The Wrath Bearing Tree

The Value of History

by Michael Carson


Tom Streithorst has an interesting article in Pieria magazine titled “Who Needs World War One?” In it, he imagines a German First World War general waking up in 2014. Streithorst suspects the general would “be pleased but not be surprised” to “see a prosperous Germany dominating a peaceful Europe.” He goes on to explore this counterfactual and like counterfactuals throughout history. What if, Streithorst asks, “Christopher Columbus had never gone to sea?  It wouldn’t matter, answers Streithorst: “Cassava would nonetheless be a staple crop in Africa today and a Nahuatl speaking emperor would not be ruling Mexico.” Getting out ahead of “the slew of books” soon to be published to honor the First World War’s centenary, Streithorst marshals his evidence and speculates that even if the First World War did not happen, “we might still end up with a world pretty close to what we have today.” In other words, the Great War, according to Streithorst, might have no real importance compared to broader historical trends. “I’m not sure what this tells us about the value of history,” concludes the article.

Value is a funny word. A culture holds an object or idea valuable in so far as it maintains currency. What a culture or person values tells you a lot about that person or culture. Much finer minds than myself have discussed the value of history at length. I will leave a thorough intellectual defense of the discipline to them; but I will say Streithorst’s article strikes me as a misleading teleology. Despite his good intentions, his desire to reframe the World War One debate, Streithorst turns the problems and prejudices of today and the assumptions and prejudices of a century ago into some kind of unalterable historical truth about the meaning and role of certain nation states. History today has questionable value precisely because people barter in such teleology. Otherwise intelligent men and women lack historical sensibility – a deficiency Robert Penn Warren once called the “damnation of the modern world”– and for such people Germany will forever remain Germany and America forever America. The interval between the Constitution and us, between Bismark and Merkel, are so many interactions between photographs and sentimentalities, vague apprehensions and voodoo divinations encouraged by our History Channel marketed abomination of a historical imagination.

Streithorst dismisses long-running historical debates over the war as so much historiographical schizophrenia. At one time historians considered the war inevitable; now they consider it a choice. What idiots. According to Streithorst – and a whole lot of lay academics I imagine – the whole conversation is bunk, and not because ideas about the war reflect the political ideas and attitudes of the historians who write about the war – which can be disconcerting for those who have studied history – but because nothing has been gained and no one has been declared victorious. “Debate still going after a century” makes for a piss poor Wikipedia entry, almost as boring as a trench war of attrition gone into its third year. Us moderns, us in the know, want answers, take-aways, Powerpoint bullet points, and historians have erased and rewritten the bullet points too often for us to trust them anymore. Do you know what we can trust though? You know what has remained valuable throughout the century? Money. Germany is good at capitalism ergo World War One means nothing. The rest is but sound and fury signifying nothing.

Streithorst does not limit himself to Germany. Look at Russia, he says. Should we be surprised by the recent events in Ukraine? Not at all. These are things Russia does. Look at what Ivan the Terrible did. Are their any real differences between Putin and Ivan? A historian might say so, but isn’t he or she missing the bigger picture? The Russian people –Platonically understood of course – do not appreciate western ideas about peace, stability and responsibility like good capitalists. Same goes for Columbus. He was just one man. The tidal wave of European economics would have washed up on the New World whether or not Columbus existed. On one level this is so true as to be meaningless. Yes, some other Portuguese or Englishman would have found his way across the Atlantic. Logic would tell us Nahuatl would not be in charge today as he would still logically be dead. But it is also a teleological lie. One of power’s greatest tricks is to make us think just because something happened that it had to happen. The same goes for things that happen twice or a thousand times. When dealing with evidence as complicated as human experience, a pattern has as much value as we choose to give it. People used to finding white faces in charge want to see some larger meaning to these white faces being in charge. But they confuse metaphor and parallel for science; they conflate brute power and luck with meaning; and then they have the nerve to call it history and themselves historians.

Let’s do a counterfactual along the lines of Streithorst’s World War One experiment. Let’s say George W. Bush had not invaded Iraq. Near-term historical thinkers blinded by facts and determined to find meaning in human life and actions would waste a whole lot of time pointing out that not going to war saved a half a million Iraqi lives and five thousand American ones. They would get caught up with human actions, trivialities, numbers that had little to do with overarching trends, transcendent materialisms. They would blabber on about stable infrastructure, moms with sons, wives with husbands, less debt, less chaos, less mutilated bodies. But then things would become confusing. Talking about lives saved would become a bit boring, because what is there to say about someone who lives out a rather boring life? Saved to do what exactly? Wars would still happen over there regardless of the actions of Bush. Terrorists would still kill civilians. The CIA would meddle in Middle-East politics. Iraqis would die. The people saved by the war would eventually die, possibly violently, in some other war, under some other dictator. Some Americans would demand we turn the whole area into glass. Other Americans would get hysterical about something else. Another downturn. Another pipeline. We would bite our nails wondering if maybe it would have been a good idea to kill Sadaam when we had the chance. From a certain perspective, considering overarching historical trends, we wouldn’t be any better or worse over all. The war’s happening or not happening would be irrelevant, unnecessary to the broader movements of history.

Now let’s go back and say the war had happened as it did. What if 2002 Donald Rumsfeld woke up a hundred years from now and saw America was still rich and the Arab world still a political mess? Do you think the little ol’ war would matter to the world then? Hardly. Rumsfeld is pleasantly surprised to see rich white people, his fellow Americans, still in charge. Think of all the hand wringing over his and the President’s decision to invade Iraq, the countless op-eds, the protest marches, the inter-party squabbles. Sure there had been a couple civil wars over there, but what can you do? How Rumsfeld would laugh. From the perspective of a hundred years, it would seem to be so much wasted breath, near-term myopia, in many ways a justification of neo-con arguments. After his arrest for manslaughter, Ted Bundy considered everyone’s anger toward him illogical. “I mean, there are so many people,” he said.  Hitler couldn’t understand the difference between what the Americans did to the Native Americans and what he was doing to the Jews. Considered broadly enough, a world with so many people in it will have ups and downs, hurricanes and wars. And look at the historians, the poor pitiful historians, who still can’t decide whether or not the second Iraq War meant the downfall of Western civilization or not, whether it meant anything at all compared to overarching trends, compared to more important material realities like the movement of gold from one capital to another.

Jean Amery’s At the Mind’s Limits, an intellectual memoir concerned with the very same questions as Streithorst, recounts living through Germany’s resurgence feeling very much as Streithorst’s imaginary general would feel waking up today. Yet, as a concentration camp survivor, Amery’s account is not a mere intellectual exercise. He admits the West German economic miracle only a decade after the war was “a delight to the world.” Amery sees how ridiculous and morbid his obsession with his own experience seems beside those succeeding at and indulging in capitalism. The German people, he has been often told, have paid their dues – they are now “ an example of not only economic prosperity but of democratic stability and political moderation.” Yet he still feels uncomfortable. He can’t get over the fact that these nice modern thoroughly democratic people tried to kill everyone who looked like him. His resentments, absurd as they might be to forward thinking people, persist in order that the crime become a moral reality for the criminal, in order that he be swept into the truth of the atrocity.” Absurdly and perhaps quixotically, Amery is stuck on the historical value of his own experience just as the otherwise decent German who stuck him on a hook until his shoulders snapped found Amery’s history valueless. Amery never got over his quaint historical obsession. Thanks to the economic miracle, the low-level Gestapo functionary who snapped Amery’s bones got over his.

I understand Striethost meant his article as a thought experiment, a useful corrective to the approaching deluge of World War One nostalgia. I sympathize. History, as for many of us, interests him for the way in which it rhymes. There is nothing wrong about looking at patterns and appreciating how they resonate through successive epochs. But this does not excuse our pretending the patterns themselves to be history and the events between them to be meaningless. It does not make it ok to mistake superficial resemblance for timeless ahistorical truth. Contemplating the American Civil War, Robert Penn Warren argued that history “is not melodrama, even if it usually reads like that. It was real blood, not tomato catsup or the pale ectoplasm of statistics, that wet the ground at Bloody Angle and darkened the waters of Bloody Pond.” We need World War One very much. Not to endlessly recount its importance until children think it a rite of passage to go die in some big stupid war. We need the First World War because so many people died in that war, and for absolutely unimportant reasons that seemed extraordinarily, indeed supra-historical, at the time. Soldiers, politicians and civilians found these reasons so important because they defined history through economics, nationalism, racism, hysteria and bloodlust, not in terms of human life. They took history for melodrama, as the story of the winners and the losers, not of people. But history is valuable in so far as we hold human life valuable. No more, no less.

Michael Herr’s Teenage Wasteland

by Michael Carson

dispatchesTo the young Henry Fleming of Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, war’s attraction is simple. For as long as he can remember, the government has told him not to kill and threatened death to those who break the law, and now, all of a sudden, the same government tells him to kill and threatens him with death if he does not. And the thing is, young Henry finds this paradox not just confusing, but strangely exciting. You see, Fleming has always wondered what it would be like to kill someone, to be forced in pitch battle to take another person’s life, to own them and end them in ways civilized society would not allow. Young Fleming had wondered if there was anything more out there, something more profound and true extant in the far corners of the globe or deep within the mountains, some way to test this soul of his. And now, it turns out, his suspicions were true: there is a time and place to kill and be killed, to act out adolescent fantasies of manhood and maturity.

I could not get Stephen Crane and Fleming’s story out of my head as I read Michael Herr’s Dispatches, a brilliant and infuriating work titillated by and titillating the same contradiction.  In Dispatches, the Vietnam War is not a series of successive campaigns; it is not peace protests in the States; it is not the decisions of politicians to escalate or restrict bombing campaigns. There are no political discussions, no straightforward moral condemnations of war. You do not get the standard battle-by-battle bildungsroman common to war memoirs or even a discussion of Vietnamese culture. Instead, Herr describes Vietnam as a teenage nirvana, an adolescent’s wet dream, where he can do activities and experience movies only fantasized about growing up. Not only do you get to see the edges of the known world, the exotic and mysterious jungles and mountains of Southeast Asia, but the reader will also fly and fall and laugh with mystics, sociopaths, saints, imbeciles, movie stars, super-models, getting drunk and high, sleeping with prostitutes, watching and hearing shrapnel and bullets fly by and puncture bodies not your own.  It is difficult to come away from his work and not feel that whatever the morality of war itself, the war changed those who experienced it in ways both subtle and profound, and that the war was as about a far out and trippy an experience possible in this boring and blinkered bourgeois world of ours.

If one reads enough war memoirs, novels, and short stories published over the last two hundred years, one can easily come to see war as the ultimate experience, the untouched beyond, where normal assumptions and expectations about morality and the self breakdown. Sure, it is bad, but it is really bad, transcendentally bad. You don’t become a man there maybe – that would be too simple, too conventional – but you do become something else, something you could not possibly be if you stayed home. This frightens, but it also attracts. As with young Fleming, war is the place where all social values are inverted, perverted, and some people, especially teenagers, feel constrained by social values. Naturally, those young men who chafe at those restrictions, who find growing up in a normal fashion enfeebling, boring or silly, jump at the exoticism of war, this chance to evolve, to enter into a higher maturity, and find adulthood without actually having to become an adult. And as with most people who refuse to grow up, who binge late into the night and ignore commonsense advice, on a fundamental level they recognize their decision to be a disastrous one; yet, also like teenagers, they refuse to think about the next morning, only the night of the party.

Reading Dispatches is a terrifying experience; it is also an exquisite one. Herr’s descriptions seduce. His lack of narrative seems right for the war he recounts. The truth in this primordial and preternatural setting deceives, spinning away like the helicopters flying in and out of firefights, lifting Herr and a bunch of American corpses to an equally terrible Saigon. When Herr says, “it wasn’t possible, just not possible, to have been where we’d been before and to be where we were now, all in the same afternoon,” the reader agrees. It does not seem possible that this war happened at all, but as Herr says, “what happened happened.” So the reader struggles to imagine these young kids, these psychopaths in the making, roaming the jungle, stoned out of their mind, skinning bodies, wounded many times over, talking about how they are going to kill cheating girlfriends back home, singing “I’m an Oscar Mayer Weiner” as they start murdering each other in Lord of the Flies fashion. One wrestles with the delicious idea of Jimi Hendrix asking “have you ever been experienced?” to desperate shell-shocked bunkers, helmets graffitied with a manly indifference and broken Americanisms, darkly despairing aphorisms like “Pray for War” and “Born to Lose.” One can’t help but cheer with marines at the persistence of “Luke the Gook,” a lonely Vietcong sniper who continues to fire on their Khe Sanh position and kill marines even after they call in artillery and saturate his hideout with enough napalm to destroy a battalion.

Not only is the humor deep and raw, the irony infecting and delicious, but the landscape the images are profound and disturbing, a place that haunts and is haunted. Herr often stares at “the shapes and colors of jungled hills” thinking “about the death and mystery that was in them.” “Oh the terrain! The bloody, maddening, uncanniness of it,” Herr at one point moans with Wordsworthian ardor. Eventually the war erupts from this alien landscape to come at Herr and the reader like a nymphomaniac, putting “its wild mouth all over you.” Herr wakes up used and broken from these assaults, theses bouts with pure experience, and must retreat to Saigon to get stoned and fight off nightmares. Yet even in Saigon war’s majesty lurks. Herr and his group of hard-core journalist friends listen to the Doors, sardonically impersonate psychotic colonels and drunkenly watch South Vietnamese civilians being killed in the Saigon suburbs like aristocrats watching the First Battle of Bull Run.  Then they rush out to the next battle, the next experience, even the soldiers telling them, “you all are fucking crazy,” and Herr and his friends laughing with pride at the designation. The wild abandon, the cowboy freedom, washes over the reader like the best scenes in our favorite dystopian movies, our deepest and darkest Bonnie and Clyde fantasies.

I lost count of the number of times Herr goes in and out of sanity, that “the holy terror,” the “dreadful” and “awful” Vietnamese God overwhelms him, transfigures him, hallows him out. Vietnam, according to Herr, contains not one, but all the varieties of religious experience. At one point, he talks about some of his comrades who “reached the place where an inversion of the expected order happened, a fabulous warp where you took the journey first and then made your departure.” Herr obviously seeks this out, and pushes the reader there as well – beyond the beyond. He admits as much. He is in love with the helicopters, and not because they take him away from hell, as one would expect, but because they wildly lurch in and out of the chaos – they confuse the cause with the consequence, home with the war, reporter for the reported. Herr, like most adolescent souls, wants to find a place where the world does not work as he expects it to work, where he does not have to do or say the things society says they have to. And Vietnam, according to Dispatches, is this place.

After a while, one realizes on some fundamental level that Herr seems to be saying war does not eat away at his sanity, but at his insanity. He goes into the field to ground himself. What is insane is the western world. Home is insane. The media is insane. The pogues in non-combat units are insane. As he says at one point about the grunt marines locked in deadly combat, “they were insane, but the war hadn’t done that to them.” Herr means to imply that the idea of war as an adventure had been inculcated in them by American culture, movies especially. Yet, at the same time, one stopped thinking of war as adventure “after their first few firefights.” While war might not take Herr’s childishness from him completely, “actual youth” had been pressed out of Herr “in just the three days that it took me to cross the sixty miles between Can Tho and Saigon.” During those three days, he realizes that “the only corpse I couldn’t bear to look at would be the one I would never have to see.” No more kiddy stuff for Herr. Most people have to wait their entire lifetimes to grow up – get a job, have children, lose parents, find discipline, lose it, find it again. Not Herr. In three days he has grown into a man, sadder and wiser like the ancient mariner, with a whole bunch of badass stories to tell us wedding guests.

Yet this is not enough for Herr. He always needs another hit, another bump, another ride into the field. A volunteer, a flâneur disgusted with his own role as a spectator, his own inability to consummate his love for the soldiers and with death, Herr can’t get away from the idea that he is simply slumming – sleeping a night or two with the grunts and then partying like a rock star with his movie star journalist friends back in Saigon. He cannot choose which he is in love with more – his famous and beautiful fellow flâneurs or the pimply-faced grunts. And love is the right word. Herr seems to imply only war can you make friendships, real lasting friendships, love affairs in a matter of minutes. Herr asks: Have you ever been bombed with someone else? Have you ever been shot at together? Is a relationship real if it hasn’t been tested in this way? It is no coincidence that he mentions two marines making love during a firefight toward the end. This is the intensity, the pure energy offered by the war. When he finally makes the transition from observer to participant during Tet, firing his pistol wildly over the berm, with a dozen dead Vietnamese in his field of fire, he could “never remember ever feeling so tired, so changed, so happy.” It doesn’t take a Freudian to discern the sexual overtones here. This is not a war story – as Tim O’Brien once confessed in a slightly different context – but a love story.

Herr understands the problem. At one point, he complains, “you pursue a fantasy until it becomes an experience, and then afterward you can’t handle the experience.” But just because he sees how this book is about the fulfillment of desire, the gratification of wants, for him and others, rather than the deprivation or rape of an entire country and generation, does not make the problem less problematic. I have never read a book – or rather, so well written a book – where the author both recognizes how absurd it is to look at war as an escape from innocence yet believes deep in its heart of heart that war is the only way to escape innocence. The only comparable work that comes to mind is Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel. For Herr, as for Junger, war fascinates utterly; it is best understood as an aesthetic experience, a rollicking magical mystery tour into the sublime and back again. Both authors are sick to death of the moralizing surrounding the war. They feel it takes away from the actual War. Shorn of its moral trappings, War becomes incomprehensibly beautiful, awful in the religious sense, a soul-shattering psychedelic haze where one finds something akin to the truth, something more real than the artifices and absurdities of civilian society and the rules and regulations of military life; and it is a test of a man’s character, how complicated of a person he is, if he can take something away from it all, if he can survive it, mentally as well as physically. And if he can’t? So be it. Small price for a taste of eternity.

At times, Herr makes the link between adolescent fantasies and the war explicit. “There was such a dense concentration of American energy there,” he observes, “American and essentially adolescent, if that energy could have been channeled into anything more than noise, waste and pain it would have lighted up Indochina for thousand years.” As before, when he blamed America media and culture for making them all insane, Herr sees the problem coming from the States, not the Vietnamese or Vietnam. Here Herr even goes so far as to describe this insanity as an adolescent phenomenon. Yet Herr doesn’t seem to understand that there is nothing more adolescent than the belief you could light up a benighted foreign people – or a racially “impure” Europe for that matter – for a thousand years through a more concerted and less wasteful effort, as if that very noise, waste, and pain was not responsible for attracting all the adolescent energy (his included) like moths to a light in the first place. It requires the fantastical belief that the rules don’t apply to you as a country and as a person, that you can just skip steps, and change the world in one fell swoop or become a man after staring at dead bodies and getting shot at. It is almost as naïve, lazy and stupid as the idea that freedom and peace will automatically blossom like a hundred flowers throughout the dark regions of the world if we tear down a statue of Saddam Hussein. Almost.

“I think Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods,” he says by way of conclusion. Herr went to Vietnam at twenty-eight, a fully-grown man by most accounts. He went there for almost the exact experiences – violence, irony, drugs, friendship, fear, religion, writing material – it sounds like he ended up having. I think Vietnam would be better described as the happy adolescence Herr did not want to end. I do understand that Herr’s book attempts to deconstruct these fantasies – by comparing the veterans of the war to burnt-out rock stars for example – but I think, as beautifully written a book as it is, as powerful as it can be at moments, he ends up giving the reader the wildest ride he or she could possibly imagine; and one walks away convinced that Vietnam, whatever else it was, was also incredibly cool.  I mean squads of marines patrolling dressed up as Batman? Smoking dope with equally estranged souls, jamming out to the Stones on the far edges of modern western experience, a hellscape without meaning, gravity or logic? Trying to keep your sanity and hope in an honest to goodness Wonderland? Far out. For a culture that churns out four or five apocalyptic and dystopian blockbusters a year, I can think of nothing more attractive (and marketable).

Here we arrive at the true tragedy of Vietnam and of modern western wars in general: the supposed adults of society abuse and manipulate this adolescent eagerness for streamlined maturity and untapped experience – this fascination with Death and the Beyond – for their own ends and interests. Henry Fleming was just a dumb kid. Herr’s grunts were dumb kids as well. Violence, drugs and hell fascinate dumb kids bored by the prospect of humdrum lives in Rochester and Abilene. So desperate for authenticity, for meaning, they grasp at something as deadly and horrible as a firefight in Huế or Ramadi. What the young Henry Fleming and the grunts need to learn is that killing won’t make them a man nor will all the dead bodies in the world bring them any closer to Truth, God or Pure Experience. They need to learn that war holds nothing new. Sins do not become original in battle as a character in The Things They Carried claimed. They are much the same in Timbuktu as they are in San Diego. These children need to understand that profound and meaningful narratives exist outside of war, and they deserve a government and literature mature enough to tell them this.

The Monuments Men: A Better War Movie Than Saving Private Ryan

by Michael Carson

The critics do not like The Monuments Men. “A shamelessly archaic and ruinously inept adventure film,” says one review at the New Republic.” “The best war movie of 1963 remarks an unusually snarky NPR. “It lacks the spark that could have made it live and breathe,” laments Rafer Guzman of Newsday. “The trend of small-minded war movies continues,” says yet another New Republic reviewer. “The Monuments Men is not monumental,” exclaims a chorus of reviewers who seem to have had fun with the title at least. These critiques suggest The Monuments Men fails not just as a film, but as a war film, a category of movies with a different set of standards than most movies. The kinder critics admit that the movie might have worked before Vietnam, but not after. It’s just too embarrassing to watch given how hardened and wise we have grown since that horrible war. We now live in a post-culture, these reviews suggest, and Clooney’s movie fails because it fails to take fully account for how mature we’ve grown since that fateful moment in 1963.

If one took what these reviewers had to say at face value, one would assume that we had learned a hard lesson after the Vietnam War – or, rather, somewhat confusingly, at the beginning of Vietnam – which resonates strongly with us today. One would guess the Vietnam War taught us something indelible about war experience – sobered us up from our narrative childhood and brought us into epistemological adulthood. One would probably gather that since this enlightening war, we have produced an uninterrupted series of cinematic masterpieces which point to this fundamental and dearly bought truth about violence and taught us and our youth to avoid war at all costs. And one might assume we used this wisdom to honestly confront similar debacles, to reject feverish dreams of war’s liberating potential,  naive redemptive and escapist fantasies once epidemic to a prelapsarian era of silly and primitive war movies.

Obviously this is not the case. What we have done is this: we have managed to equate a series of adolescent and sentimental operatic productions with war art. We have managed to confuse authenticity and visceral realism with maturity. We gush about authenticity in Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down and Lone Survivor and feel that we are talking about big ideas and essential truths about war’s horror when in truth we are using big sprawling war movies and our taste for wanton violence to justify war’s value and confirm our blinkered morality. In other words, we think we have learned to honor the dead by treating war honestly when in fact we have learned to stimulate our over-excited consumer imaginations by treating death and destruction as the only truly honest experience possible.

No one would mistake The Monuments Men for a great movie. Yet neither should Clooney’s attempt to relate a bunch of old men’s bungling efforts to save Europe’s art collections be despised. Unfortunately, critics have different expectations. Sick of small-minded movies about commandoes and CIA operatives, they want “big sprawling war movies,” which deal with “the grunts,” with prophetic “Kubla Khan” visions of a nation united in war, the common man and the elite man, carrying the heart and soul of America deep into Nazi or Afghani evil. Theirs is a preference for the salt-of-the-earth massacre, a Sermon of the Mount war movie where not just the strongest get to kill and be killed, but everyone participates equally in the slaughter. They do not want frivolity when it comes to war because that would demean the profound and ineluctable seriousness driving America to (supposedly) reluctant violence. They want apocalyptic stories where the fate of the world hangs in the balance, not crime capers, or God forbid, Grumpy Old Men masquerading as the sacrosanct Saving Private Ryan.

I wrote an article on Lone Survivor and kitsch a few weeks back. In it, I described kitsch as a willing suspension of context so we can sample the sublime on our own terms.  I could apply the same critique to The Monuments Men. The movie supplies the viewer exactly what she or he expects, like Love Actually, but with war. We see George Clooney and Matt Damon’s familiar faces and feel comforted. The bad guys will be bad and the good guys good. Husbands will remain faithful to their wives and no Americans we know will be killed (but that likeable Englishman and Frenchman will). This is hardly War and Peace, but it at least has the decency to see itself as kitsch. The moviegoer and the protagonists both know we are going to have a grand old time by plugging our ears to the world around us. In fact, there are quite a few parts where the director makes the denial explicit – the death of the wounded soldier whose face we never see, the cleaned up Normandy Beach, Matt Damon’s character’s attempt to give a painting back to a vanished Jewish family – as if Clooney wanted to say: “look, I’m pretending here! Kitsch! Eat your heart out, America; but realize you are indulging in sentimentality while others cannot.”

The Monuments Men contains not a few unfortunate moments – the most egregious being the idea that these effete artists are not men until they have risked dying in war.  I particularly disliked the scene where Damon’s character steps on a dud land mine and all his friends volunteer to die with him to show friendship (which does not strike me as friendly at all). The “let’s find a bunch of highly-educated white men and have ourselves an enjoyable little war doing nice things rather than too soul-killing activities” reminds me of a joke in an Evelyn Waugh novel. The Mad Men-esque nostalgia for a time when men were men and women women is discouraging to say the least. But I will give it this: The Monuments Men does not turn what I see as the most insidious of narrative tricks.  While you do have the drunken Englishman (Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville – speaking of kitsch) who finds a sort of redemption in dying to save Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child, it is worth noting that he fails in his effort and only superficially wounds the German who kills him. The other death is equally ridiculous. Neither is revenged. No pile of bodies waits around the corner to excite the adolescent imagination. For the most part, the movie simply portrays old American men and little German kids tremulously pointing rifles at each other – sloppy hardly-heroic heroes bumbling through war’s magnificent imbecility.

As many critics point out, the narrative lacks grandness, the grandiosity, of war films we have come to know and love. This is no Apocalypse Now or Saving Private Ryan. They ask, where have the high-minded war movies gone? Which is really another way of saying, where have all the epic war movies gone that titillate our apocalyptic fantasies? Why can’t we have a Lord of the Rings or World War Z version of the Second World War, or Vietnam, or Afghanistan? The answer is simple: orcs and zombies don’t really exist. The Monuments Men does tend to drag at times and it drags because hungry viewers look forward to a consistent offing of bad guys. In this respect, The Monuments Men thwarts expectations, and will be boring as hell for anyone accustomed to as steady diet of tension heightening, narrative ratcheting, war-movie bloodbaths.  The palpable angst and disappointment felt by critics at the stories non-shootout conclusion – they simply find the statue and curse like Goonies – only points to their inability of our culture to imagine anything as interesting that does not involve someone dying or getting killed.

The reviewers ask: “is any work of art really worth risking a human life?” But that’s not the right question. The question should be: what should we celebrate about this monumental act of stupidity that was the Second World War? Here I think Clooney does something fairly clever. The ending leaves us with an aged protagonist taking his grandchild to go see the now restored Michelangelo’s Madonna. He smiles ruefully thinking of the sacrifices it took to save the famous work of art. Now this scene parallels that in Saving Private Ryan where the grandfather takes his family to see the graves of the war dead. I remember going to see that movie in the theatre when twelve or thirteen years old. The audience wept. A couple of usually boisterous teenagers in the front row actually threatened violence against one of their friends for failing to take the moment seriously enough. I have been to church more than a few times before and have never seen a parishioner take God seriously as that audience took those movie graves. I do not deny soldiers the honors they deserve. I have relatives who died in Europe and have lost soldiers myself. But I will say this. No amount of sentiment and tears will bring them back. Mindless worship is not the answer. Turning their memory into a monument is not the answer. Figuring out how to prevent it from happening again is. So I for one am glad The Monuments Men is not in the least monumental, that it is more concerned with recovering the a statue of the Virgin Mary than turning Tom Hanks into a latter day version of the Virgin’s son.

The movie as a whole is rather schmaltzy, crude and baggy, but all war movies tend to be like this. As Lear’s Fool used to more or less say, “far better to have a fool that knows he’s a fool than a king who does not.” Art history PhDs should stay away as they might very well pass out from the kitsch. Experience junkies and war movie aficionados will be sorely disappointed for the kitsch it lacks.  Yet if you are the kind of person who wonders what relevance our post-Vietnam maturity has if we have nothing mature to say about war and are convinced something else out there might validate modern war experience other than more war, you could do a whole lot worse than the The Monuments Men.

Let Us Remember to Remember The Fallen Heroes of Sochi

by ahbonenberger

If the more conservative and chary among us are correct, the Olympic games at Sochi this winter are a catastrophe waiting to happen. Russia’s security forces have proven about as adept at stopping dedicated terrorist attacks inside their country as the insanely-well policed country of Israel – which is to say, not very adept. Sochi is 300 miles away from one of those parts of the world where people have become so desperate and disenfranchised that they’re willing to strap on an explosive vest and sacrifice their own lives for the chance at taking a few others with them – and who have proven adept at transiting from Russia to places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia. Russia has a commitment to protect Olympic athletes, but is never adverse to America taking a punch to the eye. And their embarrassment at having let some devious assassin / assassins in to Olympic village to take out American athletes – American heroes – could be far outweighed by their potential pleasure.

Even if that’s not the case, and much of American propaganda regarding the Russians is overblown, what do we get from participating in an event where everyone agrees that there’s a high chance of someone getting hurt or killed by design? Am I the only one who feels that there’s something slightly sordid about this whole narrative that’s being built around the 2014 winter Olympics – a grim expectation of sacrifice, maybe a whiff of The Rites of Spring, an urge for bloodshed… After all – will anyone be surprised if there’s an attack on our athletes, or those of other countries?

Now – if the alarmists are right, if it is the case that there’s a fairly high risk of our (or any) athletes dying, I want to understand why it is we’ll mourn them as heroes when they’re injured or killed. We will – that’s inevitable (if they die or get hurt by a terrorist attack) – we will say that they gave their lives for a high ideal like freedom, or human rights, or amateur sports. The Olympics are a sort of holy ritual – an offering of young strength and craft and sexuality to the old gods, and above all Zeus, older brother / father of the gods. You don’t cancel the Olympics unless you’re beyond religion, as the Soviets were, briefly, or facing an existential threat like the Athenians did against the Persians in 490 B.C. when they established a minor athletic event of their own called “the Marathon.”

So, if we’re willing to sacrifice our athletes – as it seems we are – we should be clear about why that is. It’s not for money, or obligation to the gods, or some nationalistic egotism, a refusal to say that we were wrong about having allowed The Olympics to be held in Sochi in the first place. It could, I suppose, be lack of energy – a simple desire to allow whatever will happen, happen – a kind of athletic, post-modern fatalism. That’s possible. It could also be a play for political advantage – a recognition that if Russia allows a terrorist attack, or a martyr attack (on, paradoxically, a group that will have just become martyrs), we will be able to erase the credibility they achieved by brokering the chemical weapons agreement in Syria. Plus, we’ll be able to point out how lousy they are at providing security.

If this seems a bit flip, it could be that I’m having difficulty reconciling the likelihood that some Olympic athletes – Americans, not that it makes much of a difference, a small one, but not much – are going to get killed. Or, at least, we won’t be surprised if we do, which I’m convinced is an important, maybe the most important component, how we perceive the thing as it could be versus how it is, etc. etc. Based on our actions, we’re okay with our athletes dying or being hurt, which is really fucked up.

Another possible explanation is that we believe so firmly in the idea that people should be allowed to do sports, and more broadly speaking whatever they would like to do to express themselves, that we believe that not doing that thing out of fear for our well-being is a kind of moral cowardice. That, in other words, it would be letting the terrorists / martyrs “win.” I’m not sure that’s correct, necessarily, although it’s difficult to shout my way through that loud, loud idea – I think it’s far more likely that neither the terrorists nor “us” nor the Russians are the ones who stand to win or lose anything from Sochi and the 2014 Winter Olympics. I feel that the only ones who probably stand to lose on any level are the athletes, who have trained years for this opportunity – but who should not be allowed to compete if the threat is substantial enough, because that’s sheer madness – and big business, whomever is funding this exercise for profit.

And maybe the gods. Zeus. He’d probably be angry.

So if the show must go on – and it seems it must – let us commit now to grief, and lamentation, for our fallen heroes. For the brave athletes of Sochi, whomever they end up being. Let us also resolve to think of their deaths as having enjoyed some greater meaning or significance, whatever we decide that is – for nation, for athlete, for god, tradition, family, or big business – just let it mean anything other than that we were stupid, and short-sighted, and vain.



Lone Survivor, A Review

by Michael Carson

Lone Survivor – one of the inspirations for this site’s earlier “Why Does Hollywood Love Navy SEALs?” post – has finally been released. Contrary to expectations, Americans do not seem to have war fatigue, at least with respect to war entertainment. The movie topped the box office last week at 37 million and shows no signs of slowing down in future weeks. Rather than discuss whether the war is in fact an extended recruitment video or an authentic portrayal  of heroism – which seems to be where the debate has settled – I’d like to comment on the role of authenticity in justifying failure and explore the continued cinematic appeal of dying well in a hopeless war.

Few critics deny the movie entertains – and all take a few moments to assure the reader that they feel the protagonists to be heroes – but some do take issue with what they see as a lack of context. Why did the soldiers have to die here, who is responsible for their deaths, etc? Maybe, these critics hint, the SEALs did not have to become heroes at all if not for someone else’s mistakes (this begs the question: is someone born a hero or made one through death?). Defenders claim that the movie offers an impressionistic take, an “apolitical” snapshot into a war fought bravely by brave men. They make the case that a good movie is not about context, but about the text, the facts (and boots) on the ground, which mean something in and of themselves. One review claims Lone Survivor might be the most scientifically “realistic” war movie of all time. Context, says another review, titled, somewhat confusingly, “Invincible Men Who Break and Bleed,” would muddle the movie’s “step-by-fateful-step study of human endurance.” The movie, these reviews suggest, is more of a study than entertainment, a faithful recitation of non-fiction fact.

A poem by Hugh MacDiarmid has long fascinated me for a variety of reasons that I will not go into here (feel free to picture me like Dorian Gray, re-reading it after deployment patrols in my make-shift attic/chu). Written in response to A.E. Houseman’s hagiographic “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries,” MacDiarmid’s “Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries” runs as follows:

It is a God-damned lie to say that these

Saved, or knew, anything worth any man’s pride.

They were professional murderers and they took

Their blood money and their impious risks and died.

In spite of all their kind some elements of worth

With difficulty persist here and there on earth.

What MacDiarmid writes is not false. What he claims is, in a sense, brutally honest. Of course, anyone not besotted by materialist ideology would see that while what he accuses these soldiers of might be superficially true – they did take money and they did volunteer and they did murder – it purposefully leaves out important aspects of the story; to frame the actions of the British regulars in this way misses that the soldiers had bought into an alternative ideology, one that instructed them that the entire civilized world would fall apart and all hell would break loose if the Germans defeated the British and the French at the first battle of the Marne.  These soldiers might have been misled, uncouth, and unimaginative, but they were hardly “worthless.”

MacDiarmid’s poem points to the utter inanity of claiming a two-hour movie about the Afghanistan war, an entertainment, to be an empirically verifiable science experiment where, depending on the parameters of the experiment (the numbers of Taliban involved, etc.) heroism can be deduced or found wanting. Some reviews have wrathfully dismissed criticisms of Lone Survivor, i.e. “it’s a God-damned lie” to accuse these men of being anything less than heroes by describing the movie as anything less than sublime. We will call these inverted MacDiarmids and treat them accordingly. But equally obnoxious are those critics that refer back to the reality of the experience, as if the fact of its happening (or not happening) automatically discounts questions about the mission’s success and the mission’s role in the war as a whole.  MacDiarmid’s poem serves as a helpful corrective here. It does not prove that mercenaries who fight and die in the name of democracy to be villains anymore than Lone Survivor proves that they should be feted like latter-day Achilles; but the poem does prove the relativity of honesty – that a portrayal can be straightforward and authentic and still be a God-damned lie.

Most people accept as a truism that all stories have context. The problem here is that context – twelve years of war, many American deaths, countless Afghan deaths, a broken country, shattered families, psychological trauma, often terrible leadership, sometimes incompetent soldiering, billions of dollars, the misuse of patriotism, etc. – does not make for an enjoyable story.  Movies by their very nature provide not just a willing suspension of disbelief, but a willing suspension of context, or perhaps a willing suspension of disbelief is just another way of saying a willing suspension of context. The majority of moviegoers go to a movie to forget about the world not to remember it.  So while detractors point out discrepancies and others argue that if the director had just stuck to the facts, it would have been all right, they miss the point. The debate should not be over the movie’s accuracy, but the extent to which it indulges our expectations, and whether we are ok with them being indulged in this way.

Kitsch comes in many forms and nothing is more kitsch than the idea that you can have an exclusive moment, an incandescent text, shorn of context – that we can sample the sublime on our own terms. Accurate wounds and realistic falls down mountainsides do not automatically surmount kitsch. Appeals to military records and eyewitness accounts do not negate it either. Continued self-referential asides like, “You can die for your country; I’m going to live for mine,” might seem refreshingly ironic, yet this facile irony ends up being a – particularly virulent – strain of kitsch. If we are not in a Disney movie, we tend to feel safe and among the world of realism and men; but we have made everything sentimental now – from war experience to hangovers to the Holocaust – by producing easily digestible lowbrow art to explicitly not think about the horribly complicated histories which we lack the mental resources or intestinal fortitude to confront.

Lone Survivor claims to capture the horror of war. What this really means is that it captured war in a horror movie format and then stuck patriotic candles in the finished product. The last movie to gross this much in January – a month traditionally given to mindless shoot-‘em-ups – was Cloverfield, an horror/action film where aliens come to earth and, as is their wont, destroy New York City.  I went to see it a week or two after returning from Iraq with another soldier from my unit. During the movie, the government calls in the US Army to kill the aliens. Over and over again they save the civilian characters. The task is largely hopeless, and the soldiers die brutally, yet there was something eminently satisfying watching them kill these obviously evil (and bug-like) creatures without inhibition and dying manfully in the process. My friend turned to me and said, “ah shit, we just got back.” We laughed. We thought we were enjoying a moment of irony, but in truth we were engaging in kitsch. We wanted to believe our war was as simple as this with obviously evil aliens who needed to die and we needed to die killing. Americans, we imagined, needed us to save them. The sentimentality made us feel good and it accurately and authentically reflected how we wanted to feel even if we were discussing a plaintively absurd – and imagined – alien attack and our dying at alien hands.

Rudyard Kipling, the literary giant who helped popularize jingoistic kitsch in patriotic adventure stories before the First World War, stories undeniably enjoyable, eloquent and ironic (often with endings where the heroes die), lost his son to a shell fragment in the First World War. After the war, he wrote a series of epitaphs for the different types of people killed during the war. One of the epitaphs he calls “The Common Form.” It reads:

If any question why we died,

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

If we want to talk of heroism, of war, we should start with lying, not authenticity. We should not debate the number of Taliban killed at this or that particular engagement or if the bullet did or did not go through Luttrell’s leg, but we should ask who lied to whom and why the lying had to be done and if the lying was worth it. We should ask how much heroism has to do with lying to ourselves – as a society, as families and as soldiers – and why we love the lies. We should ask ourselves what self-evident truths have to do with these fictions and why we feel the need to turn them into bite-sized consumable experiences we indulge on our own terms. Above all, we need to question why we died, why we enjoy imagining ourselves dying – as Americans, Britons or Afghans – with so many corpses lying round; in other words, what is it about our lives and society that make these peculiar martyrdoms so attractive?

What is Journalism Today?

by ahbonenberger

Studying for my Master’s degree at Columbia’s Graduate School for Journalism, I frequently encounter this question. In a variety of forms, through different media and the inevitable lens of subjectivity, the question is repeated by almost everyone teaching, practicing, or studying to practice journalism: What is journalism today? Unsurprisingly, few people seem to have a solid answer, beyond “a profession in transition.” Based on my observations, this is what I’ve seen thus far.

1) Journalism is about selling a story.

If you don’t have a story that a magazine or newspaper thinks will sell, there’s no point in writing it. An idea that has no market is not a “story,” it’s either a “topic” or in some nebulous gray area of non-fiction that’s not journalism – “academic” is what I hear a lot. In journalism, if a tree falls in a forest but there’s no potential for writing about the fall of that tree in a way you can monetize, it might as well not have fallen, because it’s never going to be bought or published, so don’t write about it. This commercial imperative is at the heart of modern journalism, at least from what I’ve seen and heard. The way I’ve heard this justified has been through people saying “write stories that are interesting to you” (with the tacit understanding that a story can only exist if it can be sold), which means that the type of things a Journalist is expected to find interesting are stories that will sell.

2) It’s okay if Journalism is Partisan, so long as it’s Partisan for the Right Group.

For ten years, I’ve waged a running battle with a revered figure in my family, who self-radicalized as a staunch Republican in the early 2000′s due largely to a sense that the media was only reporting one side of the story. While that person’s subsequent reliance on alternative media sources such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and Fox News didn’t (and doesn’t) seem to me like a good or logical antidote to media bias, the fundamental premise of my disagreement with this person – that those media sources described as non-partisan or unbiased and therefore vilified in certain circles as “mainstream” or “liberal” media were in fact reliable and balanced sources of news – is, in fact, false. Or, more clearly, there is a dramatic and decisively progressive slant to most major news reporting, and if you’re not on board with that, there’s a good chance you’re not writing “good journalism.” I’m a registered Democrat. I believe strongly in evidence- and logic-based decision-making. I’ll say this – the notion that no Republican or conservative could possibly generate meaningful data or ideas in the framework of an educated democracy is – dangerous.

3) Investigative Journalists Seek Wrongdoing.

This was a revelation to me. You aren’t investigating a company or a group if there’s nothing to find, nothing to see. That might fit into a different type or form of journalism, but specifically Investigative journalism seeks to uncover wrongdoing – and usually institutional or systemic wrongdoing. This is what an Investigative Journalist does. Let it be stated. So if the person you’re talking with is an Investigative Journalist, that’s how they’re thinking (“what could be going wrong here”), and why they’re asking questions. I was naive – I didn’t understand that before getting here. It’s okay to lie to people or trick them if the point of the lie or trick or deceit is to prove wrongdoing – so long as there is no illegal activity.

4) Advocacy May be Acceptable journalism in the Internet Era

There’s a fine line here, but more and more people seem to be crossing it. Glenn Greenwald is one example – his ideas on what and how to expose, what level of transparency is needed in a democratic society are almost revolutionary, and have little institutional precedent in western legal or political history. Essentially, if you agree with Greenwald – and I’m inclined to agree with him – you believe that all information should be free to all, and that our lives would all be better if it were. If you don’t agree with him (few newspapers and zero governmental agencies do), you believe that information should be proprietary, and that even in a democracy everyone should not have access to knowledge, because they won’t be able to make responsible or effective decisions on what to do with it. Say, for example, collecting private information on an actual or potential enemy of the United States. But – to return to an earlier point – merely *posing* that question explodes the traditional framework of journalism, in which one must remain an impartial observer and apart from advocating for policy. Greenwald is both an advocate and a Journalist.

Another example is Matthew Van Dycke, who reports from places like Libya and Syria while carrying and firing weapons on the side of the rebels. He believes in the correctness of their cause, and describes events that occur in war zones, and calls himself a Journalist. The internet gives him a platform and forum to observe and record, and he is not (to the best of my knowledge) paid for his work.

5) War Journalism is Good Journalism

The topic that I’ve seen covered most in the Journalism School is poverty, and either the acceptable efforts of progressive governments to combat poverty or the censorious lack of effort (or efforts against) on the part of conservative governments to perpetuate or worsen poverty. After that is war journalism. Crime has become politicized, so it can be difficult to discuss it with anything approaching objectivity, but “war reporting” is still sufficiently non-partisan (and profitable). I’ve done a fair bit of talking – in class, over drinks, after class, over coffee, on the phone, about the military, and I don’t think most people that want to become journalists understand what goes into war, and therefore how to report it effectively. There is a fascination with war, an allure – a wealth of good, profitable journalism on the subject only continues the trend.

6) Journalists don’t trust themselves as arbiters of truth.

They want to – and by God if you’re not on board with the normative politics and social assumptions of the urban intellectual, you’re not gonna get very far – but for them, it’s first and foremost “the story” and flawed pretensions to objectivity, and secondly (if it’s mentioned at all, although it’s what everyone’s really thinking) what good the story will do. Whether or not journalism ever used to educate and enlighten the citizenry is up for debate – more likely “not.” It is, today, first and foremost a way to attract readership to sell advertising, which necessarily means catering to peoples’ cultural and political sensibilities. This basic hypocrisy undermines the essential credibility of most journalism. It’s been paid for, or it will be – and hence the skepticism from both sides of the political spectrum over what is reported as fact by the major media organizations.

There is a reason that The Daily Show with John Stewart and The Colbert Report are considered by many to be trusted sources for news - their reporting, based as it is on humor, can take risks that more stable, normative institutions – and their ad dollars – can’t. At the same time – why should that be the case? How is it that the same family member to whom I referred earlier, the Glenn Beck / Rush Limbaugh fan, could stomach John Stewart, but not The New York Times? Why is it that Stewart and Colbert were able to scoop every progressive news platform when it came to accurately and honestly reporting on the failure of the Affordable Care Act site, a source of great concern for every American?

Well – I’d say that it’s because the dice are loaded. Journalists call themselves truth-tellers and seekers after justice, but more often than not, they end up delivering manifestly and identifiably partisan pieces that are only read by people that agree with them. That’s not the purpose of journalism.

7) Journalists are Famous and Powerful.

This takes up a good deal of bandwidth. Conversations with my classmates focus around what internships they’re applying for, who they want to write for, which brand they want to affiliate themselves with. Nobody, not one person has said “I like The New York Times internship because of what they’re doing with stories over there” or “Such-and-such a paper would be great for me, they’re really cutting edge.” Maybe that’s the people I’ve surrounded myself with – I would suggest that these people will in fact make excellent writers and are capable of superlative critical thinking – at the same time, most of them (one exception is my roommate, who is motivated by a sense of disgust with flawed leadership) want the thing for its own sake, not because a wrong is being done. They see themselves as potential celebrities and important persons. But few of them have any real idea of what to say, or why to say it.

I still believe in journalism as a profession. I’m not convinced that many people teaching or learning the craft today actually understand what’s at stake. Last time I went through this process, I ended up in Afghanistan, part of a culture that was deeply corrupt at nearly every level imaginable. I hope that isn’t the case here as well. I hope that journalists believe in the redemptive power of narrative, and the ability of a story to dignify humanity – rather than a simple and facile way to get ahead in the world, to be famous.

A Good Old Fashioned War

by Michael Carson

In a recent Los Angeles Review of Books article, Michael Lokesson contends that technological advances in war have made war writing a whole lot more difficult for would-be soldier writers. Frustrated by increasingly efficient weaponry and recalcitrant colonial populations, soldiers, Lokesson maintains, have become more passive in battle, and war literature is poorer for this change. Lokesson sees this movement as significant, so significant it hampers current writers from effectively articulating their war experiences in fiction. He or she is left only with “anti-war stories” and, ultimately, stories about the home front, which, according to Lokesson, are “inherently passive,” and therefore of another order entirely. In other words: “the best soldier’s novels” are now “less about the soldiers themselves than about the society for which they fight.”

Let’s try an experiment: “the best family novels are less about the families themselves than about the society in which they lived.” Sounds commonsensical, right? I mean how could you possibly write a story about a family without talking about the place where the family lived? Now what if I were to say to you that this was a relatively recent development, accelerating over the last ten years, and that every great novel before fifty years ago was about the families themselves, not the society. Back then writers had it easy because they did not have to write about society. This would be an absurd and ahistorical, yes? It would show I misunderstand the history of literature, the history of the novel and history in general. You would reject my essay out of hand.

Lokesson’s essay is primarily a review of recent novels linked to the wars fought over the last decade. Yet the thesis hangs together not on literary analysis, which might have saved it, or at least kept it from becoming so obviously strained with respect to logic; instead, he tries to make a general claim about war literature using a specious dichotomy and a clumsy metaphor, both of which work to undermine his occasionally insightful, if overly diffuse, literary commentary.

Lokesson identifies a yawning chasm between the way things were and the way things are now. A great soldier’s novel, he fears, might no longer be possible because we no longer have a great soldier’s war to write about. Unfortunately, there was never a great soldier’s war and the two he considers great and full of activity produced very few great books; and those that were produced – like All Quiet, Slaughter House and Catch-22 – deal with passive soldiers almost entirely (Vonnegut’s literally takes place in a prison). The author mentions Hemingway’s 1929 best-seller twice as a canonical book possible only in the bygone era. Where is the action exactly in A Farewell to Arms? Does he see Homeric heroism in the interminable hospital scenes or in the central battle when the protagonist shoots his own soldier? Where does Charterhouse of Parma, written ninety years before Farewell, fall in Lokesson’s chronological hierarchy? The protagonist spends the entire book wondering if he fought a battle or not. Is this the “bedrock of war” of which Lokesson speaks?

Lokesson next compares the act of writing a great war novel today to an insurgency: “great soldier’s novels are devishly difficult to write, and the nature of modern war makes the road that much harder.” Tell that to Hemingway, Heller and Vonnegut who all three wrote their “big-ones” at least fifteen years after their respective wars (twenty-three in the case of Vonnegut).  If anything, it would be harder to write a great war novel when your country is the supposed good guy and everyone wants what the author calls action stories.  If a truly well-written and innovative book came about that disparaged the current war effort, I’m sure people – or at least the people who read – would be ecstatic. Maybe that’s the problem: no novel becomes great by telling people what they already know.

In an aside, Lokesson mentions his puzzlement over the success of soldier “memoirs” such as Carnivore, American Sniper, or No Easy Day in this passive epoch of ours.  What he misses here is that there have been a great deal of forgettable books glorifying state-sanctioned violence after every war; yet only military fetishists and experience junkies read them because they are – no matter how well they might be written from a technical perspective – not great works of literature. They are books written by people who choose to record violence rather than reflect upon it, and the ephemeral nature of these books should alert Lokesson to the emptiness of his essay’s central claim: simply put, a book does not become great based on the type of violence it ponders. As for what actually makes a great novel, this question has been debated fiercely for five hundred years, but no one, to my knowledge, has yet argued that it must involve a good old-fashioned massacre where the opponents are more or less equally matched.

Ultimately, Lokesson wants to make a simplistic philosophical distinction between two types of historical events; yet it is impossible to disentangle the two from each other and the popular narratives involved without turning a historical problem ahistorical.  To claim a certain type of novel comes from a certain type of war and then to make that claim categorical oversimplifies the problem; it implies that there was a historical war that did not involve populations, subjugation and “bloody slogs,” as if we used to fight them on the moon or something. This does not even begin to touch upon the different kinds of war experience possible over the last ten years (the books reviewed were mainly about Iraq), though I suspect all involved bloody slogs of some sort.

Lokesson concludes by asking if “a truly classic novel can arise under such conditions?” Lucky for him, I have an answer. There is a novel written by a veteran that deals precisely with the inability of man to be heroic and “active” hero in the modern world.  The plot, which focuses largely on the home front in an era of seemingly never-ending war, actually concocts an patently absurd drama to ironically subvert the idea of the romantic heroism and myths about agency. Translated from the Spanish, the title reads: The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha. It was first published in 1605.

Why Does Hollywood Love Navy SEALs?

by ahbonenberger

The fact that the last three mainstream movies on GWOT / GCO featured Army EOD (The Hurt Locker) and the Navy SEALS isn’t in and of itself particularly significant – both groups have been very active in the war, and have performed heroically in the face of terrifying mission sets. When I heard that the other two substantial Hollywood productions set to come out this year are also about the Navy SEALS – one story about the MAERSK sealiner featuring Tom Hanks, and another with Mark Wahlberg called “Lone Surviver” about a SEAL team that had a really bad day in Afghanistan – I got curious.

Why is Hollywood in love with Navy SEALs? Why, from all the screenplays about war, and warfare (full disclosure, I and two writing partners finished a script about an Army infantry unit, a script that has gathered some interest but not sold), has Hollywood focused on the SEALs specifically? What is it about their story that can raise the funds necessary to bring a movie from the idea stages into production, that can secure the assets required to deliver their story into the public realm?

Quite simply, America loves stories where people are permitted to engage in violent acts. The one thematic point that the five movies (“Hurt Locker,” “Act of Valor,” “Zero-Dark-Thirty,” “Captain Phillips,” and “Lone Surviver”) have in common is that they follow rational actors through stories in which human action and decisions are comprehensible, and have measurable results on their surroundings. They take a proposition – a human who has been trained to do a task better than anyone else is then given a difficult example of that task, and does it or fails to do it – and examine it in the context of war. The stories therefore end up exploring the technical aspect of war, and violence, without asking whether or not that violence can be justified. Seen from a certain perspective, the movies  embrace an idea that violence can be justified for its own sake – which means, by the logic of these movies, that violence is justifiable. The movies are actually dedicated to this proposition, which should be incredibly interesting to anyone looking at movie trends, and especially those who, like myself, grew up understanding war as a place where decisions and actions had no meaning outside of their immediate surroundings.

I’ve been to combat, which doesn’t seem particularly relevant, but it’s important for me to qualify my position lest I ruffle too many feathers. I’m not saying that I dislike or resent Navy SEALs – they’ve done some astounding operations and brought down evil guys who needed to be taken out of civilized society. Hollywood could shut down filmmaking on every other genre and still not get to all the deserving stories of courage and gallantry within the SEAL community. It’s a function of the defensive and insecure mindset in the pro-military community that I should even have to defend myself before offering a critique of narrative composition in contemporary war films, but – hey. There you are.

Back to the topic at hand. People who’ve been to combat – myself included – will tell you that violence can be justified, under certain circumstances – that when one is being fired on by enemies, it’s necessary to defend oneself. Within a firefight, there’s a shining, clean, logical imperative to respond to violence with violence. My point is – in GWOT / GCO, which comprises a series of conflicts across a wide spectrum of cultures and poses terribly interesting dilemma to our democracy and how to formulate foreign policy , why have we zoomed into the most specific part of that fight? Why are we exploring something that seems so cut and dry and *uninteresting* on a certain level? For someone in the Special Operations community, or a soldier deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, obviously there’s no point in questioning the validity or utility of violence, especially during fights. But these movies are being selected, systematically. I totally get why Hollywood is in love with that particular moment when diplomacy breaks down – makes for great screen – but why is it picking this particular way to examine it – over and over again? Are we surprised that our most elite units are deployed to violent situations and must then use violence to resolve them? I’d be more surprised if there were a cowardly SEAL team that never did anything right, or a weird pacifist unit that managed to stop the violence in an area using meditation or who-knows-what. That’d be incredible.

This represents an important departure from the evolution of past cinematic representations of violence within film. The first great war movie – “All’s Quiet on the Western Front,” which follows a group of German youth on their march into doom from 1914-1918 – was an anti-war film, where the childlike exuberance in war was tempered by its grim and impossibly depressing conclusion. American representations of war in World War II tended to be more valedictory, but still made efforts to characterize the suffering and struggle of warfare as necessary because of Hitler and the Nazis – the violence was connected to something, and was regrettable. In Vietnam, and post-Vietnam, film tended to embrace a notion that war was evil at worst and nonsensical at best, and that the violence in war was therefore abhorrent – in keeping with the sentiments of the directors who came of age during Vietnam. The violence was essential to the characters’ development largely in the same way that rape or some savage crime might inform a character’s development in a drama – not as the reason for the character’s existence in the first place.

The last war movies of this type (pacifist / anti-war) were “Jarhead” and “The Thin Red Line,” which represented Operation Desert Storm and the Guadalcanal Campaign, respectively. In one, violence was a thing that had been abstracted – the only thing one was left with was charred bodies and bombed-out convoys – war had become air power, grunts were the people who picked up the dead bodies. In the other – in my opinion, the greatest war film ever made – war is an unmitigated catastrophe that isolates and kills its participants, regardless of nationality, at random. It’s difficult to recall a character as fundamentally unheroic as the RTO played by Adrien Brody in “The Thin Red Line” – he doesn’t have a single line of dialogue – one can’t help but imagine that viewers felt uncomfortable placing themselves in his shoes. Terrence Malick also seems to think that war is inevitable, which I hope is untrue, and an intimate part of nature, which is essentially savage and uncaring. Many of the most popular films about Vietnam – “Platoon,” “Deerhunter,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Predator,” and “Full Metal Jacket” (among others) are equally nihilistic, and involve the mental and/or physical destruction of most or all of its protagonists – violence destroys or irrevocably changes the people who participate in it. This trend, again, ended around 2000 for some reason.

The idea that war could be inevitable is a slightly different statement than the one contemporary filmmakers knowingly or subconsciously embrace (although they probably wouldn’t dispute it), which is that war and the violence it begets is enviable. This notion – that war is a fun game, and that the American participants therein are the unquestioned heroes in the story – is expressed nowhere so perfectly as in Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’s film “Saving Private Ryan.” This WWII-era throwback discards all of the intellectual progress Hollywood had made since films like “The Longest Day” and exposes its audience to an understandably hackneyed story in which the Germans are the bad guys, and the Americans are the good guys just trying to make a decent day’s work out of a shitty mission gone to hell. The audience storms the beaches in Normandy, gets a taste of Nazi brutality in a French village, and watches as the Americans try to do the right thing by all and sundry, but are basically forced to treat the Nazis like savages – because we’re the good guys, and our violence is justified.

Most people who haven’t been to war (and many who have) probably feel that that’s basically the way it was in WWII. It wasn’t – and “Saving Private Ryan” fails to capture the horror of the war that our grandparents endured because according to Spielberg and Hanks and Matt Damon, the story of the Greatest Generation is an opportunity to finally feel okay again after Vietnam about just letting loose and congratulating ourselves on having taken part in state-sanctioned violence. In the process, it becomes really fun to participate in the killing and destruction – with a righteous, God-fearing sniper, and sticky bombs, and a likable commander who can’t stop shaking. “Blackhawk Down” and “We Were Soldiers Once and Young” continue the tradition of war as a great, anticipated adventure full of orchestral scores and meaningful violence for the people there, and give up on the political motivations or foreign policy decisions as hopelessly detached and almost irrelevant. These movies, this impulse, a sort of happy relief to remember that we can take part in war and treat violence casually again, is the immediate predecessor of popular culture’s contemporary fascination with special operations – and specifically the SEALs.

Why Hollywood specifically favors Navy special operations is likely an accident of geography – Los Angeles is close to many Naval and Marine bases, and writers and producers have better and more persistent access to those stories therefore. The only significant Army base in California is Fort Irwin, a training facility in the desert, closer to Las Vegas than Los Angeles. The fascination, though, could easily be exported to any small group of technical specialists – warfare as just, and an easily digested struggle between four or eight or twelve people. You know everyone’s name, in these stories – they’re all friends. There’s enough time in two or three hours to develop meaningful connections with the characters. Their struggle is understandable – the whys behind it are as irrelevant as the unknowable circumstances surrounding an earthquake.

The U.S. audience, it turns out, has no appetite for movies in which many of the actors are nameless faces, or have no dialogue. It’s much better to have a few bulked-up heros – supermen with great gadgets, who are going after people everyone knows to be evil – easier, more profitable. The movies with SEALs fit the bill quite well, are convenient for Hollywood, and we can expect to see more of them before we see fewer. Not because that’s indicative of the typical experience in GWOT / GCO, but because it perfectly encapsulates how Americans like to view themselves, and like to understand what the experience is for their soldiers, rather than the truth, which is that it was a bunch of sort of confused people duking it out with each other on largely equal terms, groping around in the mountains in the dark trying not to get killed.

My question is: what do these movies tell us about ourselves as Americans? If our deepest needs receive ministry from the notion that we can reach our greatest human potential from beating or killing someone who’s wronged us, somehow, then can we really complain about living in a litigious society, or gun violence, or this modern Forever War we’re living inside? Hollywood is going to produce entertainment that sells. After twelve years overseas, it seems what the audience wants is – more. I suspect our foreign policy will accommodate that desire or need.

The Espionage Act and the Cult of Secrecy

by David James

The most important compromise that allowed for the passage of the U.S. Constitution was that there be included a series of amendments called the Bill of Rights, which guaranteed certain freedoms to the individual, a counterpoint to the Articles of the Constitution itself which merely delineated the powers of the branches of government. The most important and revolutionary of the amendments was the first, which simultaneously protected from government censure the individual free exercise of religion, freedom of speech and of the press, and freedom to peaceably assemble and petition. These freedoms are the bedrock of civil liberties and have become universally accepted as the preeminent hallmarks of a free society. In practice, however, there have always been difficulties interpreting the limits of these so-called individual freedoms in relation to the authority of the State. This is especially true in times of war, in which it has often been supposed that nothing, not even freedom of speech of the press, can stand in the way of State security, secrecy, and success in the war effort. Though these individual freedoms have been enshrined into the U.S. Constitution as the pre-eminent rights of the citizenry, there have been many setbacks and the long battle to protect these very freedoms continues even into the present day. For example, only seven years after the ratification of the First Amendment, John Adams signed into law the Sedition Act of 1798 in which it was made illegal to write or say anything “false, scandalous, or malicious” against the government. The legal basis for this was that, while freedom of speech was allowed, it did not mean freedom from prosecution for seditious or “dangerous” speech after the fact. This would seem to seriously undermine the notion of free speech itself. Moving forward in history we come to another similar piece of legislation that is still enforced and impacts us directly today, and which I will focus on for the rest of this essay: the Espionage Act of 1917.

Woodrow Wilson, after campaigning in 1916 on the fact that he had “kept us out of war”, was elected to a second term as president and immediately brought America into World War One in 1917. Three months later, Wilson signed into law the Espionage Act, in which it was punishable by death or 30 years in prison to convey information that would interfere with the success of the military or promote the success of its enemies. This included the intent to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, refusal of duty, or even to obstruct the recruitment of conscripts into the military. It was also intended to silence all dissent against the war, to monitor and punish any pro-German or anti-British sympathies, and to block the distribution of printed materials through the Post Office (this was a time in which the Post Offices were one of the most extensive arms of the federal government throughout the states and the Postmaster General was actually an influential and powerful position–made more powerful by being able to block or intercept anything sent through the mail). The Espionage Act has been amended many times since 1917 and is still in force today, and is arguably stronger than ever. In 1933 a provision was added to prohibit the disclosure of anything sent in code; in 1961 a provision was removed that had restricted the law’s jurisdiction to U.S. territory or to American citizens; at least two times it was amended to increase the penalties it imposed; in 1950, during the McCarthy era and the growing militarization of the Cold War, the McCarren Internal Security Act changed the scope of possible crimes from the “intent” to harm or aid to “mere retention” of information. Not only open and free speech, but even secret information are now under the control of the Espionage Act.

Government authorities wasted no time after the law’s passage to begin enforcement. A disproportionate amount of its victims were Socialists and unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World, which were strongly against American intervention in the war. Eugene V. Debs, the four-time Socialist candidate for President, was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison for making a speech that “obstructed recruiting”. Even a film called The Spirit of ’76 was seized and its producer imprisoned and fined; apparently the film portrayed too much British cruelty during the American Revolution which could undermine support for the current close American ally in the war effort. After the war, the law was invoked in order to arrest and deport several hundred foreign socialists and anarchists, allegedly due the bombing of Attorney General’s house by an anarchist agent. If you are wondering how this broad limitation of free speech held up at the Supreme Court, I will direct you to the 1919 case of Schenck v. United States in which the Court decided that the law was justified if such speech constituted a “clear and present danger” to the government, the same as if a man shouted “Fire” in a crowded theatre according to the famous Justice Oliver Holmes. Schenck had denounced the war conscription law as “involuntary servitude” and his arrest as an abridgment of freedom of speech or of the press. Rather than Justice Holmes’ “fire”, could we consider Schenck’s act more like warning people of a fire in the theatre before entering? Is not war itself a “clear and present danger”, much more dangerous than a mere argument against it? What is the fine line in which citizens are allowed to object to war without creating a danger to the government?

During the Cold War, the McCarren Act and the red-baiting of Senator McCarthy breathed new life into the Espionage Act. While the Act was originally intended to apply only during wartime, it has been continuously in force since 1950 — the long years of the Cold War, the permanent militarization of American policy and economy, and even the recent “War on Terror” show how far such justifications can be stretched to protect the government from its own citizens. Public speech and print have been superseded by the possession of secret information as the main focus of the law. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo were charged under the Espionage Act of publishing classified documents that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. They consisted 7000 pages of top secret records of the Department of Defense’s involvement in the Vietnam from the 1940s-70s, leaked by Ellsberg and Russo to the New York Times because of their indignation with the crimes of the United States against the people of Vietnam. The Nixon administration attempted to block the publication but it was ruled freedom of speech by the Supreme Court; the administration then indicted the leakers under the Espionage Act. They would have almost certainly been convicted and served long sentences but were instead released because of a legal technicality — the Watergate scandal that caused Nixon’s downfall came about when Nixon’s people tried to steal compromising information about Ellsberg from his psychiatrist’s office. The Pentagon Papers case obviously had major historical ramifications, but also made it clear that the government considered the distribution of secret information to the press for the purpose of exposing secret  of the same government to be espionage. We must ask ourselves which is the worse crime: sanctioning injustice, oppression, and murder, or exposing these things to the public?

The final section of this essay concerns the recent cases of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, both of which are related to the Pentagon Papers case. Manning has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for violating the Espionage Act by stealing government intelligence and diplomatic cables that revealed governmental corruption and giving them to WikiLeaks to be published. Edward Snowden has been charged with violating the Espionage Act for stealing and publishing secret government information that revealed the extent of the widespread secret surveillance powers of the National Security Agency. Just as the Pentagon Papers, the crimes of Manning and Snowden only involved the transmission of information to the public that had been classified by the government as secret.

There are a few issues at play that we can discuss after this brief historical synopsis of the Espionage Act. You will have noticed the prevalence of the word “secret” in the examples I mentioned. It seems that the pervasive cloud of government secrecy is an excuse for any number of illegal or immoral acts to be committed. The reason the Pentagon Papers, the Manning leaks, and the Snowden leaks are such captivating events is not only that they reveal secrets protected by the state, but that the revealed contents of these state secrets are so shocking to the public. The government naturally wants the focus to be on the importance of maintaining secrecy and the punishment for violation of the Espionage Act, but polls show that the public is much more concerned with the harmful content of the secrets than the comparatively harmless crime of revealing them (harmless except to the reputation of the government). This is because the government is intended to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people”, and many people still hold this democratic ideal close to heart. When it is revealed how much the government hides from its citizens, we have the right to be shocked, outraged, and demand accountability; the people to be held accountable are not the ones whose conscience and sense of moral outrage drove them to provide us with the secrets, however, and they should probably be rewarded rather than punished.

Another aspect is the fine line between Freedom of Speech and state security. The Espionage Act and the cases above show exactly where the line stands between what is considered the right to free speech and what is considered the government’s prerogative to limit any expression that supposedly endangers state security. In this writer’s opinion, there is a clear solution to this problem, which is the absolute protection of Freedom of Speech and the other freedoms of the First Amendment. Whenever state security is invoked in order to limit fundamental rights, it is a slippery slope that takes us further away from the idea of the open democratic society towards something on the opposite end of the spectrum that could be called either tyranny, fascism, or totalitarianism. If we imagine George Orwell’s 1984 today, there would surely be a Ministry of Freedom which would limit Freedom of Speech to active daily repetition of the mantra: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.”

Additionally, we should remember that a feature of the Espionage Act, however we feel about it, was that it was only meant to be enforceable and enforced during “wartime”. This is a crucial point if we consider that the traditional idea of wartime changed after World War II to be replaced with the idea of the continuous “Cold War”, or the state of being permanently on war footing against global enemies. The militarization of the American economy was central to its growth and success in the post-World War II years, and was important for protecting American corporate profits around the world. This did not change after the end of the Cold War; the Clinton Administration determined that the U.S. military must be able to fight two regional conflicts simultaneously, the Bush and Obama years have seen the invention of the ill-conceived concept of the War on Terror. There are also at least 800 American bases and military installations in at least 156 countries around the world (link). If this still does not qualify as a permanent state of war, it is surely a state of hyper-militarization against enemies more imagined than real. It must be mentioned that the type of state and military secrets revealed by the aforementioned cases are not tactical, operational, or strategic in nature — I am not advocating something akin to reporting on troop movements to the Germans during World War II; rather, these are systemic and institutional secrets that hide crimes and corruption of government agencies and their corporate partners. In comparison, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted and executed under the Espionage Act for purportedly providing the Soviet Union with plans for nuclear weapons. However dubious the evidence against them, the nature of the crime is different from the argument I am attempting to make; giving detailed military information or weapons to hostile nations or groups is something else entirely from revealing moral injustices and atrocities of a government to its own people in the name of transparency and justice.

Let us now consider the Patriot Act and the system of state surveillance. In the weeks after 9/11, the Bush Administration and Congress created and easily passed a new law with the Orwellian name of the Patriot Act, which allows for a very broad interpretation of government access to any information that it claims could be used to maintain security (The Obama administration and a new Congress easily renewed the law in 2011). The last decade has also seen a huge expansion of the state security apparatus in general, headlined by agencies such as the new Department of Homeland Security, the infamous CIA, and the venerable National Security Agency (there are at least 16 separate government intelligence agencies and an untold number of private intelligence contractors, such as Stratfor, whose ignoble mission of trading secret information to governments and corporations was revealed in another recent leak by the hacker Jeremy Hammond). It was Ben Franklin who said that “they who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Never has this aphorism been so apt. The most recent revelations of the Snowden case show us just how pervasive and perverse the NSA has become (or maybe it was always this way, but with less amenable technology and/or publicity). What we are dealing with is the interception, collection, and monitoring of personal email, internet searches, phone conversations, and more, all over the world and on American citizens in their own houses. The NSA, we have learned, has virtually unchecked power and resources with no limitations or oversight. It is unclear who is being made more secure from whom.

In conclusion, we must remember that the things in this article are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg in the larger issue of Free Speech versus state secrecy and security. Indeed, the First Amendment has needed protection from government infringement since before the ink was even dry on the Bill of Rights. It will continue to be so in the future. A democracy (or what passes for one) will always depend on the active involvement of citizens to defend their own rights against the class of the Power Elite who would happily curtail those rights for their personal and financial gain. A government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” will be so in fact, as well as in name, only as long as its citizens force their elected leaders to work for them. A corollary to this is that citizens can only be involved in decision-making and accountability if they are in possession of relevant information on what exactly their government has been doing in their name (and with their tax money). This is why we should honor transparency rather than secrecy, and give courageous whistleblowers medals rather than prison sentences. We should not acquiesce in the expansion of the surveillance state and the cult of secrecy, giving up freedoms in the name of security. Such a systemic evil can lead only to an Orwellian future which must be avoided at any cost.

Of Emperors and History

by Michael Carson


Recently, while exploring the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, I came across an impressive portrait of Emperor Caligula. And as one is wont to do in museum antiquities sections, I stood in awe of the item’s age, automatically assuming the gilt bronze cast’s sheer endurance leant the object meaning and significance. I mean, just think: it’s so old. I assume most of us do much the same: we genuflect before the object out of respect for its survival and those who made the effort to preserve it. And this is well and good. But it is also, I would like to suggest, incredibly disheartening. We seldom stop to ask what survives and what of our own history will survive; we kneel at the altar without taking the time to think about what kind of altar it is.

My knowledge of the Emperor Caligula is admittedly limited. He had a reputation for insanity as did most of the other Roman emperors after Augustus, which might say more about the chattering class of Rome, the writers, and how they chose to describe their political enemies, than the actual emperors.  My three favorite, possibly apocryphal, stories: he once ordered a whole section of a Coliseum crowd to be killed because the on-field entertainment bored him; he had incestuous relationships with his sisters and prostituted them to other leading Romans; and he tried appointing a horse to a Consulship.  Whether or not they are true, it should, first, make us thankful our wealthy today have jet skis, private jets and venture capital to amuse them and, second, make us wonder why this man, of all men, is so prominently displayed in a museum room dedicated to Roman history.

History is a funny thing.  This blog takes its title from a line in T.S. Eliot’s “Gerontion.” In the poem, Eliot claims history “gives too late what’s not believed in, or, if still believed in, in memory only, reconsidered passion.” History, Eliot implies, slips out of our grasp like water would if we grabbed at it with our hands.  But that is only half of what Eliot is saying. The substance escapes us, yes, but our hands emerge from the water wet. In other words, we often remember what he did not expect to remember, maybe what we should not remember; either this – to push the metaphor a little further – or we give up on trying to grab the water, instead resigning ourselves to wet hands.

If I happened to ask anyone walking past Caligula’s cast what he represented, they, assuming he or she could read, would surely tell me the almost smiling countenance represents Rome. They might say he was an emperor, one of those guys who fiddled while Rome burned. Maybe they would talk about the Ridley Scott movie and ask me if this was supposed to be Joaquin Phoenix. Or perhaps, if a political bent, they might take a moment to compare this evil dictator to what they see as our current political quagmire, comparing the likeness to Bush or Obama depending on their partisan temperament. They would, in essence, take Caligula’s face, the cast, and place it on their own face, wearing the idea of him over their own life and seeing how things look through those empty eyes of his. We work with what we have and Caligula’s face is what we have. But is this fair to the people who lived and died under the emperor? Is this, in fact, Rome?

I have taught history to undergraduates and high school students over the last few years. Students come into my course knowing one thing about the twentieth century: Hitler was bad.  Despite my best efforts to expand upon and add to this knowledge base, most left the course armed only with this profound historical fact. I also teach English. When we tell them to write about an important world leader, or on how a historical figure significantly affected history, half the essays are on an athlete and the other half are on Hitler. “This man is like Hitler and this man is unlike him,” they say. Hitler becomes the alpha and omega of their historical analogies. I’m not sure whether this reflects poorly on my teaching skills, the historical discipline in America, or, quite possibly, both.  I do know it shows the curious way in which history works, where the ones we should not remember become the things we do remember. The history of the twentieth century is not that of Hitler alone but it has become so thanks to our selective historical memories.

Two thousand years from now museums might not exist at all. But if they do, what will be housed near the front door to describe the human race circa 1900 and 2000 AD? They might have the Olympic Rings, a picture of Mahatma Gandhi or a Model T.  But they will more likely have a picture of Hitler, and a movie about him, and then a diorama of a gulag with Stalin’s holograph hovering above it.  Front and center, they will have the leaders writers and historians did everything in their power to disempower. This is not to say that this future civilization will be less (or more) morally advanced than we, only that Fame captures the human imagination in ways that have nothing to do with justice, fairness or morality.  History, if our museums and movies are any evidence, tends to worship power, and it is a power written at the barrel of a gun (to paraphrase another man who will likely survive time’s ravages), or at the top of stack of currency, not with a pen. This should strike any thinking woman or man as a significant tragedy.

So I must ask: is it silly of us to even try and remember what is lost? It seems a contradiction – to remember what is lost. Walter Benjamin once pointed out of the Angel of History (“Angel Novus” by Paul Klee, pictured below) that it “would like to stay, awaken the dead, make whole what has been smashed but a storm…has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.” Those of us who want to believe differently, who want to see more to history than sheer force and remember the people along the way, have their work cut out for them. We must wield the pen against not only the sword, but also against the sword’s many allies, such as time, boredom and indifference, as we too are caught up in the storm with Benjamin’s angel. Just because others cannot imagine a history outside of Force and Might, does not mean we should submit meekly to their tyranny. Their attraction to power is no excuse for our own.


“Angel Novus” Paul Klee

If the only men and women we remember about history are the monsters, we should not be surprised when the future turns out to be monstrous. This is not a call to whitewash history of its dictators and psychopaths. Rather, we should take time to think about ways to resist throwing our hands up at the “what has been smashed” by such people and events without justifying those who joined in on the fun. We can tell stories about Caligula’s horse (who ended being ordained a priest in case you were wondering), or talk about how horrible Hitler was (which he undeniably was), but we must also make an effort to think what it is about a civilization that produces such leaders and how our memories of them might unwittingly serve in their cause.


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