Eric Schlosser (The Bat Segundo Show #515)

Eric Schlosser is most recently the author of Command and Control.

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Author: Eric Schlosser

Subject Discussed: The 1980 nuclear missile accident in Damascus, Arkansas, drug use among the military after the Vietnam War, the Titan II’s continuous deployment even after it was unsafe, Fred Iklé, efforts to point out safety shortfalls in the military, the lack of locks on nuclear weapons, Permissive Action Links, Robert Peurifoy, Curtis LeMay, the real-life inspiration for Dr. Strangelove, Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, LeMay’s bellicose attitude, 1960s defense culture, alternative perceptions of LeMay, LeMay’s attention to detail, checklists and operating procedures, a giant nuclear arsenal intended as a deterrent, limited vs. total war, Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, the influence of male attitude on deterrents, what we needed from LeMay during the Cold War, the risks taken by Strategic Air Command officers, recent safety mishaps with U.S. nuclear missile units, responding to speculation that LeMay wanted to start World War III, the history of the the Strategic Air Command, why the Command and Control system couldn’t factor in human exhaustion, how the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union caused unreasonable labor for servicemen, the difficulties of accounting for all nuclear weapons, Robert McNamara’s belief that mad decisions were logical at the time, the 1978 Titan II accident in Rock, Kansas, why there were so many mishaps with Titan II oxidizer, the RFHCO suits (and the astonishing wear-and-tear on this protection, which wasn’t replaced in many cases), blame directed at the workers, how systemic problems contributed to an unrealistic and bureaucratic view of Air Force servicemen, putting men into dangerous systems with defective gear, black electrical tape used to “secure” suits in missile silos, loose arming wires that permitted bombs to drop, an atomic bomb that nearly went off in North Carolina in 1961, the missing atomic bomb still entombed in Nahunta Swamp, the H-bomb accidentally dropped on Spain in 1966, why America’s military infrastructure still relies on aging B-52 bombers, the 1968 Thule Air Base B-52 crash, the importance of morale within workers who are tending to the most dangerous machines in the world, Kissinger’s efforts to get rid of the Titan II, the Single Integrated Operational Plan, Eisenhower’s deadly arbitration between the Air Force and the Navy, how the Strategic Air Command kept SIOP details away from Kissinger, bureaucratic rivalries, William Odom’s briefing on the SIOP, the interplay between Kennedy and Khrushchev, the lack of a direct line between the United States and the Soviet Union through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the effect of nuclear policy on diplomacy, miscommunication and unreliable back channels, the present nuclear risk in South Asia, the recent terrorist attack in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, the Peshawar church attack, Edward Snowden’s findings about the United States’s lack of information about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, conflict between India and Pakistan, why deterrence theory doesn’t apply to religious fanatics, how storage facilities are prime targets for adversaries and how this is a serious problem in Pakistan.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Much of the missile culture that you describe in this book is, to say the least, remarkably unsafe. You have this Arkansas Titan II mishap at Launch Complex 374-7 — the so-called Damascus accident — that forms the backbone of this book. It all hinges on a socket wrench that is dropped down a silo and pierces this fuel tank. And if that isn’t enough, you have oxidizer that permeates around the station, causes 22-year-old David Livingston to die and several men to be severely wounded. You have procedures that aren’t followed. You have the Propellant Transfer System team violating this careful two man policy, where you have two keys turning at the same time. We often see that in the movies, but this was, in fact, the policy during the mid-20th century and onward to activate the missile. So this leads me to ask. How did the Launch Complex adopt such a far from cautious approach to daily maintenance duties? How much of this was systematic? And how much of this was human error?

Schlosser: You know, our military was in pretty rough shape after the Vietnam War. And it’s a forgotten fact now because we have our precision-guided munitions and we go to war with one country after another. And we seem so completely dominant. But after the Vietnam War, there was major underinvestment in the military. There were terrible morale problems. Huge percentages of our troops in the Army came back addicted to heroin. And there were remarkably high levels of illegal drug use even in the Air Force. So in the book, I write about guys smoking pot on the missile site. Launch officers who have responsibility for launching intercontinental ballistic missiles smoking pot. In the book, I go into guys who are busted with LSD and cocaine who had nuclear weapons responsibilities. And that was part of the bigger culture of the ’70s. There was really poor morale. The Titan II missile that’s at the heart of this story was obsolete. It was supposed to be taken out of service in the late 1960s. In 1980, it was still on alert. It was leaking all the time. They didn’t have spare parts. So the accident I write about is precipitated by somebody dropping a socket in a missile silo and the socket pierces the skin of the missile. But in many ways, this weapons system was an accident waiting to happen. And in my criticism of some of the procedures in the 1970s and early 1980s, I really don’t imply a criticism of the ordinary servicemen who worked on these weapons systems. On the contrary. The book is about the incredible heroism of ordinary guys put in custody of nuclear weapons at a remarkably young age. I’m getting old enough now. So when I think of a nineteen, twenty, twenty-one year old person having custody of a thermonuclear weapon, it takes me aback. And those guys again and again in the Cold War had this responsibility. Maybe some of them were smoking pot. But most of them were quite serious about not wanting these weapons to go off and about making sure that we were safe from attack from the Soviet Union.

Correspondent: What’s fascinating is why so many young and inexperienced greenhorns would be given such responsibility for these missiles. I mean, that’s what boggles the mind. Especially since there were several other accidents. The B-52s that you have dropping bombs that thankfully didn’t have charged warheads. I mean, this is very serious. This isn’t asking regular people to go ahead and mop up the floor of a hangar. This is our system. And I’m wondering what conditions allowed this to perpetuate for so long, notwithstanding the heroism that you depict in your book.

Schlosser: The accident that is the central narrative of the book — the Titan II accident in Damascus, Arkansas — was unquestionably linked to understaffing, to poorly trained personnel, shortage of spare parts, an obsolete weapons system. But I write about many other accidents in the book. And in those accidents, they had extremely well-trained personnel. They had the most modern weapons imaginable. The best systems in place imaginable. But one of the big themes of the book is that we’re a lot better at creating complex technologies than we are at controlling them or managing them. And it’s hard to think of a machine that doesn’t mess up. From your toaster oven to your laptop to commercial airliners to commercial nuclear power plants, no matter how sophisticated the people and no matter how well-trained, it’s just beyond fallible, imperfect human beings to create something that’s infallible and perfect. And when you’re talking about nuclear weapons, you’re talking about the most dangerous machines ever invented. So it makes sense that those machines and the complex technological systems that manage them would mess up occasionally. But the consequences of one of those things screwing up is a lot more than if your toaster oven freezes up and catches on fire in the kitchen. And one of the reasons I wrote the book was, firstly, I thought the story of this missile accident was just unbelievable. And I thought the heroism of the guys who tried to save the missile was unbelievable. But I’m just trying to remind people that these things are out there. There are thousands of nuclear weapons right now that are ready to go. And people my age — I’m 54; I grew up in the Cold War — remember what it was like to live with this dread that there might be an all-out nuclear war any day. But half the people who live in the United States either weren’t born yet or were small children when the Soviet Union vanished. And there’s a historical amnesia. And most people just don’t realize these weapons are there. Now I’m not trying to create an existential dread in anybody. I’m not trying to create late night anxiety. But this is really important information. And people need to know it.

Correspondent: Well, even in the 1950s, you have this guy named Fred Iklé. He disseminates this RAND report on nuclear weapon safety and he outlines all the motivations that would cause someone to disobey orders and set off a nuclear weapon. His reports were disseminated, as you point out in the book, to the highest levels of the Air Force and the Department of Defense. You’ve got this guy Bob Peurifoy. He points to numerous safety problems as well. Your book, as we have established, documents several incidents in which safety is sacrificed for ease of intercontinental ballistic missile use in retaliation. Why was the top brass so recalcitrant against safety? Why were they so interested in taking shortcuts? I mean, it seems to me that it goes beyond a cultural problem or an institutional problem and into just pure recklessness.

Schlosser: Yeah. And that top secret report by Iklé was really cool to read. I mean, it was looking into the ways that not only mechanically these weapons could go wrong, but I think in one section of the report there’s a catalog of derangement, which is looking at what sort of psychological problems airmen might have that would lead them to deliberately set off a weapon, deliberately steal a weapon. And at the time that Iklé was writing, literally there were no locks on our nuclear weapons. There were no coded switches. So a pilot who wanted to take a weapon could just fly to the target in the Soviet Union, in the Eastern Bloc, or even in the United States and just drop it, if he or she wanted to do that. And Iklé’s report was important in one respect. It really encouraged what you’d think would be a no brainer, but nobody had thought of doing. Putting locks on the weapons. The locks that were eventually put on them — these coded switches called Permissive Action Links — they were effective. But to someone who really understood the innards of the weapon, in a few hours, they could just disable it. Robert Peurifoy is one of the heroes of the book. He’s a weapons designer at one of the weapons labs: the Sandia National Laboratories. He realized in the late 1960s that our nuclear weapons just weren’t safe enough and that during what is called an “abnormal environment” — I mean, you could argue that the whole history that I write about in the book is an abnormal environment. But at the weapons labs, they refer to abnormal environments as a fire, a subversion of a weapon, a plane crash, a lightning strike.

Correspondent: Amazingly, no acronym.

Schlosser: Right. He realized that our weapons were not safe enough in these abnormal environments. But it took him like a twenty year bureaucratic battle to get modern safety devices put in the weapons, which we now have today. But you would never build a nuclear weapon today in the United States without these sorts of safety devices. Ultimately, at the heart of the problem, firstly is a sort of bureaucratic mentality. Someone said recently to me, “If you want to understand how bureaucracies work, it’s better to be wrong than be alone.” So it takes somebody with some personal courage to stand up, willing to buck the bureaucracy, and be alienated from everyone else as a result. And there also has been since the very first nuclear weapon was deployed an internal contradiction, a tension between wanting the weapons to be as safe as possible and wanting them to be as reliable as possible and available for immediate use. If you wanted the weapons to be totally safe, you would never fully assemble them until you’re about to use them. But if you want to use them within 45 seconds or a minute, you need to have them fully assembled on top of the missile or inside the bomber and ready to go. So in the book, I talk about this internal tension between always wanting to be able to use the weapon and never wanting it to go out by accident. And again and again, throughout our nuclear history, the military preferred always to never. And some of it I can understand. These bomber pilots knew that if they got the order to go bomb the Soviet Union, they would be flying into an environment that no pilot had ever flown into before. Missiles would probably have already hit the Soviet Union. They would be flying into this atomic wasteland, in many ways, to drop their bombs and they were probably on one-way suicide missions to do so. And yet they were willing to do it. And it would be a bummer for them if they risked everything to take out a Soviet Union airfield and that weapon turned out to be a dud because there were too many safety devices on it. Having said that, I would have voted for greater safety. Robert Peurifoy, the Sandia engineer, felt like we could make the weapons reliable enough and still make them much safer. And eventually his view prevailed. But it took…

Correspondent: Decades.

Schlosser: Almost two decades. And I think it really hurt his career. He wound up being a vice president at this weapons lab. But he was ostracized. It hurt his career. And I think it was enormously stressful for him to live with this constant knowledge that one of our weapons might detonate and be trying to fight the system to make them safe. And he prevailed. But it was a pretty stressful job.

(Loops for this program provided by 40A, petitcrabe, Nebraskaboy12, chefboydee, danke, and mejiam, .)

The Bat Segundo Show #515: Eric Schlosser (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Adam Hochschild

Adam Hochschild recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #396. He is most recently the author of To End All Wars.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Conscientiously objecting and objectifying consciousness.

Author: Adam Hochschild

Subjects Discussed: What is considered morally permissible in war, mustard gas, deadly military technology, Ray Bradbury’s “The Flying Machine,” the women’s suffrage movement and World War I, Emmeline Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union, splits within the Pankhurst Family, Women’s Dreadnaught, James Keir Hardie’s antiwar speeches, attempts to get socialists to agree, the duties of history to remember the losers, parallels between World War I and current wars, Osama bin Laden’s death, Wikileaks and the Czarist Archives, Margaret and Stephen Hobhouse, conscientious objectors, I Appeal Unto Caesar, Edmund Dene Morel’s hard labor sentence, the tendency of wealthy families and connections to carry more weight, Bertrand Russell, jingoistic writers during World War I, John Buchan’s imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, PG Wodehouse’s The Swoop!, the political stances of writers, contributions of famous writers to British propaganda, The 39 Steps, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and Germany spy conspiracies, responding William Anthony Hays criticism about “stack[ing] the deck by presenting such particularly unappealing characters as foils to the pacifists and liberals he seeks to praise,” attempting to find positive qualities about Douglas Haig (World War I’s worst general), Winston Churchill, Sir John French’s likable qualities, Haig vs. General Eisenhower, the Lansdowne Letter, attempts to understand why the World War I peace movement failed to catch on, relativistic courage, untrained pilots going up against the Red Baron, and the dangers of speaking out what you believe in.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: It’s an unsuccessful story. Should history really be in the business of remembering the losers?

Hochschild: Well, first of all, for me, as a writer, it was a challenge to see if I could write a narratively interesting and emotionally meaningful story about a movement that failed. My last book was about the anti-slavery movement in the British Empire. That was a successful movement. Slavery did come to an end. These people failed to stop the First World War. But I still find them very, very much writing about. Because it takes a special kind of courage and nobility to go against patriotic madness that’s in the air. And very often, a movement like this, it doesn’t succeed the first time. We still haven’t stopped war today. We’re caught up in at least two unnecessary wars, in my view, in the United States right now. I would like to see people who opposed those wars take some inspiration from these earlier folks. Even though they failed.

Correspondent: On the other hand, I wanted to bring up your recent TomDispatch article, in which you draw parallels between our present times and World War I. I’m wondering if it’s an appropriate parallel simply because in World War I, there was considerably more death. Presently, you say, “Well, why aren’t we protesting the war?” Well, we did in 2003. It was the biggest protest in America against the conflict in Iraq.

Hochschild: Yeah.

Correspondent: So I’m wondering if really the parallels should line up or whether we should consider the full scope of any kind of war when considering it. Is there a danger here of parallel relativism? Or what? Maybe you can expand upon this.

Hochschild: Well, I don’t think the parallels to anything are ever exact or anywhere near exact when there’s nearly 100 years in between. But I guess some of the parallels I saw between the First World War and those that we’re in today are several. First, look at how the First World War started. Austria-Hungary was eager to make war on little Serbia next door. They felt the existence of Serbia was a threat. Because there were a lot of restless Serbs within the border of the old Austria-Hungarian Empire. They had actually drawn up invasion plans to invade Serbia and dismember it. Then Archduke Franz Ferdinand gets assassinated by an ethnic Serb, but an Austo-Hungarian citizen. And there’s no evidence that the top officials of Serbia’s government even knew about the assassination plot. But they immediately used this as an excuse to make war on Serbia. I see some resemblance between that and Bush using the September 11th attacks to make war in Iraq, which had nothing to do with those attacks. So when countries are hungering to go to war for one reason or another, they can easily use something as an excuse. That’s one similarity. I think another is that most of the time when a country starts war, they expect it to be over very quickly and easily. Kaiser Wilhelm II, when he sent his troops off to France in 1914, said, “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.” And the Germans had this masterplan that they’d worked on for years that very systematically and with great exactitude showed how they were going to subdue France, conquer Paris, and force the French surrender in exactly 42 days. Of course, it didn’t happen that way. But countries always expect it to happen that way. Like when Bush landed on the aircraft carrier in 2003 in front of that big sign MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

Correspondent: Sure.

Hochschild: Well, I’m still not sure what the mission was in Iraq. But whatever it was, it hasn’t been accomplished.

Correspondent: Well, we just recently had another MISSION ACCOMPLISHED allegedly with Osama bin Laden.

Hochschild: Yeah.

Correspondent: And I’m sure you saw some of the New York Post headlines here. They were really, really grisly. On the other hand, I should point out that there is a fundamental difference between al Qaeda, which is networked all around the world, versus the German nation, which is starving, which is machine gunning the soldiers. And the soldiers on the other side are machine gunning them. And there’s this trench warfare and all that. There’s even a sense of gentlemanly accord in World War I that one doesn’t see in the present conflict. Especially when you also factor in communications. I mean, there’s nothing even close, parallel-wise, to Wikileaks, for example, that you could have in World War I. That’s why I’m unclear as to the parallels. Are the parallels more in the way that governments inform the people and governments persuade the people to become involve in a conflict? Or what?

Hochschild: Well, as I say, the parallels from a hundred years are never completely exact. But there was a sort of Wikileaks episode in World War I, which was this. In 1917, there came the two Russian Revolutions: the February Revolution, when they overthrew the czar, and the October Revolution, when the Bolsheviks seized power in a coup. At that point, the Bolsheviks got into the Czarist Archives and they made public all the secret treaties that Russia, France, and the agreements between Russia, France, and Italy had. That showed how the Allies were planning to divide up the possessions of Germany and its allies once the war was over. And it had tremendous reverberations. In the same way that the Wikileaks material did in recent months. Because it showed that even though the Allies liked the Germans — they were saying they were fighting to defend civilization itself — nonetheless, they’d actually drawn lines on the map as to how they were going to divide up spheres of influence in the Middle East, for example.

Correspondent: Okay. I wanted to shift back to conscientious objectors. The case of Margaret Hobhouse. She’s a well-to-do woman. Her son Stephen is imprisoned as a conscientious objector. This suggests to some degree — this whole incident where she writes a book that is, of course, ghostwritten by Bertrand Russell, I Appeal Unto Caesar — that it takes the rich or the privileged in order to shift things. Because she manages to persuade 26 bishops and 200 other clergyman to sign a statement arguing for more lenient treatment of COs. Similarly, in 1916, some COs are sent to France. They’re fed bread and water. They’re forced to the front line. The No Conscription Fellowship is on the case trying to seek them out. But, of course, because they don’t have this Hobhousian connection, it’s a great difficulty to track these folks down. At the beginning of 1918, there were still more than 1,000 COs behind bars. You have Basil Thomson noticing that pacifism was on the rise. Now this comes after I Appeal Unto Caesar was published. Why was there such a delay between 1916 and 1918 in drawing attention to these maltreated COs? Does it take a book? Does it take a privileged person speaking on behalf of COs to ensure humane treatment for all classes? What of this?

Hochschild: Well, obviously, at all times and places, I think that when the people from wealthy families and so on speak out loudly on behalf of something, their voices carry much more loudly. That’s unfortunately the way the world works. One thing that was interesting to me about the war resisters in Britain was that they came from across the class spectrum. You had people in jail like Stephen Hobhouse, who you mentioned, who was from this very ancient wealthy family filled with connections to lords and bishops and so on. And a very close friend of the family was in the Cabinet — Alfred Milner, who was minister without portfolio on charge of coordinating the war effort. At the same time, there were labor unionists in jail, who didn’t have those powerful connections. And these folks all felt a real sense of solidarity with each other across those class lines.

Correspondent: But was the book really the linchpin? I mean, I don’t want to draw any false correlations here, but I’m curious how this connection to Basil Thomson saying, “Oh, pacifism is on the rise.” Is that more the increased awareness of COs? Or is that more people in grief? Because bodies are coming back. Or they’re not coming back. And they’re getting messages that their loved ones are dead.

Hochschild: Well, actually, the book you mentioned by Margaret Hobhouse, because it was allegedly written by Margaret Hobhouse, who was the wife of a prominent churchman and a big landowner and everything, it had considerable effect. Although in fact Bertrand Russell secretly co-authored it. The book helped bring about the release of several hundred conscientious objectors who were in poor health in one way or another. But that’s about all it did. The government still kept locking up conscientious objectors who refused to do alternative service. It still cracked down with increasing harshness on people who spoke out against the war. Bertrand Russell, despite being himself being the son of an earl; he later inherited the earldom from his brother, was sent to jail for six months in 1918. Edmund Dene Morel, really the country’s leading investigative journalist, spent six months in jail for his antiwar writings. Served hard labor. And it broke his health and he died a few years later.

The Bat Segundo Show #396: Adam Hochschild (Download MP3)

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Review: Lebanon (2009)

Back in March, The New York Times published a Michael Kamber essay in which Kamber took The Hurt Locker to task for its “realistic depiction.” While the film went on to garner numerous awards, including the Best Picture Oscar, its apparent inaccuracies were enough to unsettle Kamber and others who had served in combat. Despite The Hurt Locker feeling “realistic” to those who had never set foot into a war zone, the film was a sham for Baghdad vets.

The criticisms against The Hurt Locker are hardly a new development for the war movie. Full Metal Jacket, Flags of Our Fathers, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (no surprise), We Were Soldiers, Glory, 300, and Apocalypse Now — just to name a few — have all been saddled with the “inaccurate” charge, leaving one to wonder the war movie’s purpose. Just how accurate does the narrative experience have to be? We accept the subjective nature of a documentary. Why can’t we do so in a cinematic narrative?

It’s possible that Lebanon, which is photographed primarily from a tank’s viewpoint, works as well as it does primarily because it has the audacity to be subjective from the get-go. Aside from an image of flowers that bookends the film’s beginning and end, Lebanon remains quite resolutely within the interior. I have no idea how accurate writer-director Samuel Maoz’s film is in relation to the 1982 Lebanon War, and I don’t very much care. What matters here most is that Maoz has established a horrific simulacrum from personal combat experience. We feel as confined as he once did. His frequent shots of dripping black fluid, the terrible blur of dead bodies thrown into the interior with cold alacrity, the squeals of men being chained up and tortured in multiple languages, and the tank’s terrifying whines as it attempts to tread across a battlefield while both severely damaged and under attack unsettled my senses. But then I have never served in combat. Is Lebanon meant for people like me? Or must I recuse myself from the question of accuracy because of my inexperience? If so, I would happily join the company of Stephen Crane, who wrote The Red Badge of Courage despite never having observed a battle.

Whether one insists upon accuracy or not, Samuel Maoz’s movie has rather bravely taken on the same perspective that we’re used to “seeing” or “perceiving” a military environment from a first-person shooter’s detached comfort zone. Iis the video game’s detached alternative more faithful or “accurate” to the combat experience? If you’ve ever played Call of Duty or Day of Defeat: Source online, you’ll inevitably encounter a server populated by former or active servicemen. One rarely hears these men complaining about the “accuracy” of a first-person shooter, perhaps because the video game is more participatory (and therefore perceived as less agenda-driven) than the war movie.

Some critics have called Lebanon an “anti-war movie,” but I don’t think this simplistic label does Maoz’s film justice. Yes, it does feature moments that discourages damn near anybody from wishing to participate in war. A gunner is ordered to fire upon a building and hesitates when he realizes that people will die. His pause causes a soldier on his side to die. Every action — the decision to fire or the decision to freeze up — has a mortal consequence. But is that anti-war? Or is that reflective of human behavior?

I would argue that it better fulfills the second question. A war movie works not so much for its “accuracy,” but for its willingness to explore uncomfortable or conflicted feelings. I’ve described Lebanon to some friends as “Das Boot in a tank,” but, in hindsight, this is probably too formulaic a description. For Lebanon is courteous enough to remind us that these flawed soldiers are caught within a mobile prison, and that the jail cell extends to curtailed interaction. One young man asks if a message can be sent to his parents and is denied. Another man thinks he speaks another language, but remains unfamiliar with the dialect of the man he needs to talk with. These crushing moments of isolation offer us some idea of the fortitude it takes to stick through a neverending war stint. Perhaps there will be ferocious discussions among about whether Lebanon does such communication among soldiers justice. Maoz has stated that he wishes to open up a dialogue with this movie and get people talking about vital issues. And if a film (or a filmmaker) is open to such dialogue, the question of “accuracy” is largely irrelevant.

NYFF: Waltz with Bashir (2008)

[This is the thirteenth part in an open series of reports from the New York Film Festival.]

About a week ago, fearing that all of the films were turning my mass into flabby mush, I walked two brisk miles in twenty minutes to take in Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, my fourth film of the day. The movie had been described to me by one critic, who purportedly writes for a newspaper, as “a little fiesta” — a qualification that I certainly quibbled with at the time. I’m not sure that a movie depicting the trauma of war and memory can be accurately identified as a “little fiesta.” Certainly, the real-life figures drawn from the Israeli Army do interpret a break between battles as a “little fiesta,” even if they do not precisely use these two specific words. It is true that these soldiers toil in homemade banana leaf huts on the beach and frolic about just before their comrades get shot in their head. But to suggest that these activities represent a “little fiesta” is, I suspect, missing the point just a mite. I’d like to think that the critic in question was having me on, but when I questioned him about specific points in Israel’s history, he had no knowledge of events that went down in 1967.

A professional animator informed me that he had disliked the film because of its gimmick and what he characterized as “amateurish” animation, but this same gentleman had gone bananas over Shuga, a film that I did not care for very much. But it should be observed that the device of a journalist-like protagonist (here, Folman) who questions various people about the meaning of some hazy memory has its roots in Citizen Kane and numerous personal documentaries. I don’t think that Waltz with Bashir is a documentary exactly. It’s more of a recreated narrative with the appearance of an objective pursuit. Something akin to a memoir played out for the camera. Certainly the animation technique, of which more anon, lives up to this notion of reconstruction. If it is not technically successful, then it is certainly viscerally successful.

But I was determined to make up my own mind. My initial reaction after the screening was somewhat ecstatic. But now that it has been a week since I’ve seen Waltz with Bashir, I see the film with slightly different eyes. This is a film that stacks its deck just a bit too heavily. War is bad, and it doesn’t matter what side you’re on. But this predictable rush to condemn war leaves little for the audience to make up their own minds. Paths of Glory is one of the best antiwar films in cinema, but it was Kubrick’s visual genius and his insistence on wiggle room for the audience that made the film work. Waltz with Bashir offers no comparative anthill. It offers more of a sideways glance for a topic that requires thinking in twenty dimensions and more time than you have for rumination. (As Tom Bissell noted in his underrated memoir, The Father of All Things, Vietnam is a subject that one can easily devote a lifetime to.) Waltz is, however, very good about clarifying something just as troubling: more than two decades later, it cannot be stated with any certainty that war memories match up to the reality. (Come to think of it, this is likewise a subject broached by Bissell, and Waltz with Bashir and The Father of All Things might make an intriguing book/movie double bill, or perhaps “two little fiestas” for critics who cloak their ignorance in uninformed mirth.)

The reality itself is the 1982 Lebanon War, and Folman was directly involved. He fought in the Isreali Army and, now in middle age, he retains a memory of naked young men emerging out of the water before a ruined city. Some key friends figure into this fugue: the long-haired Carmi Cna’an, the teenager who everybody figured would succeed in any science, now living in Amsterdam and fiercely protective of his privacy; Shmuel Frenkel, who has taken up vigorous physical exercise and maintains a bald pate; and Israeli war correspondent Ron Ben-Yeshai, who telephoned then-Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon about the massacres at Sabra and Shatila and was given a peremptory answer to back off.

What is quite interesting about Waltz with Bashir is its production method. Folman tracked down the people who haunted his memories, interviewed them, and then styled an animated narrative around these efforts. He even managed to persuade these people to reproduce their voices for the film. (Only a handful of Folman’s subjects declined.)

Each figure appears flat, representing a clear demarcation along a particular focal point. At times, it’s akin to watching a Flash animation or something involving cardboard cutouts from a pre-digital time. Folman’s team has added layers of smoke and reflections atop this basic approach.

Folman also has respect for his subjects’ wishes. When Carmi Cna’an declares that Folman can draw him as he is talking about war, he requests that Folman not include his son. Sure enough, the camera drifts away from the house as Carmi Cna’an engages in this paternal pastime.

But while the testimony that Folman unravels from his subjects certainly inhabits a feel of a bygone time — an atmosphere enhanced by a decent soundtrack and dutiful pop cultural juxtaposition — Folman fumbles a bit on memory’s false starts. Folman’s best friend and shrink, Ori Sivan, brings up a psychological experiment. When subjects were given photographs containing one false element, they believed that the false element was part of the memory. While Folman has exonerated himself somewhat by presenting this caveat to those seeking truth, he nevertheless remains very determined to align his memories to the film’s final moment: a live-action video clip depicting Sabra and Shatila’s aftermath. And while this footage is heartbreaking, with injustices that made me quite angry, I’m not sure if it is entirely fair to corral the film’s theme of ever-shifting memory to this harder reality. If anything, this piecemeal clip presents additional questions about the relationship between documentation and memory that were better pursued in Standard Operating Procedure. This conclusive curveball not only undermines Folman’s thesis and stubs out the strengths of his early emphases, but I suspect that this eleventh-hour departure was why the critic offered me a diabolical conclusion about war being “a little fiesta.”

While the Rest of You Dwell on the Olympics and John Edwards…

Times: “More than a thousand civilians were reported to have been killed and large parts of Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, were reduced to ruins as a conflict with potentially global repercussions erupted after months of rising tension. Georgia announced last night that it was withdrawing half of its 2,000 troops from Iraq as it ordered an all-out military mobilisation.”

1.2 Million Dead — You Are Responsible for This

Intellience Daily: “When those responsible for the American war in Iraq face a public reckoning for their colossal crimes, the weekend of September 15-16, 2007 will be an important piece of evidence against them. On Friday, September 14 there were brief press reports of a scientific survey by the British polling organization ORB, which resulted in an estimate of 1.2 million violent deaths in Iraq since the US invasion.”

1.2 million.

Think about that. That’s the entire population of Dallas. Or San Diego. Or San Antonio. Imagine. All wiped out.

If this isn’t genocide, I don’t know what is.

The only newspapers to report this figure were the Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe. Nothing whatsoever from The New York Times or the Washington Post.

I am sickened to be part of a country that doesn’t act to stop this carnage. That looks the other way. That doesn’t move to stop these barbarians. That doesn’t contemplate its own actions.

Report this figure. Tell others about this figure. Be reminded every day of this figure.

History will not judge Bush well. But I suspect it will judge us more harshly. 1.2 million? If this is even half-true, then we deserve everything we get because of our representative apathy. So what are we going to do? What are you going to do?

Christ

Sunday Times: “The Pentagon has drawn up plans for massive airstrikes against 1,200 targets in Iran, designed to annihilate the Iranians’ military capability in three days, according to a national security expert. Alexis Debat, director of terrorism and national security at the Nixon Center, said last week that US military planners were not preparing for ‘pinprick strikes’ against Iran’s nuclear facilities. ‘They’re about taking out the entire Iranian military,’ he said.”

…and now, the end is near…

…and so we face the final curtain, ha ha ha…

Thanks, Ed, for having us over. Send my people the clean-up bill.

Everyone else: Have a nice Memorial Day weekend, take a moment to remember the military dead, and why and how they got that way, and for what.

“In these bones you see what war is like. I know war now. I’ll tell you what it is. War is young men killing other young men they do not know on the orders of old men who know one another too well.”

Antoine Wilson out.

Today in Killer Robot Warfare

theterm3_2.jpgThe Register: “‘Team Warrior’, a killer robot manufacturing alliance led by General Atomics of San Diego, CA, announced yesterday that its Warrior Extended Range/Multi Purpose Unmanned Aerial Vehicle System (ERMP UAS) would enter production for the US Army, another step in the US forces’ ongoing effort to automate most military activities….The Warrior will carry a relatively limited weapons payload, typically a quartet of Hellfire II missiles. It will be able to destroy no more than four tanks or buildings before reloading. However, its new General Atomics stablemate, the evocatively-named MQ-9 ‘Reaper’ can manage up to a tonne and a half of varied ordnance, or as many as 14 Hellfires.”

More on the Waziristan Deal

Washington Post: “Under the pact, foreign fighters would have to leave North Waziristan or live peaceable lives if they remained. The militias would not set up a ‘parallel’ government administration.”

ABC News: “If he is in Pakistan, bin Laden ‘would not be taken into custody,’ Major General Shaukat Sultan Khan told ABC News in a telephone interview, ‘as long as one is being like a peaceful citizen.'”

India eNews: “Under the agreement, which is likely to be unveiled by the government next week, militant will halt all attacks on government officials and security forces, and the army ‘will not carry out operations against them,’ said an area intelligence official on condition of anonymity, the newspaper reported.”

Associated Press: “Under the deal, the militants are to halt attacks on Pakistani forces in the semiautonomous North Waziristan region and stop crossing into nearby eastern Afghanistan to attack U.S. and Afghan forces, who are hunting al-Qaida and Taliban forces there.”

Rolling Stone: “How’s the War on Terror going? Five years after 9/11, the mastermind of the attacks is still at large, the Talbian army that gave him a surrogate nation state from which to launch his attacks is now the law of the land in Northwest Pakistan, and as far as our erstwhile ally is concerned, bin Laden is welcome to make himself at home there?”

BBC: “Under the accord, the Pakistani military promises to end major operations in the area. It will pull most of its soldiers back to military camps, but will still operate border check-points. Over the summer the military met other conditions, releasing a number of tribesmen in an apparent goodwill gesture to the militants and withdrawing soldiers from new check-posts.”

Guardian: “In 2004, the Pakistan army killed 70 people in south Waziristan, claiming they were foreign militants with links to al-Qaida. Within weeks it emerged that those killed were all local tribesman. Each time Musharraf has visited the US, or a senior US official has visited Pakistan, security forces always capture or kill some “high-value” al-Qaida target. When George Bush visited Pakistan he was given a special gift: in the name of the war on terror, the security forces killed 140 tribesmen.”

New York Times: “Meanwhile, one of the Taliban’s savviest military commanders, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and his sons operate out of Miramshah, the capital of the North Waziristan Province. From there, they run operations in Kabul and the eastern Afghan regions of Khost, Logar, Paktia and Paktika.”

Who Holds Bush Guilty?

George Bush, September 26, 2001: “…it’s also a war that declares a new declaration, that says if you harbor a terrorist you’re just as guilty as the terrorist; if you provide safe haven to a terrorist, you’re just as guilty as the terrorist; if you fund a terrorist, you’re just as guilty as a terrorist.”

Bush, August 31, 2006: “…we have made it clear to all nations, if you harbor terrorists, you are just as guilty as the terrorists; you’re an enemy of the United States, and you will be held to account.”

Mercury News, September 1, 2006: “The United States reportedly has spent more than $1 billion underwriting the border fight, but when the military failed to crush the separatists, the Bush administration agreed to support Pakistan’s truce-making efforts and pledged millions of dollars in additional aid. The truces between Pakistan’s military and the separatists have coincided with rising violence against civilians and increased attacks by the Taliban in four Afghan provinces along the Pakistani border, according to a United Nations-run security-monitoring program that Western diplomats consider highly reliable…..Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his top aides have charged repeatedly that Musharraf’s regime is supporting the Taliban, harboring their leaders and allowing them to maintain training camps and supply bases in Pakistan.”

RELATED CLIP: ABC News.

By the way, the last time Pakistan cut a deal in Waziristan with the Taliban in 2004, violence broke out in Azam Warsak. Pakistan, as we all know, is a nuclear power.

Get ready for Cold War II! Woo hoo! At the very least, we’ll get a whole bunch of creepy nuclear holocaust movies like we did in the ’80’s.

Journalistic Kids These Days

David Halberstam on Iraq: “Halberstam, who has written about other presidential administrations and war decisions, isn’t sure he will write about Iraq. ‘Part of me wants younger people to write it,’ yet there is the challenge of figuring out ‘how we have gotten it so wrong and why the Democrats behaved so poorly,’ he said.”

This is a good point. Where are today’s David Halberstams? Why is Seymour Hersh digging up all the dirt (again) while the Believer staffers devote their precious resources to Modest Mouse? For that matter, while this is a start, if Ben Kunkel is hot shit and n+1 represents a new world order, why isn’t he in Tehran right now digging up dirt?

Well, That Didn’t Go Very Well, Did It?

From this morning’s press conference with President Bush:

THE PRESIDENT: Part of that meant to make sure that we didn’t allow people to provide safe haven to an enemy. And that’s why I went into Iraq — hold on for a second —

Q They didn’t do anything to you, or to our country.

THE PRESIDENT: Look — excuse me for a second, please. Excuse me for a second. They did. The Taliban provided safe haven for al Qaeda. That’s where al Qaeda trained —

Q I’m talking about Iraq —

THE PRESIDENT: Helen, excuse me. That’s where — Afghanistan provided safe haven for al Qaeda. That’s where they trained. That’s where they plotted. That’s where they planned the attacks that killed thousands of innocent Americans.

I also saw a threat in Iraq. I was hoping to solve this problem diplomatically. That’s why I went to the Security Council; that’s why it was important to pass 1441, which was unanimously passed. And the world said, disarm, disclose, or face serious consequences —

Q — go to war —

THE PRESIDENT: — and therefore, we worked with the world, we worked to make sure that Saddam Hussein heard the message of the world. And when he chose to deny inspectors, when he chose not to disclose, then I had the difficult decision to make to remove him. And we did, and the world is safer for it.

Q Thank you, sir. Secretary Rumsfeld — (laughter.)

Other mysteries: 1. Did the hand gestures confuse Bush? 2. Who is “the new guy?” 3. The next time anyone asks me a tough question, can I say “I’ve got lunch with the President of Liberia right now” to get out of it?

Even More Abu Ghraib Photos

Carrie and others have alerted me to this Salon article (specifically, this archive) of additional cruelties being meted out on Iraqi prisoners, captured by photographs.

Richard Nash writes in to let me know about David Griffith’s A Good War is Hard to Find, a book of essays written in the spirit of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others. Sontag’s original New York Times Magazine piece can be found here. Near the end of her life, Sontag wrote:

The pictures will not go away. That is the nature of the digital world in which we live. Indeed, it seems they were necessary to get our leaders to acknowledge that they had a problem on their hands. After all, the conclusions of reports compiled by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other reports by journalists and protests by humanitarian organizations about the atrocious punishments inflicted on ”detainees” and ”suspected terrorists” in prisons run by the American military, first in Afghanistan and later in Iraq, have been circulating for more than a year. It seems doubtful that such reports were read by President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney or Condoleezza Rice or Rumsfeld. Apparently it took the photographs to get their attention, when it became clear they could not be suppressed; it was the photographs that made all this ”real” to Bush and his associates. Up to then, there had been only words, which are easier to cover up in our age of infinite digital self-reproduction and self-dissemination, and so much easier to forget.

The pictures will not go away. But don’t tell that to the major U.S. media outlets. As I write this, no mention of these photos can be found anywhere on the main websites of The Washington Post, the New York Times (save this Associated Press article about Iraqi officials urging calm, as if one is supposed to react to this savagery as if one has just perused a mildly scandalous article), the Los Angeles Times, CNN, and MSNBC. At a time in which journalists should be asking questions about how extant these cruelties are and how frequently they run, at a time in which they should be speculating on how this will irrevocably alter our perception among Muslims, they remain stone-deaf, when it is clear with these new images that what we saw before was a watered down run of the real horrors. Much as the Danish cartoons were kept from the public in order to “protect,” this wholesale blackout and the encouragement here not to discuss or vent or begin any sort of discourse coming to terms with the divisiveness that suspends invisible in the air is supposed to “protect” us from what’s really going on. We are supposed to keep our heads in the sand and keep our four ventricles beating at a healthy, low-carb pace. But don’t worry. There’s Häagen-Dazs in the freezer for desert!

I’m amazed at the audacity of anyone having the temerity to tell us how to think and feel, as if the Iraqi population, seeing their peers treated like animals, and the American public, seeing their soldiers commit ineffable barbarities, are inchoate herds of sheep. The whole point of being a functioning adult member of American society is to question everything, especially one’s own viewpoints and especially the entreaties that come from the top tiers, Republican and Democrat.

More Abu Ghraib Photos

Here. These were, of course, kept secret from the public. Disgusting. Definitely NSFW. I’m ashamed to be American. And I think I’m going to roll into a ball. Because if these photos don’t get America horrified, I don’t know what will.

NPR, of course, is silent about these images this morning.

I’m looking at CNN’s website and there’s a tiny link to the right when this should be the top story.

Nothing at the Washington Post or the New York Times. Or even my hometown paper, the San Francisco Chronicle.

In short, the American media is thoroughly bought and paid for at a time when Americans absolutely need to bear witness to the inhumane and cruel actions that Americans — yes, that would be us — have inflicted upon the Iraqi people. They need to understand that these images were kept from them by a government all too determined to “protect” them from the knowledge that war is well beyond hell.

I can’t imagine what kind of atavistic asshole you have to be to turn away and ignore these images and walk into work with that bullshit skip in your stride, that Starbucks cup in your hand, and say to yourself just how great it is to be an American.

[UPDATE: Transcript from Australian news program containing more details on the video and link to video itself. Utterly atavistic. (Thanks for the lead, Tayari!)]

[UPDATE 2: Brian Sawyer writes in to note that the images are now the front-page story on CNN and Google News. The San Francisco Chronicle? A Valentine’s Day pillow fight at the Ferry Building is apparently more important than these new photos. See screenshot below.]

chronicleshame.jpg

Conversation from Deep Within the Pentagon — Last Night

HANK: All these millions of dollars they’re giving us.
HAL: Billions, Hank. Billions.
HANK: Alright, billions.
HAL: I understand, Hank. It’s hard to maintain a little humility around here. But don’t forget. We’re living in a golden age. I hope you’re taking advantage of the masseuse.
HANK: Well, you take any chance you get. Hey, speaking of which, you want to see the new toy that just came in?
HAL: You mean, that $3 million weapon that will allow us to kill those Iraqis ten times faster?
HANK: Even better. Stuff for the Homeland. Special ordered, since they’re not buying our orange alerts anymore. This little baby will throw funny lights into the air. In fact, let’s fuck with California right now.
HAL: New Age exercise freaks. Fifth largest economy.
HANK: I know, but here’s the thing. Many of these Californians, particularly those in the southern region, are stupid enough to believe in lights. Watch this. I guarantee we’ll get a small cult and a Chronicle article out of it. You know Mt. Davidson?
HAL: That mountain with the big cross. From Dirty Harry?
HANK: Yeah, that’s the one. Well, since those San Franciscans have stopped believing in God, let’s put the General’s lessons to the test.
HAL: You got video on this?
HANK: Yup. See that kid with the frightened expression on his face? Well, he’s got a camera and he’ll be sending this into the newspapers. Maybe the kid’s an agnostic. But he’ll be believing something in the morning.
HAL: Is this ethical?
HANK: Who cares about ethics? We’re at war here.
HAL: Tell a lie often enough, flash a light frequent enough, and they’ll believe anything.
HANK: Hell, they can believe anything they want to. Just so long as they’re shitting their pants on a regular basis. Anything to keep our citizens under control. We need these safeguards right now because they’re starting to doubt Our Leader. So why not host a banquet of fear?
HAL: Serves 300 million, eh, Hank?
HANK: Intelligent Design. Accept no substitute.
HAL: You know what the best part about this is, Hank?
HANK: What?
HAL: We don’t have to confirm anything.

No, Ari, It’s What Called Thinking Outside a Unilateral Political Paradigm

Ari Fleischer: “If you allow those who are the most vocal and most antagonistic to get a meeting with the president for fear that publicity will hurt you if you don’t, you’re creating incentives for your critics to become even more antagonistic and more vocal.”

This is the uncivilized and inflexible approach to diplomacy that these goons specialize in. The truth is that they won’t meet with Cindy Sheehan because they’re scared and they know of no other way to communicate other than silently nodding their heads with all the humanity of a gunmetal grade school bookshelf.

[UPDATE: And while we’re on the subject, only a real president would actually visit my beautiful city. Certainly not this bozo.]

Esquire — Blowing the Same Old War Trumpet

The July 2005 issue of Esquire celebrated “10 Men” — presumably, ideal men that other men (read: that pivotal 18-34 male demographic) can look up to. What was perhaps most shocking about this dubious fete was Thomas P.M. Barnett’s masturbatory article, “Old Man in a Hurry,” a profile that set aside any and all criticisms of the Secretary of Defense for such passages as:

RUMSFELD POPS OUT of his chair with the speed of the weekly squash player he still is at age seventy-three and strides over to shake my hand with a big, welcoming smile on his face, employing the enthusiastic, familiar tone one associates with longtime acquaintances. “Hey, how are ya? Nice to see ya!” I’m surprised by how short he is, as I can look right over his head.

and

This is a room you smoke cigars in and decide the fate of the free world.

and, in describing a conversation with a general

Then the general clinches the deal. “So I’ve finally figured out why we get along so well,” he says. “We’ve both run with the bulls at Pamplona!” Rumsfeld shrieks in delight and then launches into a fifteen-minute reverie about the time he ran with the bulls. And for fifteen glorious minutes, he put away the goddamn wire brush.

This cuddly avuncular approach, which makes no reference to Abu Grhaib or Guantanmo Bay, is rather astonishing for a magazine that cut its teeth in the 1960s on hard-hitting journalism that dared to expose and penetrate. And I, for one, will soon be writing a letter canceling my subscription for such a disgraceful piece of journalism.

What’s particularly interesting is that the writer of this article, Thomas P.M. Barnett, has a blog. What’s interesting is that rather than atoning for his inability to throw a baseball faster than a amicable lob, Barnett (who, no surprise, has kids to feed, making dealing with the devil more justifiable) has written a post expressing surprise that his efforts would be greeted with such outrage. He concludes, “I wanted to write up Rumsfeld in the way I saw him in history for the transformation process he has unleashed, not simply replicate the hundreds of articles that blame him for Iraq. My choice? Yes. Don’t like it? Fine. But criticize the choice without implying that the only way the man can get a profile that doesn’t crucify him is for the journalist to be fooled.”

Fair enough. But as Norman Solomon has argued, the overall questions to Rumsfeld haven’t exactly been hardball. In fact, as FAIR reports, during a September 18, 2002 interview with Donald Rumsfeld, Jim Lehrer failed to call Rumsfeld on factually inaccurate statements. And as Salon reported last December, it took ordinary soldiers to ask the tough questions that journalists typically shied away from.

It would seem to me that Barnett, far from taking the hard alternative route, settled for the same old song. And if Barnett, with his continued fatherly references to “the old man,” genuinely believes that he wasn’t fooled, why the deliberate efforts to portray this seventy-three year old man as some virile squash player? Why the continued masculine assertions? Why nothing in the way of tough questions?

There’s an old Chinese proverb: “He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever.”

“Death by Asphyxia” is the New “Shot While Trying to Escape”

Washington Post: “Two days before, a secret CIA-sponsored group of Iraqi paramilitaries, working with Army interrogators, had beaten Mowhoush nearly senseless, using fists, a club and a rubber hose, according to classified documents. The sleeping bag was the idea of a soldier who remembered how his older brother used to force him into one, and how scared and vulnerable it made him feel. Senior officers in charge of the facility near the Syrian border believed that such ‘claustrophobic techniques’ were approved ways to gain information from detainees, part of what military regulations refer to as a ‘fear up’ tactic, according to military court documents.”