irrevocably broken. Boiled down to its essence, the understanding was this:


  1. The higher ranks, the officers, were made up exclusively of the educated upper-classes. These men were bred for leadership, ready and able to take responsibility, make decisions, and command others.

  2. The “other ranks” were made up entirely of the common laborers, the uneducated workers who were capable only of following orders.

It was as simple as that, a throwback or outgrowth of Europe’s feudal past. The local warlord or chieftain or duke or king lived high on the hog in exchange for extending his protective arm over the little people who farmed his land. He was like a parent and they like children. As the centuries rolled on, the labels changed, but the understanding behind it remained.

In this war, an officer on average lived about four months. Three out of four junior officers did not survive. So when the British population had run out of educated upper-class males, they went to the public schools, shaking young ones out of trees -- and when they were gone, they had no choice but to promote the most promising underlings -- the ones with the rough accent, the ones who didn’t know the Secret Handshake.

Now in positions of responsibility, these uneducated, rough fellows with the wrong accent rubbed shoulders with men far above their own class. The experience was a revelation to both of them.

What they discovered was that the “understanding” was a myth. The leaders were not infallible. Those leaders were dead wrong about some pretty big things. A lot.

No, it was worse than that. Not only were they wrong, those leaders might just be mad, the whole lot of them. They’re mad and we’re at their mercy. They meant to keep pouring lives into that wound in the earth until they ran out of bodies. That was the real truth.

But the most revolutionary truth to emerge from this catastrophe, was this: Those common laborers, the unschooled, the sheep only fit to follow orders -- many of them were just as capable of leadership as an officer, far beyond anything hitherto imagined. There was nothing magic in the breeding of an old Etonian that wasn’t transferable to a Cockney cab driver. With proper education and support, the baker’s son could command men and make decisions as effectively as a duke’s son.

To our modern ears, this concept may seem anticlimactic. We Americans are quite blind to the nuances of class distinctions in England. But I’ve come to appreciate that this was utterly revolutionary and in many ways undermined the very foundation of British life. It was not unlike the American Southerners who truly believed deep in their hearts that people with dark skin were basically mentally retarded, unable to learn, simple-minded, almost animalistic.

When people say the first world war destroyed the class structure in Britain, we say this as if it was of little consequence when in fact, it underlay nearly every presumption in English daily life.

An Ugly Little War At Home Too

This was the first war to use propaganda to fire up support for an unpopular war. When war “broke out” (as if it were a forest fire when lightning strikes), most ordinary people hadn’t a clue about why they were supposed to care. So outright lies were told, such as the Belgium women raped on the steps of churches or Belgian babies skewered on Prussian bayonets. In fact these stories originated with the *real* atrocities committed by the Belgians in Africa.

People at home were bullied into fighting or humiliated by being handed a white feather. My son is fighting, why isn’t yours?

Posters everywhere urged women to pitch in: to work in the munitions factories or to take over jobs to free up the men. Everyone was expected to take some *visible* part in supporting the war. If you didn’t, it was more than just raised eyebrows. You might even be suspected of being a collaborator or an informer.

Class divisions at home were elbowed around as well. For the first time, an upper middle class woman might take orders from an erstwhile charwoman while handing out hot coffee to officers arriving home on leave.

This was the first war to recognize conscientious objectors. But don’t think it was civilized. Many COs were victimized, their homes vandalized, some imprisoned.

Bigotry isn’t just about skin color, and nationalism always walks a thin line with racism. Many German people (or simply people with German names or of German extraction) living in England were attacked, their businesses vandalized, or were driven out of neighborhoods.

And then there were the profiteers. We hear this word bandied about nowadays too. A lot of people made their fortunes exploiting the opportunities this war offered. The common soldier AND the officers feared that too many powerful men were making too much money on this war to end it. It’s not unlike people who believe today a cure for cancer will never be found because such a thriving industry has been built up around cancer treatment.

It’s the loss of faith. Knowing the people in charge are not infallible, that they are wrong and unwilling to face it or admit it, that they are capable to setting something into motion that they don’t know how to stop – and they will manipulate and deceive in order to keep feeling the monster. .

That is our worst fear about war.

How Did It Finally Come To An End?

Did we suddenly regain our senses to realize all was lost? No, nothing that dramatic.


  • The Germans really were wearing themselves down. Even after Russia pulled out, a lot of German troops were jumping ship as they were being sent back to fight in France. They’d been blockaded and people were starving at home.

  • The US entered the war and was able to actually start taking part right at the same time the Germans had shot their wad with the Ludendorff offensive in early 1918.

  • The Allies were finally able to aim accurately enough to make their advances effective, at the same time that the German army was weakening.

  • The Allied war machine had revved up to full speed. We were cranking out shells at a huge rate.

The fact is that by the summer of 1918, Germany, Britain, and France had pretty much exhausted their supply of draftable males. There wasn’t anybody left to kill except the “rejects”… the old men, children, the guys with flat feet, and the guys with pop bottle glasses. That’s what it took to wrap things up, to force the decision-makers to end the war.

I remember an anti-war slogan of the 1970s: What if they called a war and nobody showed up? The Great War was like the reverse: What if they called a war and everybody died?

5/26/05

xx

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Lessons from The Fog of War

This is a longer piece I wrote about The Fog of War some years ago.

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A while ago I watched the movie “The Fog of War,” which is a big long interview with former Secty. Of Defense Robert McNamara. He worked for JFK and Johnson; many people feel he was responsible for our escalating presence in Vietnam during those crucial years of the Johnson administration. I wrote about it in my blog (www.livejournal.com/users/lidarose9) a couple times, but the hardest thing I wanted to really ponder before writing about.

During the movie, the filmmaker Erroll Morris pulled out highlights from what McNamara said and turned them into the film’s 11 lessons. McNamara, however, did not realize Morris was doing this. Afterwards, he came up with his own list. I’d like to look at both and comment on them.

The Film’s Eleven Lessons

This was Erroll Morris’ list highlighting key points in what McNamara said:

1. Empathize with your enemy

McNamara said he learned how important this is during the Cuban missile crisis. It was a war of nerves with nobody wanting to back down -- but one man on hand knew enough about the Soviet situation to be able to put himself into Kruschev’s shoes. That guy was able to envision a way out, a way for Kruschev to back down AND save face. Luckily, Kennedy listened to this guy. McNamara stresses: “We were this close to nuclear war,” holding up two fingers nearly touching.

Years later, McNamara had the opportunity to talk with Castro himself. He found that Castro had indeed recommended to Kruschev steps that would have inevitably led to all-out war. Castro had been willing to see Cuba blown to bits. Which leads nicely to #2.

2. Rationality will not save us

This is how he sees it, this simply: Nuclear war is suicide, and rational individuals will take that step. Human fallability and nuclear capabilities will destroy nations.

He made the point that in the past you could kill thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people, but you could not destroy an entire nation. Now you can.

You don’t have to be a maniac to push the button. Some level-headed, perfectly rational man will someday stand there and push that button, knowing full well what it means.

3. There is something beyond yourself.

But he didn’t talk about God or any kind of religion, as I recall. My recollection is that he was talking about his analysis of the abort rate of the bombers during WWII. They discovered that many of the bombers would find reasons to call it off and head for home with their mission undone. They had to make it very difficult for the pilots to call it off, otherwise they would. I don’t recall how this relates. If you see the movie, you tell me.

4. Maximize efficiency.

During WWII, McNamara’s job in the Air Force was to figure out how to make our bombing more efficient. Our B-29s were taking fuel from India into China in order to bomb Japan. It was a big mess, he said. His boss Curtis LeMay made the decision to move to the Marianas islands in Micronesia.

To avoid the ground fire from anti-aircraft, our bombers had to go up as high as 23,000 ft., which meant their aim was very imprecise. Curtis LeMay took the B-29s to 5,000 ft. with the incendiary bombs that devastated Japan.

Target destruction was LeMay’s obsession, he said. In one night in March 1945, over 100,000 civilians were killed when 50 square miles of Tokyo was bombed into a firestorm. “I was part of a mechanism that in a sense recommended it.”

5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war.

“Why was it necessary to drop the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima when LeMay was bombing the hell out of Japan?” he went on to say.

Killing 50-90% of 67 Japanese cities and then bombing them with nuclear bombs was not proportional to the objectves we were trying to achieve, he said.

But he does not blame Truman for this. Truman was playing by the rules of war.

“LeMay said if we lost the war, we’d all be prosecuted as war criminals,” and McNamara agrees. “LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral.”

"But what makes it moral if you lose and not immoral if you win?" McNamara asks.

In the end, 900,000 Japanese civilians were killed in the war.

Later he talked about Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam, where we dropped 2-3 times as many bombs on North Vietnam as was dropped on Western Europe in all of WWII.

6. Get the data.

After the war, he was appointed president of Ford Motor Co. One of his big projects was to introduce seat belts. Everybody was opposed to it at first, but the data was immediately shown to save lives. Nobody could argue with that.

7. Belief and seeing are both often wrong.

On Aug 2, 1964, the US destroyer Maddox reported being fired upon by North Vietnamese patrol boats. But there was confusion about whether it had indeed been a real attack, and so at the time we did nothing. Later on there would be indications that the Maddox had indeed been fired upon that day.

A few days later on Aug. 4, the Maddox and another destroyer reported they were attacked again. Again, there was confusion. This time we reacted to it with reprisals: bombing attacks on the North Vietnamese. In time it was revealed that there had been no attack on this day. The mistake was due, MacNamara said, to “overeager sonar men.”

Johnson interpreted these questionable attacks as an indication that the North Vietnamese intended to escalate their conflict with us. He was wrong. Nevertheless, he obtained the Tonkin Gulf resolution from Congress, which essentially gave him the authority to wage an undeclared war.

We see what we want to believe.

When McNamara visited Vietnam in 1995, the former foreign minister of Vietnam told him the US had been seen as trying to enslave them. “We were fighting for our independence.” But in 1964, Johnson saw the Vietnam war through a Cold War lens, stubbornly viewing it in an outdated and inaccurate perspective.

8. Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning.

What is morally appropriate in a war-time environment? What are the rules of war?

He talked about Agent Orange, the defoliant we used in Vietnam that killed the soldiers and civilians exposed to it. Were the people who approved the use of this criminals?

We don’t have clear definitions.

9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.

“But minimize it,” he said.

He talked about the man who set himself on fire in front of his office at the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam war. He was a Quaker. How much evil must we do to accomplish good?

“This was a cold war activity,” he concludes quietly.

10. Never say never.

In 1963 McNamara recommended creating a plan to pull us out of Vietnam altogether. But in November, the widespread unrest in South Vietnam erupted in a coup where the Vietnamese leader Diem was assassinated. In the midst of that turmoil, that was no time to pull out or be seen to back-pedal.

Nonetheless, if he hadn’t been assassinated three weeks later, Kennedy would probably not have had us in it so deep in Vietnam, McNamara says. He puts the responsibility for the expansion of our involvement in Vietnam squarely on Johnson’s shoulders.

So, whatever McNamara’s personal feelings about the war, Johnson was committed it and he was McNamara’s boss. McNamara clearly felt he had to do the best he could to do what his boss wanted.

Finally on Nov. 1, 1967, McNamara wrote a memo to Johnson telling him what he really thought about the war, saying essentially the course we’re on is totally wrong, we gotta change it, gotta cut back. He laughed when he remarked that he was either fired or resigned as a result; he wasn’t sure which.

But in spite of their differences, Johnson awarded him the Medal of Freedom. McNamara completely choked up and was unable to speak at the ceremony.

11. You can't change human nature.

He talked about “the Fog of War” – war is confusing, there’s a lot riding on every decision, and we make mistakes. It isn’t that we aren’t rational; we are, but reason has limits.

Later scenes, other thoughts, the epilogue

In 1937, he was in Shanghai when it was bombed by the Japanese. He was on deck watching the bombing.

He believes Curtis LeMay was truly scary: ‘extremely belligerent, some would say brutal,” “extremely intolerant of criticism.” (LeMay, it is said, was the model for Sterling Hayden’s character in “Doctor Strangelove.” He is exactly the kind of person you want on your side in a war, but someone you may not want to sit next to at a dinner party.)

He and his wife were both in the hospital with polio on VJ day.

He was the first president of Ford who was not from the Ford family. But after 5 weeks he quit to join the Kennedy administration, first as Kennedy’s Secty. of the Treasury, then Secty. of Defense. He asked for and obtained a guarantee from Kennedy that he would not need to be part of the social world in Washington.

One of the most revealing things he said, about dealing with the press: Never answer the question asked of you. Answer the question you wish had been asked.

He beams when he talks about JFK – Bobby too. He was proud of how much they grew, how fast they learned. He obviously shared their excitement and optimism. Kennedy asked everybody on his staff to read “Guns of August.” In it, one German general said, “How did it happen?” and the other said, “I wish I knew.” Kennedy declared that’s not going to happen to us. Bobby Kennedy called him to tell him JFK was dead. All these years later, he chokes up talking about it. He takes comfort in the fact that he found and recommended the perfect spot at Arlington for JFK’s grave, the most beautiful view.

It’s clear that to this day, he marvels at the close shaves, the dumb luck in his own life, in our nation’s history. He said there were three times while he was Secty. of Defense we came “this close” to nuclear war.

Morris asks him: Why didn’t you speak out agains the war after you left Johnson? He did not want to answer, implied that he did not want to be inflammatory. A lot of people misunderstand. I believe he felt he needed to keep his mouth shut out of loyalty to Johnson.

Morris asks him: Do you feel guilty? But he won’t talk about that, he says it’s so complex…You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. He says he’d rather be damned if he doesn’t.

After he left politics, he was president of the World Bank for many years. He talks about one of the projects he spearheaded there: a program to combat a disease known as “river blindness” in third-world countries. He played a key role in saving hundreds of thousands of people from this disease.

Morris asks him about the people protesting the war in Iraq. McNamara wants to know why nobody is protesting the fact that our infant mortality rate is twice that of Cuba.

Two weeks before her death, his wife was awarded the Medal of Freedom from Jimmy Carter for the “Reading is Fundamental” program, which she founded. He was clearly very proud of her.

At the end of the film, he again choked up as he quoted T.S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploring and at the end of our exploration we will return to where we started and know the place for the first time.”

My Analysis of the Film’s 11 Lessons

1. Empathize with your enemy.

I don’t know whether it was Machiavelli or Lao Tzu who said Know your enemy, but if they didn’t, they should have.

It’s evident to anybody who has read anything about Vietnam that our involvement there was based on a whole bunch of really silly ideas that just were not true. You need to walk around in your enemy’s shoes. You need to see the world from his doorstep.

Hold that up against this other truism: In order to wage war, to justify killing people, we need to dehumanize the enemy, demonize him, turn him into an object. It’s a lot easier to make a person into an object when he seems alien, foreign, unlike you. Empathy makes that more difficult.

Between those two ideas is a huge hole we fall into a lot. Personally I think it should be part of the decisionmaking process when considering whether to wage a war. If you can learn a lot about your enemy, if you’ve stood in his shoes, and you STILL feel justified in going to war, then your decision can only be better-informed.

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All of us would only benefit from learning more about the Islamic religion, the history of the country of Iraq, our role in helping to create the current situation, etc.

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Though his actions contributed to the death of literally millions of people, McNamara himself never had to kill anybody first-hand. The death of an individual (the Quaker war protester, JFK) can move him to strong emotion, but he remains detached from the millions of dead behind those Japanese and Vietnamese maps.

Would McNamara have been able to pull the trigger himself, if he’d been standing face-to-face with Ho Chi Minh or Castro or Kruschev?

2. Rationality will not save us.

7. Belief and seeing are both often wrong.

8. Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning.

10. Never say never.

These four are closely related and overlap.

There is no question in my mind that relying on pure rationality rarely works for human problem. Mister Spock knew that. Yes, you need to get the data, and yes, you need to do the homework, but that won’t give you the whole picture. You need to be able to let go of your rationality. Check your assumptions. Be willing to change horses in midstream. Not get so attached to an idea in your head that you allow it to rule you. You need to ask yourself: “What if I am wrong?” and answer honestly. You need to let go of your ego attachment to a position, be willing to change your mind.

3. There is something beyond yourself.

Right on.

It’s hard to talk about this without getting into a whole big religious deal, but McNamara didn’t. He managed to emphasize how important this is without making it about somebody’s religion.

It’s easier for me to focus on the collective good rather than a God figure. We hang so much on God; there are things we need to do for ourselves. Because it’s the right thing to do.

4. Maximize efficiency.

5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war.

6. Get the data.

If you are serious about maximizing your efficiency, you must have accurate data. If you’ve done your homework and know what is needed to accomplish your goal, you would not drop more bombs than is necessary to accomplish that goal.

The issue here is that sometimes the destruction of the bombs themselves is only part of the goal. Demoralizing the enemy is almost as important. Making a point.

Some say we bombed the hell out of Japan so far beyond what was called for in order to make an impression on the Soviets. Some say the same about Dresden.

Playing the board game Axis & Allies made me see that war differently. What a devil’s bargain, riding the tiger. Watching the Soviets arm, attack, drive the Germans back… you gotta hope to hell they STOP when the war is over. We could never be sure they would.

It would have been nice if there’d been a little bell that would tell us when we’d dropped enough bombs to get Japan to give up, but there wasn’t. Personally I am glad they did too much rather than not enough. But McNamara’s point is well taken and valid. I’m with him on it.

9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.

He hastened to add, “But minimize it.” Yeah. Life is messy, and war is messier. You can’t stand outside it all. You have to make difficult trade-offs. All you can do is do your homework (see above) and do the least evil possible while still accomplishing what must be done.

11. You can't change human nature.

What does this mean? McNamara meant you can’t erase the possibility for error cuz we’re human, we’re flawed. So you gotta build in some safety nets, cushions. When the stakes are sky high, you need some insurance.

What this means to me, in this context, is that it is human nature to make war. I wish it was not.

I’ve come to believe that there is something in men that makes them like to fight. They enjoy confrontation and conflict. They like to test themselves against one another. They create contests even when there is no need. If you don’t give them a war, they will make one. Sports, gangs, youth crime, everything from bullying to vandalism, tagging to tattoos. It’s all an expression of some male need.

Of course there are exceptions. I’m making a generalization.

If I was Boss of the World, I would create the equivalent of medieval tournaments and force all males age 13-45 to participate. War games. Some structured testosterone-expending activity. They may not be too tired to fight (fighting doesn’t seem to depend on rest), but it might burn off some of the energy.

But more than anything, I’d invest in colleges to study the avoidance of war, find the sources of conflict and develop strategies to counteract the impetus that drives us like lemmings ever onward into the abyss. I’d have people studying peace. Make it some peoples’ jobs to find the roots of conflict and create ways to resolve it peacefully. Their salary depending on their success. It would be on everybody’s job descriptions: -Avoid war as assigned.


McNamara’s 10 Lessons

The human race will not eliminate war in this century but we can reduce the brutality of war – the level of killing – by adhering to the principles of a “just war,” in particular to the principle of proportionality.

The combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will lead to the destruction of nations.

We are the most powerful nation in the world – economically, politically and militarily – and we are likely to remain so for decades ahead. But we are not omniscient. If we cannot persuade other nations with similar interests and similar values of the merits of our proposed use of the power, we should not proceed unilaterally except in the unlikely requirement to defend directly the continental US, Hawaii and Alaska.

Moral principles are often ambiguous guides to foreign policy and defense policy, but surely we can agree that we should establish as a major goal of the US foreign policy and indeed of foreign policies across the globe: the avoidance in this century of the carnage (160 million dead) caused by conflict in the 20th century.

We, the richest nation in the world, have failed in our responsibility to our own poor and to the disadvantaged across the world to help them advance their welfare in the most fundamental terms of nutrition, literacy, healthy and employment.

Corporate executives must recognize there is no contradiction between a soft heart and a hard head. Of course they have responsibilities to stockholders, but they also have responsibilities to their employees, their customers, and to society as a whole.

President Kennedy believed a primary responsibility of a president – indeed the primary responsibility of a president – is to keep the nation out of war, if at all possible.

War is a blunt instrument by which to settle disputes between or within nations, and economic sanctions are rarely effective. Therefore, we should build a system of jurisprudence based on the International Court – that the US has refused to support – which would hold individuals responsible for crimes against humanity.

If we are to deal effectively with terrorists across the globe, we must develop a sense of empathy – I don’t mean “sympathy,” but rather “understanding” – to counter their attacks on us and the Western World.

One of the great dangers we face today is the risk that terrorists will obtain access to weapons of mass destruction as a result of the breakdown of the Non-Proliferation Regine. We in the US are contributing to that breakdown.

My Thoughts on McNamara’s 10 Lessons

This is more like a fantasy wish-list than a “lessons learned” list. It’s hard to argue with any of it, but HOW? We need more. We need a how-to guide, a user’s guide.

McNamara is saying the only situation he can imagine that would justify “proceeding unilaterally” without the support of our usual allies is a direct attack against the U.S. Again, we bump up against that definitions thing. Many people believe the 9/11 attacks were just that, an attack on the continental U.S…. but by whom? The devil is in the details.

I can’t help feeling the real imagination and leadership we need as a nation today lies not in the direction of war or even trade -- but in the opportunities we have to help others. We should be more like the Organians.

Conclusion

Reading peoples’ reactions to this movie on Amazon and the Imdb, I am struck by the pure hate some feel for McNamara. It’s clear there’s nothing he could say that could make any difference to them.

This baffles me. He looks and sounds like a thoughtful, moral man to me. He is not someone I would pick out of a group and say “mass murdering kook.” I was too young during the Vietnam years to take much notice of the specifics, and so I can’t really know what created such hatred around him.

I think it was McNamara’s intention to be a good man, to live a good life, be a good husband and father. I think his heart was in the right place. I think his head got in his way, and that’s why he harps so much now the limits of rationality. His errors, I would bet, came from over-thinking things.

I believe both he and LBJ were not war-mongering maniacs. They were doing what they believed was best not only for the US but for the whole world. That was not the real problem.

I think McNamara thinks he has found out a little bit about what the real problem was, and it does have implications for our lives today.

I think it takes a hell of a lot of guts to be willing to keep learning, keep listening and to to be willing to reevaluate what you once may have thought about a thing, to apply the lessons that time has taught you, to be willing to see the truth of things as time has unveiled it. It would be a lot safer for a guy like him to sit back and hide behind his old positions, rigidly attached to that past interpretation of things.

Conversely McNamara resists the temptation to oversimplify. He refuses to paint with a broad brush. And he’s not a whiner, second-guessing himself or others forty years too late in order to obtain retroactive absolution. There was a lot of inflection, influence, implications, informing their decisions that can’t be summarized for today’s short attention span.

I related to him. When you’re on the team, you gotta take the bullet if the Number One guy is wrong. A good boss can’t undercut his superiors or second-guess their decisions publicly. Especially in war, you gotta present a unified front. He was doing that. Kennedy and Johnson were the decision-makers where Vietnam was concerned, not McNamara. Once they’d committed to a course of action, it was his job to carry it out. If you didn’t like being on the team, you quit. Which is what he eventually did. He voted with his feet.

I’d like someone to finance a whole series of films like this. Take twelve or twenty people alive today who had some pivotal role in past events and interview them like this, over a period of months. Pick their brains. The thoughtful articulate ones, I mean.

I was impressed with McNamara. I would like to hear more of what he has to say.

xx

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