Culture Clash

Thumbs Up for “Three Masters”

My latest film criticism, “Three Masters: Spielberg, Anderson, Haneke, and Their Audience,” excerpted in the previous post, is recommended reading for the week at If that doesn’t get you to read, I don’t know what to do with you. (But I’ll think of something.)

A further excerpt:

In Saving Private Ryan, the film’s ultimate sentimentality, which sets it apart amid all of the hyperrealistic violence that is one mark of the anti-sentiment of the anti-war film,9 is Captain Miller’s dying charge to Ryan to “earn this.” Though Ryan expresses doubt in the final moments by asking his wife if he did, the audience has little doubt of the judgment. It is the purpose of Saving Private Ryan, its raison d’être – it serves not a personal artistic vision but a social good – to validate the suffering and sacrifice of the World War II G.I. and claim that they all “earned it.” It is the purpose of Saving Private Ryan in its public role to “redeem the horror of what [the American soldier] experienced — and, perhaps, as well, participated in — in patriotic honor. This is the purpose of the (pro) war film. Spielberg chose to present war more graphically than any (pro) war film ever had before and still declare that the right, good cause can justify it and expiate the essential human crime of it.”10

Among the minority who vociferously dissent from the general acclaim for Schindler’s List, the objection, beyond other particulars, is to the same sentimental closing affirmation, even about the Holocaust. Most viewers, perhaps some part of almost any viewer, wish to believe that even in the face of the Holocaust, life can be meaningfully renewed, that the full realization of the Holocaust’s occurrence can be integrated into a human existence the moral worth of which does not need forever to be doubted. Even after all that, and that kind of barbarity and death, we – not just we but actual survivors from the list, including Oskar Schindler’s widow Emilie – can pass in procession before his gravestone to the exquisitely emotive music of John Williams, drawn from the violin by Itzhak Perlman, and place a commemorative stone in profound grief and honor and – and what? Have learned? Be deeply moved and made better?

Read the rest here.

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The Political Animal

A Second Look: the End (of History, War, the Enlightenment, and Western Civilization) Or Not

My recent posts on Syria were argued against a more global backdrop: considerations of war and how it is entered into, with what achievable (or other) ends in mind, and, more specifically again, how the United States engages in it. In focus were questions of American empire and the nature of victory and whether it can be achieved. Syria, like all the Middle East, offering up so much tyranny, appealing to so much humanitarian feeling, calling on so many instincts toward real politique – and with the ever present wild card Joker of Israel in the deck – seems to roil all settled understanding of right and left in politics.

The following post from 2010, in response to an essay by Andrew Bacevich, addresses all these issues, with the addition of the always fundamental matter of definition: in addition to wonder about the effects of our (warring) actions, there is the question of how we define victory, a pivot around which we assess past and plan future policy. There are, too, the distinct elements of the quality of our analysis and the quality of our inferences from it. From July 30, 2010:

This Is the End (of History, War, the Enlightenment, and Western Civilization) Or Not

Andrew Bacevich is appropriately critical of the American impetus to hegemonic empire that grew out of its post World War Two ascendency and the commitment to communist containment. That was the subject of his 2008 The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. Essential to any continuing practicability of this American role, he argues in yesterday’s HuffPo was a belief in the possibility of definitive victory in war. His post is entitled “The End of (Military) History? The United States, Israel, and the Failure of the Western Way of War.” The ostensible reasoning behind the connection of Israel to the this regard is the shared belief, still, in the possibility of military victories. The differences – American hegemony versus Israeli existential concern – make the connection more problematic, but the meaning of the making of connections, real and imagined, between the U.S. and Israel, while a continuing interest of this blog, is not the subject today.

Bacevich begins,

“In watching the flow of events over the past decade or so, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something very fundamental has happened in world history.”  This sentiment, introducing the essay that made Francis Fukuyama a household name, commands renewed attention today, albeit from a different perspective.

Developments during the 1980s, above all the winding down of the Cold War, had convinced Fukuyama that the “end of history” was at hand.  “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea,” he wrote in 1989, “is evident… in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.”

Today the West no longer looks quite so triumphant.  Yet events during the first decade of the present century have delivered history to another endpoint of sorts.  Although Western liberalism may retain considerable appeal, the Western way of war has run its course.

Now, we want a critique that has correctly identified its problem to successfully analyze it, but the introduction is a curiously self-refuting start. Although the communist era ended, socialist critiques of Western capital domination continue in various forms, Islam has reemerged as a starkly countervailing force to the Western idea, and the liberal idea, in relation to the first two forces, is strikingly challenged by among some of its own product. Notice that Bacevich himself felt reason to write “Western liberalism may retain considerable appeal.” Fukuyama was clearly wrong. It is on this parallel foundation then that Bacevich wishes to rhetorically support the claim that the curiously attributed “Western way of war has run its course”?

Certainly, the Second World War left many with the idea that military conflicts, even grandly scaled wars, can be fought to definitive and just conclusions. I think Bacevich is right to attribute to this consequent overconfidence the American military misadventures in the post war period, but he seems, in his critique, similarly shortsighted as well as selective in his vision. There were in this period American military actions, however relatively small in scale, that achieved their clear aims: Panama, the Dominican Republic, the Gulf War – and one rightly hesitates to add Granada. And however emblematic of indeterminacy Korea has been for nearly sixty years, it did achieve its original aim.

More significantly, though, if one excludes World War Two, from what historical evidence does Bacevich draw his claim of a particular way of war and the running of its course, upon which to predicate an accurate vision of the future? He confines himself to the twentieth century.

All of this furious activity, whether undertaken by France or Great Britain, Russia or Germany, Japan or the United States, derived from a common belief in the plausibility of victory.

Victory may have been the common belief, but what was ever the historical justification for it? And how was and is victory defined? In total conquest? That surrenders were offered? An armistice signed? An immediate pressure released? An international tension long or forever resolved? Bacevich isn’t clear beyond suggesting the Second World War model.

Campaigns of terror – e.g. nineteenth century anarchist movements – are not new, though possible now on a scale that requires strategic consideration and developed doctrine, not dismissal in simplistic oppositions of war and peace. History is replete with successful guerilla wars, depending, of course, on how success is defined and the duration of the achieved goal – wars in which great powers were perpetually harassed by smaller or insurgent armies. Wars badly fought or that ended in apparent victories only to set up over decades or even centuries the conditions of future war – the Thirty Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian war, almost the whole history of European warfare – are not a new development in war, only a departure from the dominant U.S. expectation. There is, too, if the subject is going to be explored meaningfully, no reason to limit the historical and developmental review to the West.

If the U.S. had withdrawn from Afghanistan after routing the Taliban, and if, rather than embarking on nation-building, it had pursued the kind of counter-terror strategy it will probably pursue after a now likely withdrawal without a nation built, could the U.S. have rightly claimed victory – not the end of all Islamic terror, but the thwarting of Al-Qaeda’s access to a national base? Had Saddam Hussein actually possessed WMD, they would have been found and destroyed, his regime toppled, as it was, and with a relatively quick withdrawal after, the purported goal of the war – a Victory – achieved. These are complex and to some degree hypothetical considerations, but my point is that there does not seem anything structural in the historical development of war that precludes the possibility of victory, as long as one does not define victory so far up that one makes it almost by definition unachievable.

Alter these factors, and the narrative of a stumbling, crumbling U.S. giant is not as easily written. Writes Bacevich,

Politically motivated violence will persist and may in specific instances even retain marginal utility.  Yet the prospect of Big Wars solving Big Problems is probably gone for good

This qualifier is significant. Is Afghanistan a big war? By what measure? Are Israel’s wars big wars? Is it accurate to say that Israel these days perceives itself as fighting to solve big problems, or does it fight to maintain a safe power balance in a developmental holding action?

Bacevich observes,

Nearly 20 years ago, a querulous Madeleine Albright demanded to know: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”  Today, an altogether different question deserves our attention: What’s the point of constantly using our superb military if doing so doesn’t actually work?

It’s a neat antithesis, but weakly and unnecessarily argued. American leaders and commanders do not have the luxury to argumentatively pretend that the Taliban-supported Al-Qaeda base in Afghanistan could have been left to function. Israeli leaders lack a similar luxury to ignore the ideological and military threats of Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. That the expansive hegemonic reach of the U.S., an outgrowth of the Cold War, is now destructive of U.S. interests can be well argued. The claim does not require an overreaching corollary that is actually a bit suspect in its formation and application. It isn’t that humans have developmentally overcome their inclinations toward war – war has ceased, essentially, to work, and it has ceased to do so, when, according to Bacevich, only the United States and Israel, as he defines it, still engage in it.



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The Political Animal

Living in History

I am reading Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. I would be interested in the history anyway, but I have a personal interest too. Snyder identifies the “bloodlands” thus:

The bloodlands were where most of Europe’s Jews lived, where Hitler and Stalin’s imperial plans overlapped, where the Wehrmacht and the Red Army fought, and where the Soviet NKVD and the German SS concentrated their forces. Most killing sites were in the bloodlands: in the political geography of the 1930s and early 1940s, this meant Poland, the Baltic States, Soviet Belarus, Soviet Ukraine, and the western fringe of Soviet Russia. Stalin’s crimes are often associated with Russia, and Hitler’s with Germany. But the deadliest part of the Soviet Union was its non-Russian periphery, and Nazis generally killed beyond Germany. The horror of the twentieth century is thought to be located in the camps. But the concentration camps are not where most of the victims of National Socialism and Stalinism died. These misunderstandings regarding the sites and methods of mass killing prevent us from perceiving the horror of the twentieth century.

All of my grandparents were born in Russian-controlled Ukraine: my father fled Soviet Ukraine, from a shtetl called Orinin in the Southwestern bloodlands. What passed for his childhood was lived out in the midst of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, pogroms that killed over one hundred thousand Jews, and the first Ukrainian famine. During the Great Depression, after finally having arrived in the U.S. in 1927, and unaware of the second Ukrainian famine, the Holomodor, my father returned, to Russia proper, believing the economic situation and the prospect of work might be better in the new proletarian society. They were not. He managed to depart again after a year, though tens of thousands of other American working class faithful who had emigrated to Russia in the same belief were sent to and lost in the Gulag. In August 1941, one month after the birth of my sister, my father’s first child, all of the Jews of Orinin were murdered by an SS Einsatzgruppe. One great aunt and one great uncle that I know of – of course, there were others – my father’s mother’s sister and brother and their families, disappeared in the bloodlands.

Of the fourteen million people deliberately murdered in the bloodlands between 1933 and 1945, a third belong in the Soviet account.

This is a history of political mass murder. The fourteen million were all victims of a Soviet or Nazi killing policy, often of an interaction between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, but never casualties of the war between them. A quarter of them were killed before the Second World War even began. A further two hundred thousand died between 1939 and 1941, while Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were remaking Europe as allies. The deaths of the fourteen million were sometimes projected in economic plans, or hastened by economic considerations, but were not caused by economic necessity in any strict sense. Stalin knew what would happen when he seized food from the starving peasants of Ukraine in 1933, just as Hitler knew what could be expected when he deprived Soviet prisoners of war of food eight years later. In both cases, more than three million people died. The hundreds of thousands of Soviet peasants and workers shot during the Great Terror in 1937 and 1938 were victims of express directives of Stalin, just as the millions of Jews shot and gassed between 1941 and 1945 were victims of an explicit policy of Hitler.

My father was, as we say, an ordinary man. He sought only safety at last, a way to live, and, as it turned out, a family’s love. That is what most people want. Yet the first thirty-seven years of his life – he served in the U.S. military during the Second World War too – were lived in the midst of epic historical events in which he played no role and the outcome of which, like most others, he was far too insignificant and powerless to affect. We all live in history, which is to say in time, but some of us live in history with a capital H. My father lived in it for nearly half his life. With some thought, it is probably decidably true that most people do.

There is probably no place and time in recorded history – which recording plays a prominent role in the creation of History – in which more people lived more outside of History than the United States, and less clearly, the Western democracies in general, in the decades after World War II. Vietnam returned some of us to History for a while, but if one wasn’t poor and male it was quite possible to be oblivious to it. Mental oblivion is a kind of commodity in affluent societies, bought cheap. At the fall of the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union, we could watch some of it, and other people living in it, on TV.

An identifying characteristic of ordinary people living in History is that, individually, most other people never know about it, or them, and these people – most of us – are forgotten, their Historic lives never recorded. History is like a great wave, or many waves, of events rolling over space and through time. The powerful and great can create their own waves, and ride like surfers over the rest, though assuredly they often fall and are lost, as daring surfers will be. Everyone else just tries to go with the currents, to be buoyed along the way, hopes for a soft landing and maybe some pleasure along the way.

There are a number of reasons I might be having these thoughts now. I have them a lot, and I am working on a book about my father – part of why I am reading Bloodlands – and the life of America outside of History is everywhere around me.

And then there is, too, an epigraph to Snyder’s book, one of several:

A stranger drowned on the Black Sea alone
With no one to hear his prayers for forgiveness.

“Storm on the Black Sea”
Traditional Ukrainian Song

And another:

Whole cities disappear. In nature’s stead
Only a white shield to counter nonexistence.

Tomas Venclova
The Shield of Achilles”

And these mordant lines from Vassily Grossman, who lived in History:

Everything flows, everything changes.
You can’t board the same prison train twice.

It isn’t that we should feel guilty about living outside of History. That is the hope, isn’t it, of every formulation, eschatological or merely political, of how we reach an “end of history”? It is, in its best sense, the middle class aspiration – to live in modest abundance, in peace and in love. I recall now, too, lines Peter Hitchens offered in writing movingly last week on the death of his brother Christopher, from Hilaire Beloc’s “Dedicatory Ode.”

From quiet homes and first beginning,
Out to the undiscovered ends,
There’s nothing worth the wear of winning,
But laughter and the love of friends.

Only the most inveterate of adventurers, I think, or the makers of all those waves (not to mention the young), would disagree. Yet if one would be conscious – conscious as Christopher Hitchens would have had us always be – one would always have, amid the soothing laughter and quieting love, the clang of Grossman, like a train bell, in one’s ears. For the following perversion of human being, of human consciousness and behavior, deformed by monstrous oppression, transpired this past week too, and has been crushing unrecorded lives beneath the weight of History for sixty years now. We owe them remembrance. We owe them full consciousness. We are carried by the waters too.


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The Political Animal

Nine Hundred and Thirty-Five Years before 9/11 (and Fifty-Seven, too)


(9/11/11: third in a series)

The Landing at Normandy

When, after a brief return to Paris, I arrived in Normandy – a couple of days after leaving Julia behind in Provence – it was with the expressed purpose of making a first visit to the landing beaches, and to some of the countless fields where allied soldiers had inched their way among the hedge rows in the night. That had been my plan before 9/11. Now it meant even more to me. What struck me, even as the experience moved me, was how incommunicable it could be. Many, of course, have felt and do feel the same as I about that historical moment. Others – not quite so powerfully. For some, it is an idea, with various permutations, and not much of a feeling at all. Even after 9/11, there could be no reliable agreement about any meaning the great invasion might hold for the present or the future. If lessons are to be drawn from history, can there be any greater than those of the Second World War? Yet only sixty years later, there are good people, well-meaning people, who feel the parallels have been drawn too often and too illegitimately. They are even, perhaps, just a little tired of hearing them. Ah, yes, there are lessons to be learned, but first we have to agree upon what they are, and when to apply them, and who should presume to teach, requiring whom to learn.

As I made the two and a half hour drive from Paris to Normandy, the closer I approached, the more I imagined an historical progress in the other direction. In childhood, I had studied with fascination, in books and school and in popular movies more or less simplistically patriotic, an event I soon came to understand as epic in proportion and which had occurred in all its horror and tragic grandeur in the years not long before my birth, almost a creation myth for the world in which I lived. It is not a myth, however. The extraordinary human stories behind the liberating invasion that was the European theater’s terrible and heroic crescendo were real – are real for those who choose to do honor through memory. But memory fades, or calcifies; it is as human to turn the gaze from where it is directed as it is to let it rest there, and some prefer the subjunctive to the celebratory mood. So the lessons of felt experience become the less gripping instruction of the explained idea, and some – even those who bore the brunt of its destruction – believe they learn from the Second World War that calamity comes from the rush of free nations to war, instead of the reluctance of good people to join it. Of course, one must believe in those people’s goodness, and in the value of liberty, whatever its failings.

I drove the country roads, got lost in the little seaside hamlets, and made my way to Pointe du Hoc. I walked among the decades old bomb craters and stood near the cliff. I looked down at the rocks and the surf, and as a man who has never been to war, I tried to imagine the unimaginable. When, later, I arrived at the western end of Omaha Beach, where the monument stands to the National Guardsmen who died in such great numbers, I walked down to the water’s edge. There are homes along the road that runs beside the beach, but not many. Unlike Pointe du Hoc, there are no bunkers or trenches remaining to remind the unwitting that the sand had ever seen more than angry waves, or that the cliffs above had ever offered to those below more than a dramatic view. I scanned the waterline and tried to conjure the landing craft, the soldiers spilling into the water. I turned and faced the cliffs.

Up off the beach, at that western end, on a little rise at the end of the road that takes you down, there was, of all things, a snack bar. Imagine. I sat on an empty patio in the grey autumn and ate an onion tart. I felt both profane and proper.

The Landing of the Normans

The next morning, I went to see the Bayeux Tapestry, preserved in glass in the cathedral of that town, which was the first liberated after the allied landing. Over a length of 230 feet of coarse linen, twenty inches high, the tapestry tells the story in embroidered tableaux of another great invasion, one that crossed the channel in the other direction, in 1066. The long, traditional belief was that the tapestry had been woven by the handmaidens of Queen Matilda, William the Conqueror’s wife. It is now commonly thought, instead, to have been commissioned by Odon de Conteville, William’s half brother and Bishop of Bayeux. The style of the handicraft has also led scholars to conclude that the tapestry was woven, not by Normans, but by Anglo-Saxon embroiderers. So not only is the tapestry a dramatic and notable instance of the victors writing history, but also of the vanquished having been cruelly compelled to play the victor’s scribes. And though, of course, motivations are always murky, though two panels may be missing from the tapestry, and independent, written chronicles of the conquest don’t always agree, though the tapestry shows William leading Harold on a campaign through Brittany before Harold pledged his fealty, while other sources place the events in reverse, though some say Edward engaged in his own, deathbed reversal, and bequeathed his crown to Harold in place of William – though all of this be so – in this the tapestry remains uncontradicted: that Edward did send Harold across the channel to William to tell him the crown would be his, that Harold did, indeed, swear an oath to William, and that he betrayed it.


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