Saturday, February 21, 2015

American Sniper, Nazi Sniper

I'm sure others have noted it, but there are ties between American Sniper and Inglourious Basterds.

One is that Tarantino's movie includes a German sniper: He's the hero in a Nazi propaganda movie, a key part of the convoluted plot. The movie lionizes him for killing 200 of the enemy. That's an eerie echo of Chris Kyle in American Sniper.

The difference of course is in the cause. Heroism and fighting skills can be turned in any direction. It is a myth to think that only a good society produces heroes, or that heroes certify that a society is good. Great warriors have fought for horrible causes. If Chris Kyle is a hero, it is not because he was a good shot, but because he was trying to be a sheepdog, trying to help others.

Basterds is a brilliant, disturbing look at war -- and life. It is the world viewed by ruthless, pagan gods. Any gesture of mercy is punished by death. Any weakness is punished by death. Any compassion is punished by death.

Of course, Kyle was murdered in an attempt to help a fellow veteran. His compassion was punished by death.

There thus are no rules of engagement in Tarantino's alternative universe. The heroes commit crimes that would get them in Leavenworth today. Yet in the pitiless, savage universe of war, the crimes help them kill Nazis. Even in Tarantino's gleefully bloody vision, the Nazis are horrors who must be destroyed -- by any means necessary, as the phrase goes.

It is with good reason that we quail at the thought of war today. It is not only dread for having our comfortable world disrupted. We dread the thought of the horrors and evil that must happen in a war. We value mercy and compassion; war despises mercy and compassion.

Or look at Brad Pitt's recent World War II movie Fury. A soldier who hesitates to pull the trigger may be letting his comrades die. Yes, there is heroism; it is mired in horror and brutality and suffering. Those who survive may be plunged into suffering and horror; they may to commit horrors in the hope of stemming off worse ones.

That movies like this are being made suggests that Hollywood, with its intuitive sense of what people want, senses that people are at least subconsciously thinking about war and what it means. Perhaps we as a people have a sort of tribal understanding of the horror and immorality of war. Perhaps such movies are a way of working through our thoughts and fears, by confronting the worst. Yet perhaps we also, with a sense of dread, understand that at times it cannot be avoided. There is real evil in the world. It cannot be tamed. Indeed, to try to treat it with compassion is to invite punishment, even death. Evil must finally be destroyed. It is understandable, possibly even prudent, if people try to avoid that as long as possible.

Yet Inglourious Basterds, American Sniper, and Fury do not flinch from the truths of war. That people are watching such movies suggest that audiences sense they must expose themselves to such truths.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Would U.S. Grant 'Counter' ISIS?

You can't win until you decide to win. That's harder than it might seem.

Because I drift among the plankton on the political food chain, today I got an email from the DOJ  about a "Background conference call with Senior Administration Officials to preview the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism."  

OK. As I'm sure many will note, no one is that worried about violence from anarchists, hippies, Trotskyites, the Black Hand, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Know Nothings, the Mennonites, the Presbyterians, atheists, heretics, the Masons, the Greenback Party, etc. We all know what kind of extremism this is about but the federal government's law enforcement art still dare not breathe its name. It's like the Nixon tapes, as if it read "violent [expletive deleted] extremism."

The second point is a crucial verb: "countering." The civilized world faces a wave of assassinations and terror attacks across the globe, even as at least one branch of the enemy races to build atomic bombs, and the U.S. government is finally thinking about ... countering it.

I happen to be reading the memoirs of U.S. Grant and was struck by one passage. Grant's objective was to take the key city of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. The drive had stalled, and, he notes, military conventional wisdom said the thing to do is to fall back on Memphis, regroup and rearm, then advance again.

But he saw the larger strategic and even political picture at that stage of the war. He wrote, with evident approval, that the Lincoln administration's goal was to fight to the last man and the last dollar. That would a horrific decision -- unless accompanied by the resolve to win.

In this excerpt from a good essay on the memoirs, Grant recalls that he decided not to fall back but to press on, even more boldly, because, at that point in the war:

" (the)   country is already disheartened over the lack of success on the part of our armies...if we went back so far as Memphis it would discourage the people so much that bases of supplies would be of no use: neither men to hold them nor supplies to put in them would be furnished. The problem for us was to move forward to a decisive victory, or our cause was lost. No progress was being made in any other field, and we had to go on." (Italics in the LOA edition)

Despite the odds, he took Vicksburg, and eventually the Union triumphed.

Grant saw that wars with so much at stake are not chess games, as classical military theory had it, but desperate struggles that could be won only with determination -- and sacrifice. Generals such as McClellan hoped that skillful marches could bring the war to a successful and harmless conclusion. And anyone with human sympathy hopes that that could be so. There are conflicts where that is the prudent move. But Grant saw also that people will not make sacrifices that are vain and even frivolous; they will make sacrifices only when the goal is worthwhile, and there is hope that the sacrifices will bring a worthwhile victory.

He saw what Lincoln saw: that the goal of freedom for all human beings was worth the cost -- but that mere gestures, mere symbolic battles, were not worth the cost. And Grant saw that the American people understood this intuitively.

Confronting evil, a free people cannot merely counter it. In other words:

You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.
We will lose until, in some form, we say the same.

In a war between two diametrically opposed visions of humanity, the only way to win is to decide to win, no matter the cost. The enemy will always raise the ante. To aim to merely counter the enemy, in this kind of struggle, is to aim to lose. The only way to win is to stake everything on winning decisively.

We cannot counter this enemy, as you might counter a chess move. We must defeat and destroy the enemy.

It might be countered that is easy for me to say, as I am not on the front lines. Until recently, cartoonists might have been considered far from the action. But the front lines are anywhere that people strive to be free and determine their own destinies.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

American Sniper, Pagan Warrior

What struck me about American Sniper was not patriotism or glorification of war, but it's almost pagan view of war.

I happened to read Why Homer Matters, by Adam Nicolson. He reminds us that the Illiad and Odyssey are also cold-eyed looks at war. Certainly Achilles, Hector and the other Greek and Trojan fighters are heroes of it. But they are also bloodthirsty killers; warriors who are slain die horribly. There's no glory in death, no heaven; they are banished to the shadowy realm of Hades.

American Sniper is closer to that in spirit. It is a look at war, not at one particular war. Chris Kyle never doubts that he saves lives, but his battlefield experiences take a brutal toll on him. By the end, he is ready to come home.

Some characters support the war; others hate it; others are ambivalent. The movie itself is unconcerned with the justification for war; it zeroes in on the men (and women) caught up in it.

Some reviews note the cruelty of the enemy. Yet the movie's real point is that war is brutal, cruel, inhuman. This is not a false equivalency argument; the movie isn't arguing. It is simply portraying war honestly.

One review said it was the most pro-war movie ever made, and the most anti-war. A good insight, but in another way it isn't pro-war or anti-war. It just shows war.

Ultimately, it seems to me, Nicholson suggests the warrior is opposed to civilization. In the end, the warrior cannot create a civilization. Primitive warriors can only conquer little kingdoms they can rule by their own might; when they die, the kingdoms fall prey to the next warriors who come along. Warriors can only pillage a civilization; on their own, they cannot create one.

Yet of course civilizations must have warriors. The Greece of the Parthenon and Plato could not have survived the Persian threat had it not had warrior descendants of Achilles and Odysseus. Those warriors included Socrates, Aeschylus and Sophocles, reminding us of why ancient Athens remains a lodestar for us yet.

American Sniper highlights the value of the warrior, but also his limits and the cost of the warrior life. Kyle fights to protect his country and his comrades. That is what warriors do. It is not their assignment to fret about their duty. Neither does American Sniper.

But what about a great German sniper? More on that tomorrow, I hope.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

5 Dangerous Myths about 'Charlie'

News photo: Protesters chant, "Death to blasphemers."

Look at media coverage of the Charlie Hebdo aftermath, and you'll see dangerous myths are emerging.

1. Myth: We should equate public debates with private quarrels.

Too often, commentators mix up private quarrels with jihad.

For instance, the pope, bless him, noted that if you insulted his mother, you could expect him (a former bouncer!) to punch you in the nose.

But could you expect him to machine-gun your whole family?

The problem is not hurt feelings; it is mass murder and terrorism. The people offended by the magazine did not write vituperative letters to the editor; they burst in with Kalashnikovs and gunned down the staff.

It is dangerous and misleading to talk of "sensibilities" and "insulted feelings" when the real topic is murder and terrorism.

2. Myth: Public issues be discussed with cool restraint.

What if your mother is running for president? You and she should darned well be able to hear intense and even unfair criticism without reaching for your automatic rifle.

Public debate in a democracy should be, must be, intense, emotional and even exaggerated. If it is real debate, it will tap into real emotion. That means at times it will be over the top, overexcited and exaggerated. That is an inevitable byproduct of real emotion and the real exchange of views on vital topics.

Also, hyperbole (to give it its fancy name) is an essential tool for public communication. It is not always possible to communicate with witty understatement and cool irony. To get a point across, public debaters must sometimes draw broad pictures and use vivid language. Too often, complaints about "hurtful language" are meant, or act, as censors of effective communication.

3. Myth: We must give in to claims about "insults" and "besmirching honor" and "blasphemy."

Such claims, however, are too easily faked, and too easily become tools of oppression.

No "insult to honor" can be disproved. Both "insult" and "honor" are vague, subjective qualities. No one can disprove, as a matter of fact or logic, that honor has been insulted.

More important, "honor" and "blasphemy" easily become tools for oppression of minorities. Take this case: A Christian Pakistani woman gets into a quarrel with  Muslim women. They accuse her of blasphemy. She is ultimately condemned to death by hanging, and an official who expressed sympathy for her was assassinated by his own bodyguard.

The key point here: There is no way the Christian woman (or anyone) can disprove she had said something. In such a world of blasphemy laws, and vigilante mobs, every person is at risk of being accused of a capital crime and is helpless to refute it. That includes Muslims, BTW.

The point is doubly important when lynch mobs act upon accusations. (See the link above.) In such a country, no person is safe from either legal persecution or lynching at any time. To underline: there is absolutely no defense against an accusation of blasphemy or besmirching the honor of a deity or some who according to Muslims lived 13 centuries ago.

Thus our civilization must reject such claims at all levels.

4. Myth: religion is private, so we as a public need not be involved in it.

Some of the explicit or subtle rationalization for these murders is based on the notion that religion is merely private. Some have clucked their tongues over the slayings, but said, either in their tone or in so many words, that the cartoonists should have known what their cartoons would draw a deadly reaction to such comments, as they touch on tender private feelings that should be shielded from public injury.

I for one would be glad to see more acceptance of the notion that the sacred must be accorded special dignity, reverence and even awe. But as long as the government that taxes me uses my money for "Piss Christ," forgive me if I accept the reality that religion is part of the public sphere in 2015.

And it should be. Religions make claims about the cosmos and our behaviors in it. Christianity makes claims about human life; those claims impinge on public topics; Christianity is a valid subject for public debate, which may unruly and rambunctious. And of course Christianity has a right to respond to that debate.

Just not with AK-47s.

But many of the jihadis' apologists implicitly think that religion should be utterly private, and silent. People may have doubts or beliefs, but they must hold them silently, shut up in their hearts. In this view, if they proclaim their beliefs on a magazine cover, they should expect backlash for violating the new social norm that religion is taboo.

Religion is in fact a subject of public debate in a free society. To paraphrase Lincoln, the proper recourse is not to bullets but to bullet points in a reasoned reply.

5. It is dangerous to think jihadis hate only a satirical magazine.

They don't hate speech; they hate all that is human. They hate music and art. They hate our appreciation of human beauty. They hate love. They hate desire. The idea that two people could adore each other nauseates them. They are stirred to deadly rage by the ordinary human impulses of forming a family and enjoying the simple pleasures of life.

"Charlie Hebdo" is only the first thing they wanted to attack. They also want to attack all art, as they have proved by their destruction of art and bans of music. They want to attack all those who truly feel desire, all those who want to enjoy life. They want to attack all who have ambitions and dreams and wishes for better lives.

They hate all that is divine. They hate the yearnings of the human heart for the ineffable, they hate the impulse to follow the promptings of the spirit, to obey the unpredictable yet powerful urges of the soul.

One reason our constitution protects religion is not because it is a trivial private matter that is of no public import; we protect religion because it reflects our most profound and powerful feelings, and because it is too majestic to be encompassed by our laws and understanding. We cannot fully understand it, therefore we dare not constrain it or proscribe it.

Jihadis -- like their psychic predecessors who sacrificed infants on blood-spattered altars or galloped in barbarian hordes or rode among the Panzer divisions --  hate all they do not control, and that includes the spiritual.

I'd even suggest jihadis hate their own prophet: they want to extirpate all images of him, because, subconsciously, they hate all that is outside their own nihilistic hearts. They secretly hate God because they are in fact enthralled by the Devil.

These five dangerous myths have if anything grown in response to the Paris massacre. We must keep this in mind if we are to defend all that is human -- and divine.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Je ne veux pas être Charlie

By all means, as a gesture, I heartily join in, "je suis Charlie." It is a profound and useful reaction to offer sympathy and solidarity with the sacred dead. It is also right to honor those who, indeed, gave their last full measure of devotion in support of freedom.

Make no mistake, words and images are vital weapons in this worldwide battle. I happen to be reading the works of Lincoln, and then Grant and Sherman. I'm also reading a history of World War II, which reminds us that the words of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, even Ernie Pyle were vital in the victory.

I hope that I someday, if needed, have even a fraction of the courage of the Charlie staff. I hope I am bold and fearless and articulate.

Yet ...

Je ne veux pas être Charlie: I do not want to be Charlie. What is that line attributed to Patton, "No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country."

I hope to neither kill nor be killed. But if the bastards come from me, I hope I can defend myself against them. That is not merely a desire, it's a duty.

We are not just defending our lives, we are defending civilization.

Gestures are not enough. Words are not enough. Good intentions are inadequate on their own. Satire is only a lesser tool.

I do not want to be Charlie.

I do not want to be shot down helpless. I don't want to depend on unarmed cops to defend me. I hope to not only critique our enemies, but convert them. If that doesn't work, I hope I can defend myself if they come for me.

And make no mistake they will come for us if we let them.

I refuse to pretend that the state can always protect me from evil. Ultimately, in a free society, we the people are the best defenders of ourselves, our loved ones, our community, our country.

So we have to protect ourselves. I have North Carolina and Utah concealed weapons permits. Am I carrying a gun? Let's say that at the least having a permit would expedite obtaining a weapon in case of immediate need.

Moreover, as has often been noted, you must have power to be free.

The book I'm reading is John Keegan's The Second World War. He sketches out the history of the rise of the mass army, and the lesson is clear: the spread of freedom to the common man happened as they gained deadly weapons, and as the mass of men bore arms. Guns = freedom. It's history.

No matter how bold your words, you cannot produce words if you are dead.

Finally, let us not pretend that hashtags and editorials and blog posts such as mine will suffice. Action will be needed. Note that I hope violence can be avoided -- underline hope. But we cannot simply sit here and be picked off one by one. We, the civilized, will have to act.

I do not have specifics; I'm not sure specifics matter. But we have to act against our enemies.

And of course it comes back to words and arguments: We must make a convincing case for freedom, with all its messiness and meandering.

Yes, no matter what I write at a desk, I hope not to be caught cowering under a desk; I hope I and all of us in our civilization will fight back and win.

Je ne veux pas etre Charlie. I hope to advance the ideals of freedom and love -- and it will take more than cartoons and hashtags to do it.