The Most Decisive Battle of World War II?

 | 

World War II was a messy affair. In spite of its perception as “the good war,” for some prospective combatants picking a side before all hell broke loose required intense political calculation. Alliances just before, during, and immediately after the war were fluidly tenuous.

The decade before the war’s outbreak presaged the muddle. The Spanish Civil War pitted — by proxy — the recently established Italo-German coalition against Russia in a classic ideological struggle. Italy’s incursions into Africa, on the other hand, were purely hegemonic grabs for colonial territory. In the Far East the situation was more complicated. In 1931, Japan grabbed Manchuria for its natural resources. In 1937, when Japan invaded the rest of China, both Germany and Russia squared off against it by supplying arms and essentials to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government. The United States, which supplied 80% of Japan’s oil imports and most of its steel, continued to do so.

Hitler considered Britain a natural ally, while Britain despised the Bolsheviks. Stalin despised the western democracies and the fascists equally, negotiating for an alliance with both camps right up to the day of the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Non-Aggression Pact on August 23, 1939 — which was only three days before Hitler’s planned invasion of Poland (delayed for six days by the signing of the Anglo-Polish mutual defense pact).

The muddle continued even after Hitler invaded Poland. Two weeks later, when Russia invaded Poland,Edward Raczyński, Polish ambassador to Britain — citing their mutual defense pact — appealed to Britain to declare war on the Soviet Union. Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax responded with hostility, stating that it was Britain's decision whether to declare war (a moot point, as a secret protocol of the pact identified only Germany as a prospective aggressor). Six weeks later, when Russia invaded Finland and the latter — out of necessity — allied itself with Germany, being unable to muster aid from the western democracies, Britain debated declaring war on Finland. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed.

As to Japan and Germany, their alliance was more a marriage of convenience than a pairing of soulmates. For one, Germany resented having to cede its New Guinea colony to Japan after World War I and besides Berlin’s aid to China, the Japanese rejected Hitler’s racial policies, going so far as to declare publicly that Jews were not a problem. The Führer, in an uncharacteristic backtrack, announced, “I have never regarded the Chinese or the Japanese as being inferior to ourselves. They belong to ancient civilizations, and I admit freely that their past history is superior to our own. They have the right to be proud of their past, just as we have the right to be proud of the civilization to which we belong. Indeed, I believe the more steadfast the Chinese and the Japanese remain in their pride of race, the easier I shall find it to get on with them.”It wasn’t until November of 1939 — three months after Hitler’s invasion of Poland — that the two signed a cooperation pact, and nearly a year later before Japan joined the Italo-German Axis in the Tripartite Pact.

Britain debated declaring war on Finland. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed.

Russo-Japanese relations were awful and getting worse. Immediately following the Russian Revolution, Japan had unsuccessfully contributed 70,000 troops to the Anglo-American effort to overthrow the Bolsheviks. Then, in 1905, the Japanese decisively defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. By 1937, Japan was eyeing Siberia as a natural extension of its Manchurian and Chinese incursions. Stalin treated the island kingdom gingerly.

With Europe on the brink of war, his worst nightmare was the prospect of a two-front conflict. Japan did not reciprocate: it hated the Bolsheviks. Much of its contempt was caused by Stalin’s purges, which had castrated the Red Army. On June 12, 1937, Marshal Mikhail Tukachevsky, the guiding spirit behind the modernized Soviet army, together with seven other high-ranking generals, was shot. Stuart Goldman, author of Nomonhan, 1939, elaborates,

Of the five marshals of the Red Army, three were shot, as were all eleven deputy commissars for defense. Seventy-eight of the eighty members of the Military Collegium perished. Every military district commander was liquidated, as were the heads of the Army Political Administration and the Frunze Military Academy. Of the fifteen army commanders, only two survived. Fifty-seven out of eighty-five corps commanders were shot, as were 110 of the 195 division commanders. At the brigade level, only 220 of the 406 colonels survived. In the Soviet Far Eastern forces the attrition rate was even higher, with 80% of the staff being removed in one way or another. According to some sources, between one-fourth and one-third of the entire officer corps was executed, or discharged within a period of eighteen months.

To the Japanese government, by now controlled by the military, the annihilation of the Soviet professional officer corps was heretical — and an open invitation to invade Siberia.

* * *

While the regimes of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin are well known and understood, Japan’s descent into military dictatorship and war was an enigma wrapped in a snowball set rolling by circumstance, without any one charismatic character leading the way.

During the last half of the 19th century, Japan had developed a parliamentary democracy under an emperor — revered to the point of veneration — as head of state. The Great Depression, which hit Japan early, in 1927, strained operations of government, already in disrepute because of widespread corruption, nearly to the breaking point. Frustrated by the Diet’s ineffectiveness, the military’s officer class dove into politics and pushed for decisive action — despite both an imperial prohibition and traditional samuraicustom. They held a trump card. As Goldman recounts, “An Imperial Ordinance dating back to 1900 stipulated that the army and navy ministers must be active-duty generals and admirals. Either service could thus cause the government to fall simply by withdrawing its service minister and refusing to put forward a replacement. By the late 1930’s, this expedient effectively brought civilian government under military control. Before long, generals and admirals themselves headed the government.”

For Japan, many factors, including both gekokujo — literally, “rule from below” — and bushido — “the way of the warrior” — produced a perfect storm. The government’s inability to deal effectively with the deteriorating economic situation was aggravated by Prime Minister Hamaguchi Osachi’s ratification of the London Naval Treaty of 1930. By this treaty, Japan accepted a ratio of 10:10:6 for American, British and Japanese heavy cruisers respectively — in spite of vehement opposition by the Navy General Staff, the Supreme War Council, the major opposition party, the Privy Council, countless nationalist societies, and much of the popular press. Six weeks afterward, Hamaguchi was assassinated. This was the first of a series of murderous assaults and coup attempts that prompted an American journalist to characterize the situation as “government by assassination.”

The Führer, in an uncharacteristic backtrack, announced, “I have never regarded the Chinese or the Japanese as being inferior to ourselves.”

Gekokujo is a Japanese concept that encourages action, initiative, and even principled disobedience in the application of moral ideals — especially if those ideals derive from bushido, Shinto, or Buddhism. It became the driving motivation for the political upheavals of 1930’s Japan. Coupled with another Japanese custom, that of considering direct orders an impropriety — a practice to which even commanding officers adhered — it became a justification for subordinates to ignore superiors’ “orders” (which, grammatically, were structured as “suggestions”), and act as they saw fit. While the top brass controlled the government, gekokujo controlled the lower ranks in a negative feedback loop that aggravated every contingency beyond anyone’s control.

* * *

The battle of Khalkhin Gol (Khalkhin River) — known in Japanese as the Nomonhan Incident — was a direct consequence of gekokujo. It wasone of the largest battles of World War II, and perhaps the most decisive one — except that it technically did not take place during World War II, or between declared combatants. It is the subject of Stuart D. Goldman’s Nomonhan, 1939: The Red Army’s Victory that Shaped World War II. Though based on a PhD. dissertation, it is a splendid book, gripping and well researched. It anticipates every question a reader might have, and answers it with context — a quality not uniformly present in historical narration.

Goldman sets the stage with an analysis of the global geopolitical calculus before the war, explores each country’s constantly adjusting foreign policy, then zeroes in on why Soviet-Japanese relations led to the conflict at Khalkhin River. The undeclared war — a series of confrontations spread over two years, involving nearly 150,000 personnel, and culminating in a massive battle near the village of Nomonhan — is brilliantly laid out, from the diplomatic to-and-fros, to battlefield minutiae, to individual soldier’s anecdotes, to follow-ups of the principal and minor characters during WWII and afterward (with Georgy Zhukov, later to become Marshal of the Soviet Union, Chief of the General Staff and Supreme Commander of Soviet forces, to the fore).

By 1937, Japan’s Kwantung Army, which in 1932 had conquered and occupied Manchuria (renamed Manchukuo), was bored and feeling its oats. In the interim, Japan’s Army General Staff (AGS) had been contemplating whether to extend the Manchukuo salient into Siberia, conquer the rest of China, or move south into Indochina. In June 1937, Kwantung took the initiative. Without notifying the AGS, it undertook a series of provocations along the Soviet-Manchukuoan border in an attempt to settle by force previously unsettled minor border alignment issues, with an eye to testing Soviet military resolve and gaining honor. The AGS had decided on a full-scale invasion of China proper, which it duly launched the following month. Faced with Kwantung’s provocation, the AGS was of two minds, and temporized. The result was a two-front war. Japan didn’t want that war, but still thought it could contain it if it played its diplomatic cards with the USSR adroitly.

Japan’s descent into military dictatorship and war was an enigma wrapped in a snowball set rolling by circumstance.

But Kwantung Army thought it knew better. Instead of heeding the AGS’s orders for restraint — phrased as suggestions — it escalated its thrusts into Soviet-dominated Mongolia. The deck was stacked against Stalin. Though the Soviet Far Eastern forces numbered half a million men, they were spread over a remote area two-thirds the size of the continental US, and hobbled by poor support and transport, including more than 400 miles of trackless terrain between Nomonhan and the nearest railhead (at Borzya in Siberia). Worst of all, the purges had demoralized the Soviet army. Kwantung Army, on the other hand, though numbering only 220,000 men, was bursting with pride and martial spirit from its recent victories, and was concentrated nearby, well-supplied by the South Manchurian Railway’s salient, which reached almost all the way to Nomonhan, yet was close enough to Japan to be reinforced quickly.

On June 1, 1939, Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov, a young deputy commander in Minsk, received an urgent phone call summoning him to a meeting with Kliment Voroshilov, Commissar for Defense. Zhukov betrayed no sign of apprehension at the possibility of joining the ranks of the disappeared. He was a bull: stout, blunt, crude, and short-tempered; given to drink, accordion playing, and convivial singing; overbearing but exceptionally brave. He was one of the few to survive multiple disagreements with Stalin, and he had a reputation as a man who could get things done. He was also — before the German blitzkrieg — an early proponent of tank warfare, a technique first used during the Spanish Civil War but discontinued because of its ineffectiveness in that conflict’s urban and guerrilla theaters. Khalkin Gol, on the open plains of Mongolia, was a better laboratory. Voroshilov ordered Zhukov to take command of the First Soviet Mongolian Army Group and contain the Japanese incursions.

Zhukov amassed a fleet of 4,200 vehicles to ferry troops and materiel from the railhead at Borzya to Tamsag Bulak, a small village within striking distance of the battlefield. The trucks moved only at night, with their lights blacked out. Meanwhile, to ensure tactical surprise for the Soviet attack, Zhukov concocted an elaborate ruse, setting up a sophisticated sound system between Tamsag Bulak and the battlefield to simulate the noises of tank and aircraft engines and of heavy construction. This long, loud nightly performance was meant to give credence to the false messages (in easily decipherable code, and meant to be intercepted) referring to the construction of defensive positions in preparation for a prolonged autumn and winter ground-holding campaign.

At first, the Japanese were fooled, and fired in the general direction of the loudspeakers. After a few nights, however, they realized it was only sound effects, became accustomed to the nightly “serenade,” and tried to ignore it. On the eve of the Soviet offensive, the sounds of actual pre-attack staging — which included bridges across the Halha River (Khalkhin Gol), deceptively built about 10 inches underwater, so they couldn’t be seen — went largely unnoticed by the Japanese.

Zhukov’s attack was preceded by an artillery and bombing barrage that no one, anywhere, at any time, had ever experienced. At one point — for three solid hours — an average of two heavy artillery rounds per second rained continuously on the Japanese positions. By the third day of this saturating fire, Japanese soldiers, who already had a reputation for superhuman endurance and never surrendering, were going insane. On August 20, Zhukov’s cavalry — tanks and infantry — charged. By August 31, Zhukov had declared the disputed territory cleared of enemy troops.

Zhukov was one of the few to survive multiple disagreements with Stalin, and he had a reputation as a man who could get things done.

The Soviet victory was absolute. Japanese casualties totaled 48,000; Soviet casualties, 26,000 — a very reasonable ratio. Nevertheless, the Red Army was gaining a reputation for troop attrition. Zhukov did not flinch from incurring heavy casualties to achieve his objectives. After the war, he told General Eisenhower, “If we come to a minefield, our infantry attack exactly as if it were not there. The losses we get from personnel mines we consider only equal to those we would have gotten . . . if the (enemy) had chosen to defend the area with strong bodies of troops instead of mine fields.” In the Winter War against Finland — a scant three months later — Russian techniques for crossing mined territory had been refined. Lacking, or eschewing, conventional sappers, Soviet commanders would deploy a single line of infantrymen, elbows interlocked, backed by NKVD snipers, across the mined field — singing patriotic songs to steel their courage.

* * *

Goldman argues that the consequences of the Soviet victory at Nomonhan reached far beyond Mongolia: from Tokyo to the Battle of Moscow and to Pearl Harbor. The timing of the Khalkhin Gol defeat coincided with the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. The Japanese felt betrayed and diplomatically isolated. Defeated by the Red Army and deserted by Hitler, the government of Premier Hiranuma Kiichiro abruptly resigned.

In spite of Zhukov’s decisive victory, Stalin didn’t trust the Japanese — and with good reason. Like the Black Night in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, Kwantung Army was dismembered but foamingly rabid, raring to mount a full invasion of Siberia to regain lost face and honor. It went so far as to notify AGS to “kindly be prepared to mobilize the entire Japanese Army to engage in the decisive struggle against the USSR in the spring.” So Stalin reinforced Soviet Far Eastern Forces with 1.6 million men.

But the top brass at AGS had learned their lesson. They not only decapitated Kwantung’s command; they decided to phrase orders as “orders,” instructing Kwantung to assume a strictly defensive posture. And they reassessed imperial objectives. The thrust north into Siberia was shelved; instead, they set their sights on Indochina as a possible venue for breaking the increasingly stalemated China war by opening up a southern front against Chiang Kai-shek. This decision, logical in the short term, proved the Axis’ ultimate undoing.

It took nearly a year for all the contributing factors to fall into place. For one, Japan hadn’t yet joined the Axis (and wouldn’t for another year). Additionally, it took some time to convince Stalin that Japan was no longer a threat — in spite of his having a spy, Richard Sorge, in the highest levels of the Japanese government. How a Caucasian infiltrated the extremely ethnocentric Japanese high command is another story; but he did, and his intelligence was of the highest caliber. Very slowly, Stalin came to realize that Japan would not be a threat to his eastern flank.

His first move came two weeks after Zhukov’s victory, with the signing of the Molotov-Togo truce, terminating hostilities at Nomonhan. The reason Stalin didn’t invade Poland in conjunction with German forces was that he was waiting for a resolution at Khalkhin Gol. It wasn’t until the day after the cease-fire went into effect at that location that he gave the Red Army the go-ahead to grab eastern Poland. Finally, a year and eight months later, in April of 1941, Japan and the Soviet Union signed a neutrality pact.

Two months later, in June 1941, Hitler invaded the USSR, a move that took Stalin completely by surprise — but which Zhukov had predicted. By late summer, the German army was threatening Moscow. Stalin took a do-or-die stance: he entrenched himself in the capital, declaring that he was “going to hold Moscow at all costs”. As Averell Harriman, US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, later stated, recalling a conversation with Stalin, if Moscow — the nerve center of the USSR — fell, the Soviet Union would likely have capitulated.

“By early autumn, some Western military experts were predicting the collapse of Soviet military resistance within a matter of weeks,” Goldman states. Then, in September, Sorge reported that Japan would “absolutely” not attack Siberia. Only then did the Soviet High Command transfer the bulk of the 1.6 million men stationed in Siberia from east to west for the defense of Moscow. By December 1, German forces were only 12 miles away. It was then that “the Siberians” came to the rescue.

On December 5, Zhukov, who had been put in charge of the Odessa Military District after Khalkhin Gol and was now in charge of the defense of Moscow, launched a massive counteroffensive, spearheaded by the Far Eastern reinforcements. He threw the Germans back about 100 miles and held them there through the winter. It was the first Soviet success since the German invasion.

One day later, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

For Goldman, these two events — direct consequences of the Battle of Khalkhin Gol — were the turning point of the war, rather than the Battle of Stalingrad (February 1943). He connects the dots between Khalkhin Gol and Pearl Harbor in this way: in July 1941, while the Germans were blitzing toward Moscow, Japan invaded Indochina — as per the AGS’s post-Khalkhin Gol plan. In response, the US and Britain cut all oil sales to Japan, over 80% of which came from the Anglo-Americans and their allies. The embargo was meant to stop the Japanese war machine; and it would have gone further, throttling the entire Japanese economy. To the Japanese, this was intolerable. The closest oil source was in the Dutch East Indies, modern day Indonesia. But they believed that if they attacked Indonesia, the US would enter the war. So, against the judgment of many of their senior commanders — based on the estimate that US industrial strength dwarfed Japan’s by a factor of 10:1 — AGS decided on a preemptive strike against the US fleet. It was a decision that one Japanese general presciently termed suicidal. The rest, as they say, is history.

* * *

Josef Stalin was the only major WWII combatant to avoid a two-front war. Throughout the first years of the war he’d badgered his allies to invade Europe, and at the February 1945 Yalta conference he, in turn, was pressured to declare war on Japan. He agreed to do so, but only three months after Germany's capitulation. This would allow him several months to transfer sufficient Red Army forces from Europe to the Far East.

At midnight August 8, exactly three months after VE day, and two days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Stalin delivered: the Red Army launched a massive invasion of Manchukuo — against Kwantung Army.

Many perceived Stalin’s move as a cynical grab for spoils. But at Yalta, Stalin had been unaware of the Los Alamos efforts; the war against Japan was nowhere near concluded; and his commitment to open up a Siberian front was a substantial undertaking, made in good faith. After Hiroshima, however, he did take advantage of the situation, trying to reclaim territory lost to Japan in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War — principally, Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands. Though Emperor Hirohito, on August 15, “ordered” (again, phrased in an oblique manner) Japan’s surrender, the Soviet advance continued down Manchuria, into Korea, and across to the off-lying islands. Some 600,000 Japanese troops surrendered and were marched north into the Gulag.

On September 2 Japan formally surrendered. Japan later concluded separate peace treaties with all the victors except the Soviet Union. There has been no formal peace treaty between Japan and the USSR or its successor, the Russian Federation. Russia’s occupation of the Southern Kuriles continues to poison relations between the two countries.

* * *

The Japanese Army General Staff’s decapitation of Kwantung Army did not dampen gekokujo or bushido. These qualities merely spread and entrenched themselves further. Kwantung’s high command had been punished with only slaps on the wrist: transfers and early retirement — no court martials. Mid-level commanders stayed put or were transferred.

Throughout the war Japanese soldiers gained a reputation for fanaticism, for never surrendering, and for suicide attacks. Even after Hirohito’s “order” of capitulation, a radio announcer tried to clarify: the emperor’s message actually meant that Japan was surrendering. But Imperial General Headquarters did not immediately transmit a cease-fire order. When it did, some thought it was a call for further sacrifice; others did not understand it or ignored it.

Japan concluded separate peace treaties with all the victors except the Soviet Union. There has been no formal peace treaty between Japan and the USSR or its successor, the Russian Federation.

Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda exemplified Japanese moral values. (On Onoda, see his No Surrender: My Thirty-year War, Kodansha International Ltd, 1974 — another good book.) He was stationed on Lubang Island in the Philippines in 1944. Onoda's orders stated that under no circumstances was he to surrender or take his own life. So he held out, and held out, and held out. Thirty years later, on February of 1974, Norio Suzuki, a Japanese adventurer on a quest for Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order, discovered him, befriended him, and urged him to come home. Onoda refused, citing his orders.

When Suzuki returned to Japan, he contacted Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, Onoda's commanding officer — by then a bookseller. When Taniguchi finally found Onoda, he couldn’t convince him to give up his position until he phrased his mission as an order following strict military protocol. Onoda came in from the heat on March 9, 1974. As of 2012, Hiroo Onoda is still alive and living in Brazil.


Editor's Note: Review of "Nomonhan, 1939," by Stuart D. Goldman. Naval Institute Press, 2012, 226 pages.



Share This


Teenage Wasteland

 | 

Author Shirley Jackson was doing errands in her Vermont village, pushing her daughter in a baby stroller, when the germ of her alarming short story "The Lottery" (1948) came into her mind. Two hours later, it was written. Three weeks after that, it was published in The New Yorker. All that summer long she received critical letters from horrified readers. And for the past 50 years it has been anthologized and discussed as one of the most chilling and profound American short stories of the 20th century.

I mention this at the beginning of my review of The Hunger Games because there are many similarities in the two stories’ themes. Set in a seemingly ordinary rural community, "The Lottery" is about the not-so-ordinary ritual of selecting one person each year to be stoned to death as the community scapegoat. "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon," one village elder remarks as the community gathers for the stoning ritual.

In Hunger Games, set in a dystopian future, one boy and one girl from each of 12 "districts" is selected, also by lottery, to be sent to the municipal capital to participate in a televised gladiator-like fight to the death. In this case, the purpose is not to appease the god of the harvest but to control the masses through a combination of fear and hope. They have been convinced by government propaganda that the Games will purge them of violence, prevent the ravages of war, and increase productivity. But really the Games are designed to make everyone complacent and obedient.

The Hunger Games, based on the popular trilogy by Suzanne Collins, opened to eager crowds who couldn't wait to see it. My local theater offered the midnight screening in a whopping 18 of its 20 screens, and avid crowds were lining up at 6 pm. Many of them were mothers with children. You might wonder: Why would any parents allow their children to read a book or watch a movie in which children must kill children? For that matter, why would anyone but a pervert want to watch 24 children fight it out in a kill-or-be-killed arena? What is The Hunger Games’ appeal?

In this case, the purpose is not to appease the god of the harvest but to control the masses through a combination of fear and hope.

Obviously, there is more to these books than the competition. In responding to initial criticism of "The Lottery," Jackson wrote, "I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives." Reading the Hunger Games trilogy, one can't help but see this same theme and message about pointless violence and general inhumanity. Collins uses violence to make a plea for nonviolence.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Everdeen), the likable 16-year-old heroine, is the virtual breadwinner for her widowed mother and 12-year-old sister, Primrose (Willow Shields). Noble and resourceful, Katniss is accustomed to taking risks and making sacrifices for her family. She regularly slips out beyond the district perimeter to hunt for game (a capital offense), which she trades for other goods. She is a generous and honorable young woman who instinctively rebels against tyranny and injustice, but who would never hurt anyone intentionally. Nevertheless, when Katniss impulsively volunteers to take her sister's place when Primrose's name is called as a contestant, she understands that she will have to use her hunting skills to kill other children in order to survive the Games. 

Many who have not read Collins’ books have expressed shock and dismay that she would have children aged 12–18 engaged in her fictional battle. But despite the gruesome subject, there is nothing gratuitously violent or graphic in these books, or in the movie. They are tense and exciting, and they are made more so by the underlying hint of metaphorical truth. Is it such a stretch to imagine a society that would send its children to die in battle while adults stay home and watch it on TV? For over a decade the American government drafted 18-year-olds to fight a war far from home that had very little to do with our own security. Like the children in The Hunger Games, these teens had no voice in the matter; until 1971, they weren't allowed to vote in federal elections. Even with an "all-volunteer army," most of today's recruits are still barely out of their teens.

Similarly, in The Hunger Games wealthy families can protect their children by paying poorer families to take their spots in the drawings in exchange for money or food. As a result, Katniss' name is written on at least a dozen cards in the drawing, and her friend Gale's is written on 42. This is clearly a reminder that the children of wealthier families were able to avoid the draft during the Vietnam era by going to college, while children of poorer families could not afford that option.

Like Jackson, Collins clearly intended to demonstrate the dehumanizing effect of war. Unfortunately, the film's producers seem to have lacked the courage to make this same point on screen. Perhaps worried about the R-rating that a true adaptation would have earned, the film version softens the hunt by stereotyping the characters into two distinct types. Katniss never kills anyone except as a reflex, and always in self-defense. The people she does kill are carefully presented as nasty bullies and gang members, thereby justifying her actions, because she is ridding the world of bad guys.

Moreover, actress Jennifer Lawrence is 21, not 16, largely negating the effect of children being forced to kill children. This creation of good guys and bad guys destroys the message about the brutalizing nature of war, and blunts the powerful idea that these are children who might otherwise have played together and become friends had they not been forced into battle by their government.

Is it such a stretch to imagine a society that would send its children to die in battle while adults stay home and watch it on TV?

Similarly, Haymitch, the battle mentor from District 12 (Woody Harrelson) is presented as a detached, antisocial drunk. He is a former winner in the Hunger Games and thus has been assigned to help prepare Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the boy from her district, for the battle. What's missing from the movie is the reason Haymitch drinks: in order for him to win the Hunger Games, 23 children had to die, many of them at his own hand. In war, no one emerges unscathed. Not even the victor.

Just before Katniss leaves for battle, her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) suggests that they sneak away into the forbidden woods to live off the land by themselves (just as Equality 7-2521 does in Ayn Rand's Anthem). “What if people stopped watching?" he adds, as another suggestion, referring to the audiences riveted to their television sets during the Games. "Wouldn't they have to stop the Games?"

Knowing that he has little chance of survival, Peeta says, "I keep wishing I could think of a way for me to show them that they don't own me. If I'm gonna die, I wanna still be me." That spirit of individuality and self-determination is bright throughout the book, and in the movie as well. The many suggestions of resistance in these books, and in the film, make them well worth reading and viewing, even though the filmmakers have pulled much of the punch from their version of the story.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Hunger Games," directed by Gary Ross. Lionsgate, 2012, 142 minutes.



Share This


Foreign Aid

 | 




Share This


Classic Problem, Classic Films

 | 

The topic of this essay is a broad issue in moral philosophy: conflicts of loyalty, specifically, loyalty in war. My “texts” are four classic movies about World War II.

Let us start with some conceptual analysis of the central concept: loyalty. “Loyalty” means devotion to or consistent support of something. Loyalty is correlated with duty: to feel loyalty is to feel you have a duty to support something. But it connotes more than just adherence, it connotes the willingness to sacrifice one’s own good for the sake of the other.

The things to which a person can be said to be loyal of course include other people, either singly or in groups (such as families, friendship circles, gangs, companies, clans, tribes, nations, or ethnic groups). A person can also be loyal to a belief system (such as an idea or concept, a theory, an ideology, a religion, or a cause). My hunch is that when one is loyal to a belief system, it is usually because it is derived from or associated with a person or group with whom he feels personal loyalty. For example, an Irishman’s loyalty to the cause of Irish independence would, I suspect, derive from his strong identification with Irish family and friends. But I won’t pursue that theory here.

W.D. Ross’ view has the unwieldy moniker “Multiple-rule deontologism,” though it is simply common sense put forward in a highly abstract way.

Because a person is typically related to a variety of other people and groups in a variety of ways, loyalties often conflict. My loyalty to my friend may conflict with self-interest (loyalty to oneself, so to speak), or my loyalty to other friends. My loyalty to my family may conflict with my loyalty to the country, or for that matter my loyalty to my lover. The permutations here are endless.

Now, different ethical theories analyze moral phenomena in different ways. Perhaps the best known ethical theories are utilitarianism, ethical egoism, and natural rights ethics.

Both egoism and utilitarianism tie the moral rightness of an act (or anything else, such as an institution or a rule) solely to whether it leads to the best results. They differ about whom those best consequences are intended for: is it just for the person acting (egoism), or for everyone affected (utilitarianism)?

Natural rights theory is one of a variety of theories that tie the rightness of acts to things other than consequences, such as the motives or character of the agent. Specifically, natural rights ethics holds that your act is right if it flows from your rights and doesn’t violate the rights of others.

Each of these moral perspectives has its uses. For analyzing whether the country ought to enact a new law, say, utilitarianism is the obvious tool. For analyzing whether you ought to engage in a business, ethical egoism is a useful tool. To analyze whether a controversial business practice is just, natural rights ethics is probably the best instrument.

But for analyzing situations in which people act from conflicting loyalties, no better tool is at hand than an ethical theory put forward most clearly and compellingly by the subtle and sophisticated moral philosopher W.D. Ross. In the literature Ross’ view has the unwieldy moniker “Multiple-rule deontologism,” though I have always regarded it as simply common sense put forward in a highly abstract way.

In his view, in morally puzzling situations, we are faced with conflicting prima facie duties, and must determine from among them which one is our actual duty in the context. For example, suppose I am trying to decide whether to leave my wife after an unhappy marriage of many years. I have to sort through my obligations to my wife (whom I chose to marry and therefore to whom I have an obligation), to my children (whom we brought into the world and therefore to whom I owe something), and of course myself. In Ross’ perspective, the exact nature of the relationships you have had (and their specific histories) is what is crucial in determining your actual duty, and not (as in egoism) just your duty to promote your own welfare or (as in utilitarianism) your duty to promote the welfare of the human race impartially considered.

An important feature of Ross’ theory is that even when one prima facie duty overrides the others in a given situation, and hence constitutes the actual duty in that situation, the other duties are in truth none the less still duties, so as conditions change, one of them may override the others in turn. This gives his theory a dynamic aspect missing in many other ethical perspectives.

I think that Ross’ theory is a sadly neglected tool in the philosophy of film. I want to use it to analyze conflicts of loyalty in war movies.

More than any other ethically challenging situation, war raises issues about loyalties to others in conflict with the basic human imperative of survival, as well as conflicts between the general obligation to others to do them no harm and the imperative to kill the enemy. I will examine World War II movies, because WWII is generally considered the 20th-century war in which American involvement was most morally justified. This enables us to focus more on the personal than on the political struggles of the characters involved.

Let’s consider first a fine film starring two grossly underrated actors, The Enemy Below. This film tells the story of one particular small naval battle — a battle between an American destroyer and a German submarine — in the South Atlantic Ocean. The battle is shown as a kind of chess match between the two captains, both seasoned veterans. The US ship, the USS Haynes, discovers the U-boat as the sub is trying to make it to a rendezvous with a German merchant raider. The American commander, Capt. Murrell (Robert Mitchum) is trying to gain the full loyalty of his crew, who know about him only that his last ship was sunk. The German commander, Capt. Von Stolberg (Kurd or “Curt” Jurgens), has had his crew for a long time, and they are fully loyal to him.

An early part of the battle tips us off to Murrell’s (and Von Stolberg’s) capabilities. The American destroyer sights the German U-boat and closes in on it. But the U-boat escapes. Instead of pursuing it further, Murrell breaks off the attack and slows the movement of his own ship. His number one, Lt. Ware (David Hedison), asks him what he is doing. Murrell explains that he is trying to gauge his opponent. He explains that he gives the German captain so many minutes to reach a safe depth, level out and spot the destroyer, realize it is open to attack, and let loose a volley of torpedoes.

The crew watches in amazement as two torpedoes zip by harmlessly.

We cut to the sub, and see Von Stolberg, who after diving and leveling, does indeed realize the destroyer is open to attack, and remarks to his own number one, Schwaffer (Theodore Bikel) that the destroyer’s captain is either clever or foolish. Just as Murrell anticipated, Von Stolberg decides to test Murrell, and fires the torpedoes. Up above, Murrell, after waiting an appropriate amount of time, barks out the order to turn the ship sharply and increase the engines to full. The crew watches in amazement as two torpedoes zip by harmlessly. Von Stolberg now realizes that Murrell is clever, as the destroyer goes on the attack. It is clear to both captains they are up against able opponents, and the battle is joined. As Von Stolberg remarks, “This American captain is no amateur. Well, neither am I.”

In the end, after an extended battle of the ships’ crews and the captains’ wills, both captains make fatal errors and both errors are exploited by the opponent. The result is that both see their ships go down — a most un-Hollywood-like ending.

But as interesting as the naval chess match is to watch, the fascination of the movie comes in learning the personalities of the two warriors. In neither case is the motivation for such fierce fighting either some kind of extreme ideological commitment or exaggerated patriotism. In both cases the commitment is to their job and above all to their crews, whose deaths (should they occur) would be on their hands. In neither case do the other prima facie obligations — such as to friends, country, or humanity in general — disappear, and in another context, another prima facie duty will return as the actual one.

We see this repeatedly in various scenes and dialogical exchanges in the film. For instance, when asked by Ware what he thinks his foe is like, Murrell replies, “I have no idea what he is, what he thinks. I don’t want to know the man I am trying to destroy.” One is tempted to shout at the screen, “Just so!” When you are in the standard battle situation, you are under a general obligation to fight for your country. But your specific obligation, the first loyalty, is to those whom you command, and the foe — while understood to still be human — must only be the foe.

In a scene in the sub, after enduring an intense depth-charging run, one that makes the gung-ho and devout Nazi sailor Kunz want to surrender, there is this exchange:

            Von Stolberg: “Mueller, what is the condition of the ship?”

            Mueller: “We have not been hurt.”

            Kunz: “But we cannot escape!”

            Von Stolberg: “It will be your privilege to die for the New Germany.”

Von Stolberg’s sarcasm makes it clear he has contempt for the kind of men who wanted the war but can’t deal with what it entails. The loyalty is with those for whose lives you are responsible, not some abstract ideology.

Or consider the exchange between Doc and Murrell. The exchange occurs after Murrell has explained why he switched from the Merchant Marine to the Navy. In a powerful scene — one to which few actors besides the restrained Robert Mitchum could do justice — Murrell explains that he resolved to fight subs after the ship he was on was torpedoed by one, and he had to watch as the half of the ship — the half upon which was his newly-married wife! — sink rapidly to the bottom of the ocean.

Doctor: “Well, in time we’ll all get back to our stuff again. The war will get swallowed up, and seem like it never happened.”

Murrell: “Yes, but it won’t be the same as it was. We won’t have the feeling of permanency that we had before. We’ve learned a hard truth.”

Doctor: “How do you mean?”

Murrell: “That there is no end to misery and destruction. You cut the head off a snake, and it grows another one. You cut that one off, and you find another. You can’t kill it, because it’s something within ourselves. You can call it the enemy if you want to, but it’s part of us; we’re all men.

This dialog, which Mitchum delivers in a manner-of-fact, unemotional way, is the sort of dialog that would tempt a lesser actor to chew the scenery. Not Mitchum.

This scene brings up an interesting question. The viewer may wonder about the role revenge may be playing in Murrell’s actions. Now, it is one of the strengths of Rossian moral theory that it can explain a pervasive feature of our ordinary moral lives that is not easy to explain by other moral theories. I am referring here to loyalty toward the dead.

For example, let’s suppose that my parents (while alive) treated me with just the normal care and concern that parents typically render towards their children. My loyalty would be expected, even though they are dead, in such matters as giving them an appropriate funeral and carrying out their final wishes as expressed in their wills. These obligations are not explained by future consequences (for me in particular or humanity in general), or by the “natural rights” of the deceased — they’re dead! — but by our past mutual history as a family.

Von Stolberg’s sarcasm makes it clear he has contempt for the kind of men who wanted the war but can’t deal with what it entails.

But while seeing his wife die after a torpedo attack may explain Murrell's choice to seek duty on a destroyer, his demeanor and words make it clear that it is in no way impelling him to destroy this sub. He is no Ahab, for he has no history with that sub or its (at this point unknown) commander that would create such a desire for revenge.

It is clear in the film — from this and other scenes — where the loyalties of the protagonists lie. Von Stolberg makes clear his contempt for the Nazis and what they have wrought. He fights as a professional soldier for his country, but his first loyalty is to his crew. This Murrell understands, and respects, as shown in another scene. As the sub is being depth-charged savagely, and the crew is getting disheartened and beginning to panic, Von Stolberg puts a record on the PA system — a rousing song that the German U-boat cadets learn at their academy. He demands that the crew join him in singing it. They do, and begin to recover their courage. Up above, the destroyer’s sonar picks up the sounds, and Ware expresses wonder (for in playing the music, the sub is making it easier for the destroyer to locate it). Murrell immediately understands what the other captain is doing, and expresses admiration even as he returns to the attack.

Another insight into how the key protagonists in the movies view their loyalties comes near the end. Von Stolberg has gotten most of his men off the doomed sub, as Murrell has his. Murrell spots the German captain for the first time, and wonders why he hasn’t abandoned ship. Von Stolberg replies that his friend and number one is badly wounded. It is clear that the German’s duty to his crew is discharged by having them abandon their ship, which will sink at any moment. But he feels he has to risk his life for this man, and doesn’t expect his crew to do the same, precisely because the sailor was his long-time friend, not theirs. In this new context, Von Stolberg‘s prima facie loyalty to his friend has become his actual duty. This is a moral calculation that Murrell understands, and he helps in the rescue. In this contest, Murrell’s prima facie duty to humanity has become his actual duty.

At the end of the movie, the two captains converse side by side. Their ending dialog is telling:

Von Stolberg: “I should have died many times, Captain, but I continue to survive somehow. This time it was your fault.”

Captain Murrell: “I didn’t know. Next time I won’t throw you the rope.”

Von Stolberg: “I think you will.”

The Enemy Below is a superb action war movie. The director (and himself a fine actor) Dick Powell put in an enormous amount of effort on making it look realistic. It is filmed in color, and the display of naval action (such as the maneuvers of the ships, the depth charge firings, and so on) has a palpable realism. The film absolutely rightly won an Oscar for Best Effects. The support acting is excellent, especially David Hedison as Lt. Ware, as well as Theodore Bikel as Capt. Von Stolberg’s number one and good friend Heinie Schwaffer. Also excellent is Russell Collins as Doc. But the two leads are just superb. Mitchum at his best (as he is here) was one of the best in film, despite his never having won an Oscar, and Jurgens (who was nominated for a Best Foreign Actor BAFTA award for his performance) was a renowned actor in both Germany and the United States.

The second film is a much-neglected gem, Decision Before Dawn. The movie is about the last phase of WWII, during which the Russian Army is about to enter Germany from the east, while the Allied Army is poised to attack across the Rhine. Germany by this time has had its major cities pulverized by Allied bombing, and the country faces massive shortages.

The American military command expects that the Germans will fight bitterly to defend their soil, and has set up an intelligence unit near the border to identify German POWs who are potentially willing to go back into Germany and spy for the Americans. The intelligence unit is headed by Colonel Devlin (Gary Merrill).

Devlin identifies two promising potential agents, given the code names “Tiger” (Hans Christian Blech) and “Happy” (Oskar Werner). We learn that these are quite different people with quite distinct motives.

Tiger is an outright egoist. Before the war he was a circus worker and a petty thief, and was drafted into combat. He is willing to go along with the Americans — or let them think he will — in exchange for better treatment. And, as all the other characters in the movie know, he returned from his last assignment alone — meaning that his partner was either captured or killed.

In contrast, Happy acts out of a sense that the war needs to be ended, for the good of all sides, not least of all for the good of the German people, who are suffering on a massive scale in what is clearly a losing cause — suffering for the stubborn pride of a few high military men. His resolve in this comes from seeing a fellow POW killed by other German prisoners for expressing the thought that Germany was losing the war.

Helping train Happy for his espionage work is a young Frenchwoman, Monique (Dominique Blanchar). Despite her understandable hatred of the Germans, she finds herself attracted to Happy.

The central drama of the film gets started when Devlin is told that a certain German general wants to negotiate the surrender of his entire command. Because of the high stakes in this operation, Devlin selects an American, Lieutenant Rennick (Richard Basehart) to accompany Tiger and Happy in the mission. Tiger is generally suspected by everyone (again because he returned from his last mission alone), but he is chosen because he knows the area. Happy is assigned the task of locating the 11th Panzer Corps, because it may block the defection.

One of the strengths of Rossian moral theory that it can explain our loyalty toward the dead.

Rennick, like most of the Americans, generally suspects all the Germans in the training facility, since they are all — let’s be blunt — Germans. Worse yet, they are traitors. Even worse yet, they are traitorous German spies. As a narrator intones at the opening of the movie,

Of all the questions left unanswered by the last war, and probably any war, one comes back constantly to my mind. Why does a spy risk his life? For what possible reason . . . If the spy wins, he’s ignored. If he loses, he’s shot.

This brings up a fascinating feature of the flick: the viewer — no matter what his nationality — typically has a visceral, instinctive aversion to the traitor, no matter how well-motivated the treachery. We are instinctively revolted by treachery to the tribe, as we are to incest or touching the dead. This puts us in Rennick’s position of distrusting the sincere Happy.

The three agents are dropped behind enemy lines into Germany, and split up, with Rennick and Tiger making their way to a safe house, while Happy goes in search of the Panzer unit. Along the way, Happy and the viewer meet a variety of Germans. Some are clearly weary of the war, but one — a superficially friendly Waffen SS courier who is still a devout Nazi — poses a major risk to him.

As luck would have it, Happy (who is posing as a medic trying to return to his unit) is commandeered to take care of the colonel who is in charge of the very Panzer unit Happy was assigned to locate.

After treating the colonel, Happy sets off with the information to the safe house. He is by now being sought by the Gestapo, and almost gets captured, but manages to join the others. During this time, Rennick and Tiger discover that the general who was thinking of surrendering is now in a hospital guarded by the SS, so the unit will not be surrendering after all.

The film moves to a tense denouement, as the German spies and their American control — with important information but an inoperable radio — have to try to swim across a river to the American-controlled side. Tiger attempts to flee, and Rennick shoots him. Happy and Rennick swim halfway across the river to an island, but as they move to swim to the other side, the Germans discover them and start shooting. Happy, unable to make the swim, creates a diversion and allows himself to be captured, ensuring that Rennick can swim across to safety.

Happy is shot as a deserter. Rennick is faced with a cognitive conflict, arising from his attitude towards the enemy: his life was saved by one of the very traitorous Germans he despised so profoundly.

A bigger conflict lies in the heart of Happy. In agreeing to spy on the Nazi army, he has to put aside loyalty to the government for which he fought, and embrace a higher loyalty to his country and what is truly good for its people. This seems clear to the viewer from the start, but not to the American soldiers in the film, who condemn the “turncoat” Germans uniformly, with a reflexive loathing of those who would work against their country’s government (wrongly equating a country’s government with the country itself).

In the end, in doing his true duty, Happy pays with his life. His act of self-sacrifice grows out of his feeling of loyalty to the American officer who risked his life to accompany him on his mission.

This film is outstanding on every level. Visually, it has an uncanny verisimilitude. It was filmed on location in Wurzburg, where rubble still clogged the streets at the time of filming. (The German audience must have been especially struck by this film.) The movie was nominated for a Golden Globe, for Best Cinematography (in Black and White).

The dialogue is no less gritty than the setting, and the characters are true to life — no comic-book heroes here. The fighting scenes are quite convincing as well. Indeed, the movie was based loosely on real life: the Allied intelligence services did in fact employ German POWs to re-enter Germany as Allied agents.

The direction by famed European director Anatole Litvak is spot on. He gets fine performances from all the cast. Litvak was nominated by the Directors’ Guild of America for its Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures award, and the film was nominated for Oscars for Best Picture and Best Film Editing.

The viewer — no matter what his nationality — typically has a visceral, instinctive aversion to the traitor, no matter how well-motivated the treachery.

But the acting deserves special praise. Gary Merrill was always an outstanding actor — who can forget his superb support roles in the classic war film 12 O’clock High and the equally classic “woman’s movie” (as the studio categorized it), All About Eve, both truly great films? He is excellent here as Col. Devlin, the commander in charge of the operation. Also worth noting was Hildegard Knef as Hilde, the desperate German bar girl, and Dominique Blanchar as Monique, the French aide to the intelligence unit who finds herself falling in love with Happy. Also worth noting is Wilfred Seyferth’s performance as the Waffen SS courier Heinz Scholtz.

The three lead actors are especially fine. Richard Basehart played the American agent Lt. Dick Rennick, who accompanies the two German volunteer spies. Hans Christian Blech is perfect is perfect as the cynical Sgt. Rudolf Barth (“Tiger”). Most outstanding is the lead, a very young Oskar Werner as Cpl. Karl Maurer (“Happy”). Werner was an excellent visual actor, and his gift for conveying facially his character’s thoughts and emotions was superbly used in this film.

The third film is the remarkable recent German movie, John Rabe. The movie is based on the amazing true story of the eponymous hero, a German businessman who was instrumental in saving over 200,000 Chinese civilians during the conquest and occupation of Nanking (now Nanjing) in 1937–38, often and rightly referred to as “The Rape of Nanking.” (The reader may wish to read my earlier review of an outstanding documentary on the subject, Nanking, that appeared in the August 2008 Liberty, pp. 44-45.)

John Rabe was the head of the Nanking factory of the German multinational corporation Siemens’. (Siemens was a major player in providing pre-war China with electric power and telecom services). Rabe, we need to note well, was a committed Nazi. As the Japanese started their invasion of China in the 1937, he was of course sympathetic to them, since Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany had grown politically close, especially after von Ribbentrop became military attaché in 1934, and the Anti-Comintern Pact was signed in 1936. (When Japan invaded China — and China signed a military pact with the Soviet Union — in 1937, Hitler finally turned his back on China and sided with Japan completely.)

But as the actual Japanese military — as opposed to whatever idealized military Rabe envisioned — moved in, he saw how horrifyingly vicious they were. The Imperial Japanese Army at the time was governed by the Bushido code of warrior honor, which viewed it as the duty of a true warrior to die in combat rather than to surrender. That perspective had a dark side, however: it virtually guaranteed that whenever the Japanese Army won a battle, the victors would view surrendering soldiers (and the prostrate populace) with contempt, and consider them deserving of whatever cruelty the victors cared to inflict.

At the opening of the film, we meet John Rabe (Ulrich Tukur) and Dora (Dagmar Manzel), his beloved wife. They have lived in Nanking (then China’s capital city) for about 30 years. Rabe has come to love the country, and is reluctant to leave, but retirement looms. However, during his farewell party, the Japanese begin their attack, with their planes indiscriminately bombing the city. Rabe opens the factory gates so the workers and their families can come in and get some protection. In a striking — not to say jarring — scene, the employees stop the Japanese air strikes by spreading a huge Nazi flag above their heads.

The next morning, the most important foreigners remaining in the city get together to discuss what can be done to help the hapless citizenry. Here we meet the other central figures in the story. Dr. Rosen (Daniel Bruhl), a German Jewish diplomat, points out that Shanghai, which faced a similar attack, set up a “safety zone.” Valerie Dupres (Anne Consigny) — a fictional character loosely based on a real person — who is the head of a Chinese women’s college in Nanking, proposes that Rabe lead the committee for setting up the zone, in large part because she sagely realizes that his affiliation with the Nazi party can be useful in dealing with the Japanese. Dr. Robert Wilson (Steve Buscemi), who doesn’t like Rabe precisely because of his Nazi sympathies, is reluctant to agree.

In a striking — not to say jarring — scene, the employees stop the Japanese air strikes by spreading a huge Nazi flag above their heads.

The following day, Rabe is supposed to leave with his wife on the return trip to Germany. Nevertheless, he has decided to stay to help the Chinese, and watches his wife leave on the ship. As it leaves, however, it is attacked by Japanese planes, and Rabe fears that his wife is dead. In the face of his personal sorrow, he commits to setting up the safety zone.

In one key scene, we see the conflicts that Rabe feels mirrored in a Japanese officer. In this scene, the Japanese have captured a large number of Chinese soldiers defending Nanking. Prince Yasuhiko Asaka, the head of a lesser branch of Japanese nobility and a career military officer, orders the mass execution of the Chinese “captives” — a term covering not merely the POWs but any and all civilians. (In fact, it may have been his assistant, Lieutenant Colonel Cho, a political extremist, who actually gave the order, with Asaka only tacitly consenting).

A young Japanese major dissents timidly, but is immediately slapped down, and the massacre commences. (After the war, Asaka was lucky to escape prosecution for the war crimes committed under his command, when General MacArthur decided for political reasons to grant immunity to all of the Imperial family). It is obvious to the viewer that the young major is conflicted by his duty to follow orders (imperative in any military organization, but especially so in a viciously authoritarian one) and his more general duty to behave in a humane way toward POWs and non-combatants. There are universal rules that morally supersede military orders, some codified in the Geneva Conventions. I will return to this point shortly.

As the soldiers and then much of the general populace get murdered by a Japanese army driven mad by power and bloodlust, civilians pour into the safety zone that the Rabe-led committee had managed to set up.

The film vividly portrays a number of horrific events, including one in which Mme. Dupres refuses to allow the Japanese (who have found a group of Chinese soldiers hiding on the grounds of the Girl’s College) to take 20 of the young women along for sexual exploitation, and subsequently has to endure the sound of POWs being machine-gunned in reprisal. In another scene, while Rabe is negotiating with the Japanese commanders, his driver is hauled off and decapitated as part of a killing contest between two Japanese officers.

As the brutal occupation grinds on, an improbable friendship forms between Wilson and Rabe, leading to some lighter scenes of their drinking and singing songs (one of which mocks Hitler). During the committee’s Christmas celebration, Rabe faints — he has received an unmarked package containing his favorite cake, tipping him off to the fact that his wife is alive. Wilson discovers that Rabe is diabetic, and saves his life by procuring some insulin from the Japanese enemy he detests.

In the new year, the situation becomes grave. Rabe uses the last of his savings to help buy rice for the refugees, and discovers that the reason the supplies of rice are being used up so rapidly is that the Girl’s College is hiding some Chinese soldiers. Rabe and the rest of the committee realize that if the Japanese discover this, they will close the zone and likely kill all the people protected there.

This leads to the denouement, in which the Japanese decide to march into the protected zone. But Rabe is tipped off by the young Japanese major, and the Japanese troops who march in find that the committee and the Chinese civilians have formed human shields to protect the POWs. Japanese tanks are brought in, but before shots are fired, the Japanese discover that international journalists and diplomats have just returned to the city, and the Japanese are forced to back down.

The film ironically ends more happily than its real-life hero. The film ends with Rabe being taken to the harbor for his return to Germany. He is cheered by the Chinese as he reunites with his wife. In actuality, Rabe did return to Germany with his wife but was immediately arrested by the Gestapo, precisely for bringing the Japanese atrocities to the world’s attention. He was released after the war, but — unbelievably — his request for “de-Nazification” was initially denied by the British authorities. In 1950, he died poor and unremarked. Only in 1997 did he receive belated recognition for his humane and honorable work when the Chinese moved his remains to the Nanking Memorial Hall. And finally, in 1993, the German government got around to acknowledging his decency and bravery.

As the soldiers and then much of the general populace get murdered by a Japanese army driven mad by power and bloodlust, civilians pour into the safety zone.

Some have noted a resemblance between John Rabe and Oskar Schindler (the subject of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List). There are analogies, to be sure. Both Rabe and Schindler were real businessmen, both were initially drawn to the Nazi movement, and both in time became committed to saving the lives of at least some of the intended victims of the Axis war machine.

But there are some major relevant differences as well, the biggest being the presence of internal conflict of duties in the case of one character but not the other. Schindler was, from what I can tell, an opportunist who came to see the humanity of the victims of the Holocaust, and fought for some of them, but was never conflicted about it. In contrast, Rabe believed — yes, foolishly — that the Nazis were better than the viciously cruel Imperial Army. This absurd belief comes out in Rabe’s letter to Adolf Hitler:

To the Fuehrer of the German people, Chancellor Adolf Hitler: My Fuehrer, as a loyal party member and upstanding German, I turn to you in a time of great need. The Japanese Imperial troops conquered the city of Nanking on December 12, 1937. Since then I have witnessed atrocious crimes against civilians. Please help to end this catastrophe and make an appeal to our Japanese allies in the name of humanity. With a German salute — John Rabe

Here we see the conflict between Rabe's commitment to his country and his allegiance to people who had worked for him and among whom he had lived. Parallel to this is the conflict faced by the young Japanese major who, in spite of tremendous pressure to carry out unquestioningly the war crimes demanded by his commanders, first risked the good opinion of his superior officers by questioning the order to summarily execute unarmed POWs, then risked his life by tipping off Rabe about the imminent Japanese incursion.

In facing their conflicts, both Rabe and the major are rather like Sophocles’ Antigone. In the play, Antigone disobeys King Creon’s order that her dead brother Polynices (who had fought against Creon’s favorite, Eteocles and lost) be left unburied, for the animals to eat. Antigone buries her brother with her own hands, and when Creon demands an explanation for her breaking of the law, she replies that she is following a law older than that of kings. As she says, "Nor did I deem that thou, a mortal man, / Could’st by a breath annul and override the immutable, unwritten laws of Heaven."

In saving the Chinese, Rabe and the young Japanese officer were obeying a higher and older law, one that demands that we protect the innocent, no matter what state alliances apply, and no matter what prior personal allegiances have been established.

This film is a fine piece of cinematic art. It was highly acclaimed in Germany, garnering seven “Lola” (German Film Award) nominations, and winning Lolas for Best Film, Best Actor, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design. Besides winning the Lola for Best Actor, Ulrich Tukur also won the Bavarian Film Award for Best Actor, for his very impressive performance. But as popular as it was in Germany, the movie was, alas, shunned in Japan. Not one Japanese distributor could be found to show it. The Japanese, it must be admitted, to this day still have not come to grips with their often atrocious behavior in WWII.

As the brutal occupation grinds on, an improbable friendship forms between Wilson and Rabe, leading to some lighter scenes of their drinking and singing a song that mocks Hitler.

Tukur well deserved his awards, giving a powerful performance, at once restrained but revealing. Steve Buscemi is excellent in support (he was nominated for a Lola for Best Supporting Actor, a rare nomination for an American), playing the more emotionally open American doctor who worked with Rabe to save the Chinese. Florian Gallenberger, who wrote the screenplay, also did a superb job in directing the movie. And Jurgen Jurges did an outstanding job on the cinematography. At the time of filming, a lot of 1930s-era housing stock in Shanghai was being demolished for new high-rise buildings, and he was able to use footage of it in portraying the damage done by the Japanese bombing.

The final movie I want to take up is rightly characterized as a classic. It is one of David Lean’s many outstanding contributions to cinematic art: The Bridge on the River Kwai. Like John Rabe, Lean’s movie is based on historical reality, though (as we shall see) it is not as faithful to history as the Rabe movie.

The Bridge on the River Kwai starts with a unit of British POWs captured at the fall of Singapore, marching into a Japanese work camp in western Thailand. They march in whistling the rousing “Colonel Bogey March,” a popular British tune dating to the First World War. They are assembled in front of the camp’s commander, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa).

As the British march, we meet another character, US Navy Commander Shears (William Holden), who is helping bury a dead POW. We get a sense of his egoism and general skepticism about the war when he bribes the Japanese captain supervising him and his fellow grave-digger (an Australian named Weaver) with a cigarette lighter taken from one of the corpses, and intones over the grave

Here lies Corporal Herbert Thompson, serial number 01234567, valiant member of the King’s own, or Queen’s own, or something, who died of beriberi in the year of our Lord 1943. For the greater glory of . . . [pause] what did he die for? . . . I don’t mock the grave or the man. May he rest in peace. He got little enough of it while he was alive.

The British POWs are commanded by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness). Saito informs the British that they are to work on a bridge over the River Kwai for a railway line. He tells them that he will require all POWs, even the officers, to start work in the morning, Nicholson tells Saito that the Geneva Conventions forbid compelling officers to work, but that only makes Saito repeat his orders furiously.

The next morning, when the POWs assemble, the officers refuse to work. Saito at first threatens to shoot them, then backs down, leaving them in the scorching sun, then putting them in a punishment hut. Saito orders Nicholson to be put in “the oven,” a tiny iron hut that is exposed directly to the sun, where Nicholson stays without food or water, to break his will.

The British medical officer, Major Clipton (James Donald), an obviously reasonable, rational medical scientist, faced with two stubborn career military men following what they view as their military codes, attempts to negotiate — but Nicholson refuses all compromise. As all this is going on, the British soldiers are doing their best to passively resist — by feigning work and slyly sabotaging the project.

This leads to one of the great scenes in this great film. Saito, the Bushido-bound martinet, faces an even more code-bound martinet and the possible failure of his own project. He feels that such a failure would obligate him to commit actual suicide — Seppuku — in accord with Japanese tradition. At this point, Saito gives in, using the excuse of the anniversary of the 1905 Russo-Japanese War to release Nicholson and exempt the other officers from the actual construction work.

Nicholson reviews the status of the project, and finds it in shambles. To the surprise of his men, he says that he wants to build a “proper” bridge, i.e., one that will succeed in bearing the weight of railroad traffic. The officers and men clearly wonder aloud if this isn’t outright collaboration. But Nicholson replies that only by working as real soldiers on a real bridge will he be able to restore his men’s discipline, self-respect, and morale — all essential to surviving the harsh conditions imposed on them. He thus subordinates his loyalty toward military goals to loyalty toward his men.

At this point, three of the POWs — including Commander Shears — attempt an escape. Two are killed, but a wounded Shears manages to escape, and (with the help of some locals) manages to make it to safety. The movie focuses on Shears, who is recovering at a British Ceylonese hospital. Shears makes time with a gorgeous nurse and looks forward to shipping out to the US.

But Shears' plans are upset by the head of the British Special Forces in Ceylon, Major Warden (Jack Hawkins). Warden wants Shears to volunteer to accompany and guide a commando unit back to the POW camp to blow up the bridge. Shears, ever the egoist, informs Warden that in fact he (Shears) is not an officer, but an ordinary seaman who switched uniforms with the real Commander Shears after their ship had been sunk and Shears was killed — because the seaman knew that officers get better treatment in captivity. But Warden has already discovered this, and the US Navy has assigned the egoist to Warden’s command. “Shears” has no choice, so he “volunteers.”

One might suppose that Shears' agreeing to go on Warden’s commando mission would be a case of conflict (between his innate egoism and his loyalty to his country’s cause in the war), but it isn’t, really. His decision is easily explicable on egoistic principles. He has been unmasked; thus he faces return to the States and a mandatory court martial. Depending on how the trial goes — would the judges view him as having deserted? or as having allowed the real Shears to die? or maybe even having killed the real officer? — the seaman faces a long time in military prison, and maybe even execution. So he decides to take his chances on going along with the mission, which may result in his being exonerated, receiving an award, and retaining the simulated rank of Commander that the Navy has allowed Warden to offer the egoist. No, his conflict comes later.

We return to the POW camp and reach another interesting plot twist. In order to get the bridge done on time, Nicholson offers Saito to allow the British officers to do physical labor along with the enlisted men, if Saito allows the Japanese officers to do the same. This immediately arouses the careful viewer’s attention: wasn’t the protection of his men, including making sure that they were all treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, exactly the matter over which he fought Saito so fiercely? What strange shift in loyalties is going on in the man?

We now rejoin the commando team as it parachutes in, near the POW camp. One of the commandos is killed in the jump, but the other three — Shears, Warden, and a Canadian Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) — with the help of Thai villagers (almost all women) make it to the bridge. Warden is wounded along the way, and wants the others to leave him, but Shears insists they all push forward. When we see Shears pushing the mission forward, insisting that Warden be carried, we begin to realize that the egoist is beginning to transcend his egoism and become committed to the mission.

The group arrives at the bridge, and Warden sets up a plan. Shears and Joyce plant the explosives at night, and are to set them off in the morning, when a Japanese troop train is scheduled to pass over it.

Here we reach yet another plot turn. In the morning, the wiring to the explosives is visible, because the river lever has dropped during the night. As Nicholson and Saito are giving the project its final inspection, Nicholson sees the wires ands alerts Saito. As the train approaches, they try to stop the pending explosion. Joyce jumps out and kills Saito, and Nicholson calls out for help, meanwhile trying to prevent Joyce from reaching the detonator. Shears rushes across the river to help Joyce, but Japanese soldiers shoot both of them. It is in these ending moments, as he faces death to complete what he has now accepted as his mission, not just the mission he went along with, that we realize his loyalty has shifted completely.

Rabe was released after the war, but — unbelievably — his request for “de-Nazification” was initially denied by the British authorities.

Nicholson, recognizing Shears (“You!” he gasps) — and being thus implicitly rebuked by the sight of an egoist now committed to doing the right thing and fighting for the correct cause — at last also recognizes his duty as a British soldier. He cries out “What have I done?” as he tries to reach the detonator. On the cliff above, Warden fires his mortar, killing the two commandos and mortally wounding Nicholson, who manages to stagger over to and collapse upon the detonator. The bridge blows, taking with it the train.

The final scenes are equally compelling. Warden, who has to escape with the only remaining help he has, the Thai women, shouts at them that he had to do what he did and kill the young commandos — presumably, so that they wouldn’t be captured and forced to divulge information. The British doctor Clipton rushes out to see what has happened. As he surveys the carnage, he shakes his head and exclaims, in a voice choking with emotion, "Madness . . . Madness!” Madness, indeed — countless men were killed to build a “monument,” and more were killed to destroy it.

Now, there was some controversy about the film concerning its historical accuracy. The movie follows the book (The Bridge over the River Kwai, by French novelist Pierre Boulle, who is probably best known for his script for The Planet of the Apes) rather closely, though with one important difference that I will explore shortly. Yet the book itself was only loosely based on the real story of the Japanese Imperial Army’s construction of the Thailand-Burma Railway (also grimly named the Railway of Death) in 1942-43. The project — 260 miles of railway line connecting Bangkok and Rangoon, crossing the Mae Klong river — used primarily forced labor (called “Romusha” in Japanese). It cost the lives of upwards of 16,000 Allied POWs and 100,000 conscripted Indonesian and Malaysian laborers. The real bridge over the main river was first built out of wood, then out of steel, and was not destroyed until 1945, and then by Allied bombers, not commandos.

Moreover, there was a real British officer who worked to save the British POWs — Lieutenant Colonel Phillip Toosey. Toosey was a leader in the defense of Singapore, where he won the DSO for heroism. He refused an order to evacuate in order to remain with his men in captivity. By complaining against their mistreatment even at the cost of being beaten, and by negotiating cleverly, he was able to improve their living conditions. After the war he was a devoted exponent for helping the veteran far-eastern POWs.

Toosey was apparently little like the fictional Colonel Nicholson, and was certainly not a collaborator. In fact, he encouraged secret sabotage, such as deliberately mixing the cement improperly and infesting the wooden trestles with termites. The novelist Pierre Boulle, who had actually been a POW in Thailand, said that he based the character of Nicholson on his memories of a number of French officers who had collaborated with the Japanese.

Again, there really was a Saito. But the real Saito — Risaburo Saito — was a Sergeant-Major who was only second in command of a POW camp. More importantly, the real Saito was viewed by the POWs as relatively reasonable and humane. In a war crimes trial, Toosey spoke in Saito’s defense, and the two formed a friendship.

However, while the film is not faithful to reality, I would contend that it is better off for not being that way. It is, after all, a fictional feature film, not a documentary. Specifically, the film departs from reality in a way that highlights the conflicts in the protagonist, helping us think about the source and nature of collaboration.

Normally, a person who collaborates in war does so out of simple egoism. By cooperating with the enemy, he typically furthers his self-interest: he gets better food, easier work, a place in the new power structure, or merely money (thirty pieces of silver, perhaps). But Nicholson clearly is not initially acting out of self-interest. His willingness to endure being boxed in “the oven” shows that.

No, Nicholson’s loyalty to his troops and his military code of conduct are what make him want to build a “proper” bridge as a way to keep discipline and morale up, which would help the men survive in a harsh environment. Although some of his officers wonder whether this is collaboration, Nicholson’s decision is reasonable.

Nevertheless, as the work progresses Nicholson loses his moral focus, as his loyalty shifts to the project itself, and his growing — what? friendship? mutual admiration? or simply partnership? — with Saito. The tip-off scene is when he and Saito are inspecting the completed project, and Nicholson starts musing about how one day the war will be over, and this project will be left as a kind of monument.

At this point, Nicholson's loyalty is shifting from his men to the man with whom he is collaborating, and possibly to himself — to concern for his later reputation, i.e., self-aggrandizement. The viewer sees this in the scene where Nicholson suddenly requires that his officers start working alongside the enlisted men — the very thing that, earlier, he had opposed so strongly that he was willing to be put in “the oven.” This morally indefensible shift in perspective leads him to help, at first, to expose the plan to destroy the bridge. Only towards the end, when the sight of the egoist Shears fighting for the right military objective shakes him to his senses, does Nicholson recover the proper moral perspective.

This scene was not in the book, which ends with the commandos trying to blow up the bridge but only succeeding in derailing the train; Nicholson has no hand in any of it. Boulle was not in favor of the change in plot — though he liked the movie on the whole — but I am convinced that Lean’s instinct was right. It creates two characters who are internally complex, with loyalties that shift subtly through the film, forcing us to try to understand their motives.

The critical acclaim for this film was unprecedented. It won Oscars for Best Picture (Sam Spiegel), Best Director (Lean), Best Actor (Guinness), Best Cinematography (Jack Hilyard), Best Music Score (Malcolm Arnold), Best Film Editing (Peter Taylor), and Best Writing/Screenplay (Pierre Boulle, with blacklisted writers Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson added in 1984). Sessue Hayakawa was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Madness, indeed — countless men were killed to build a “monument,” and more were killed to destroy it.

Additionally, the film won BAFTA awards for Best British Film, Best British Actor (Guinness), Best British Screenplay (Boulle), and Best Film from Any Source. The film won Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture (Drama), Best Motion Picture Director, and Best Motion Picture Actor (Drama) (Guinness). Again, Hayakawa was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor. Lean won the Directors Guild of America award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures. And the film score copped a Grammy.

All this critical acclaim was well deserved, in my view. The movie was one of only a comparative handful of movies — several of which are works by David Lean — that I would point to as working on all three levels on which a film can work: the philosophic, the literary, and the aesthetic. (I discussed this terminology in my review of The Lost City, in the December 2006 Liberty.) At the philosophic level, the level of ideas, the film is an interesting exploration of codes of military honor and the nature of collaboration with the enemy. At the literary level, the level of plot and character, the movie gives us some unforgettable images of characters, such as an inwardly weak Japanese martinet, an egoist out for survival in a brutal environment, and a morally flawed though strong officer. And at the aesthetic level, the level of the sight and sound of the work, you have really masterful cinematography and an unforgettable score.

Moreover, the acting just couldn’t get any better. Alec Guinness — always a favorite actor of Lean’s and appearing in most of his flicks — is just perfect as the hidebound Nicholson. Although Guinness was troubled by the project — he thought that the movie had an anti-British flavor — he gave a fine performance. In fact, he thought that the scene in which his character is released from the oven and staggers forward was the best acting in his career (he had modeled the movements on those of his son who was afflicted by polio).

And William Holden, who could play the egoist and reluctant warrior well (as shown in his other fine war pictures, Stalag 17 and The Bridges at Toko-Ri) was perfect in this flick.

Also noteworthy is the performance of Jack Hawkins as Major Warden, the commando squad leader. Warden portrays a martinet, but bereft of any inner conflicts. When he is wounded, he doesn’t want to be carried by the Thai women, because it endangers the mission. Ironically, it is the egoist Shears who forces him to accept help. At the end, he has no compunction about blowing up both Shears and Joyce, as the Thai women — who function in the scene as a kind of Greek chorus — stare at him in horror. He is totally focused on the mission, and feels no conflicts about anything he has to do to accomplish it.

But especially noteworthy in support is the performance by Sessue Hayakawa as the conflicted Saito, a character at once militaristic and vulnerable, even brittle.

A few comments about this historically fascinating actor are in order. Hayakawa was born Kintaro Hayakawa in Japan in 1889. He was the scion of a military man, and was groomed to become an officer in the Japanese Navy. But he ruptured his eardrum in a swimming dare as a teenager. This led his father to feel bitterly disappointed in him. He himself was led to feel a profound sense of shame before his father, and he attempted seppuku, stabbing himself in the abdomen 30 times. Had his father not broken down the door to the room in which he was attempting suicide and taken him to a hospital, he would have died. I suspect that this aspect of his personal background is what lends such credibility to Saito’s contemplation of the act in the movie.

Hayakawa, as a young adult, made his way to America in 1911, studying economics at the University of Chicago, but then getting into acting. He rapidly became a silent screen star. His pictures between the mid-1910s and the late 1920s were hugely popular, both in the U.S. and Europe, putting him in the same class as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Rudolf Valentino. (In fact, Hayakawa often played the exotic lover, a role he explored before Valentino arrived on the scene.) At his peak in the 1920s, Hayakawa was clearing $2 million a year from his film work (helped by the fact that he was one of the first actors who formed his own production company). This stellar background in silent cinema made him a fine visual actor, though a restrained one (he attributed his restraint to his Zen training), which talent he used to great effect in this movie.

Hayakawa’s personal and professional life was full of conflict. After moving to America in disgrace, he made a brilliant early career in Hollywood, but with the rise of talkies (along with anti-Japanese sentiment in America) in the 1930s, he went abroad to work in theatre and film. Ironically, he was never really popular in Japan. His early performances as the exotic Asian lover didn’t suit the Japanese audiences, which were very eager to embrace everything American. Later in his career, these audiences — at that point rejecting America — rejected him as too Americanized.

He was in France in the late 1930s, filming a movie, and when the Germans occupied the country in 1940, he was essentially trapped there. Hayakawa didn’t just sit around and dream of past glories: he lived as a professional artist, selling his watercolor paintings, while also working with the Resistance, helping to save downed Allied airman. He proved his loyalty by his actions.

In the late 1940s, he was offered work again in Hollywood, starting with Humphrey Bogart’s production Tokyo Joe, and then Three Came Home, a film based on the true story of a woman held in a Japanese POW camp (with Hayakawa playing the camp commander).

His performance in Bridge on the River Kwai well deserved an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and he considered it his best acting in a career spanning 80 movies.

Let’s close by returning a comment I made earlier, when I said that the famous All About Eve was of a genre that Hollywood studios called “women’s movies.” But it was a great film — one that transcended a particular genre of entertainment to say things of great interest to people generally. War movies were (and are), like detective and action flicks, generally considered “Men’s Movies.” They are normally just a genre of entertaining movies aimed at a target audience. But when they work at their best, they too can transcend the genre to arrive at universal interest.

I contend that the four movies I have discussed are great and transcendent in this way. And at the core of them, what makes them fascinating is the way their protagonists sort through conflicting duties, of the kind that W.D. Ross well understood and analyzed. But in identifying these four films, I know I have only scratched the surface. The conflicts I have discussed are central to the storylines of many great films, and many great works of literature as well. This is, indeed, a very broad and deep subject.


Editor's Note: Films discussed: “The Enemy Below.” 20th Century Fox, 1957, 98 minutes. “Decision Before Dawn.” 20th Century Fox, 1951, 119 minutes. “John Rabe.” Hofmann & Voges Entertainment, Majestic Filmproduktion, 2009, 134 mins. “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” Columbia Pictures, 1957, 161 mins.



Share This


Welcome the Space Aliens!

 | 

Last month, Nobel Laureate economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman seriously suggested that what we need to stimulate the economy is an outside threat. Referring to the jobs created during World War II, he wrote, "If we discovered that, you know, space aliens were planning to attack and we needed a massive buildup to counter the space alien threat and really inflation and budget deficits took secondary place to that, this slump would be over in 18 months. And then if we discovered, oops, we made a mistake, there aren't any aliens, we'd be better [off]."

Well Mr. Krugman, a space alien did attack. Her name was Irene, and she is still causing havoc in the northeastern states. Billions of dollars were spent preparing for her arrival, and billions more are still being spent cleaning up her mess. Billions more were lost in opportunity costs as people stayed home that weekend, reducing the incomes of restaurant owners, taxi drivers, and other establishments owned by hardworking business people.

As it turned out, Irene didn't attack where she was expected, and many of the billions spent on sandbagging shorelines, boarding up windows, and evacuating neighborhoods were wasted. But according to Krugman, that's a good thing. We enjoyed all that economic stimulus, without enduring any of the damage. Win-win, right?

How is the alien attack working out for you, Mr. Krugman? Have you seen a big turnaround in the economy? Will you be cheering again this winter, when municipal leaders have no money left in their budgets for snow removal and pothole repair? But you don't have to wait until winter to see the results of such faulty thinking. Ask the family who spent $1,000 on gas, hotels, plywood, and batteries when they evacuated for the weekend. Because of that expenditure, they won't be able to spend that $1,000 on school clothes, a new computer, a real vacation, or even debt reduction.

I doubt that Keynesian Krugman is backing down any time soon. In fact, if an alien attack can produce so much economic stimulation, just think what a pandemic disease could accomplish! According to some cheerful historians, the bubonic plague was the best thing that happened in the Middle Ages. When the plague killed off an estimated half of the workers in Europe, supply and demand forced wages up, creating an economic turnaround that funded the continued growth of the second half of the last millennium. Wow! We ought to build a monument to those heroic fleas.

In fact, forget Obama's mantra, "Pass the Jobs Bill." Let's just pass the germs.




Share This


A Call to Repentance

 | 

Are there libertarians who still regard President Obama with affection?

I understand that some people voted for him because they wanted to punish Bush and his fellow Republicans. The Republicans were warlike, and they were spendthrifts.

Well, if punishment is on the agenda, I want to be first in line to give some. Plenty, in fact. I’ll never get over George Bush’s ability to lie, lie, and keep on lying. But did you expect something better from Obama, you who supported him?

You did. I know you did. I heard you — at length.

As you said, Bush went to war, twice. But Obama continues running both wars, and he started a third one, the marvelously useless war in Libya. If he doesn’t get us involved in Somalia or Haiti, it will be a wonder.

As you said, Bush spent too much money. But Obama started off by spending a trillion dollars on a feckless economic program. He instituted a healthcare scheme that, basically, nobody wanted, which will cost at least half a trillion more and will give us notably less effective healthcare.

On August 8, Obama addressed the nation’s economic problems by demanding higher taxes and accusing those who don’t (such as you) of having caused the present economic distress. While he was talking, the stock market dropped like a rock. It lost 634 points that day.

But perhaps those who expected something libertarian out of Obama were right in one respect. His presidency has been wonderful for the gold market.




Share This


War and Peace

 | 

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: good movies begin with good stories. By that criterion, Incendies is not just a good movie, it is a great movie. Set within a backdrop of bitter hatred and torturous war, it is nevertheless a brilliant film about love for family and finding a personal peace.

The story begins with the classic Romeo and Juliet conflict: Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), a young Christian Arab woman, is in love with a young Palestinian man, and her family disapproves. What happens next — retribution, abandonment, shunning, and revenge — sets the stage for an alternate story line, 35 years in the future, after the woman has died. In her will she asks her young adult children, Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette), fraternal twins, to find the brother they did not knew existed and the father they thought was dead. This will require them to leave their home in Canada and return to the land of their ancestors in the Middle East.

As Jeanne heads to Lebanon to begin the search for her father in her mother’s hometown, the film flashes back to the young Nawal and her lover, Wahad. The film continues to switch between the two stories as the brother and sister follow the cold dark trail of the mother they only thought they knew. These alternating points of view allow the audience to know Nawal’s story more intimately and completely than the young siblings do, enhancing our compassion for the protagonist and our growing sense of horror as the two slowly discover the truth.

As war breaks out, young Nawal tries to escape the fighting while searching orphanages for the son her grandmother forced her to give up. Along the way she observes the bitterness and retaliation of both religion-based factions. Two scenes stand out as representative of the senselessness and atrocity of this kind of conflict. In the first, Nawal quickly removes the cross from around her neck and rearranges her scarf to cover her, so she can avoid the wrath of Muslims. In the next scene, she quickly doffs the scarf and pulls out her cross to show rebel guerillas that she is a Christian. But she is still the same person, inside and out; only the label has changed. Changing the label saves her life — but the death and destruction she observes destroy her soul.

Incendies is a thrilling mystery about a family’s quest to reunite itself. But it also has a powerful symbolic message, revealing the bitterness that comes from assigning divisive political and religious labels. What does it mean to be a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew? Beneath the labels, all in the Middle East claim the same ancestry. Arabs (Christian or Muslim) may hate Jews because Ishmael is their ancestor; Jews may hate Arabs because Isaac is their ancestor. But trace their roots back just one more generation, and all honor Abraham as their father. All are cousins under the labels. All are of the same lineage and family.

Incendies is the most engrossing film I have seen since last year's The Secret in their Eyes (also a foreign film). Yes, you will have to read the subtitles at the bottom of the screen — unless you speak French, Arabic, and another dialect I didn’t recognize. But it will be well worth the effort. Don’t miss this outstanding film if it comes to your town.


Editor's Note: Review of "Incendies," directed by Denis Villeneuve. Sony Pictures Classics, 2010, 130 minutes.



Share This


Losing the Battle, Spinning the War

 | 

March was a time of judgment on the American official language — the language spoken by the people considered most qualified to sling words around: politicians, media operatives, public educators of all kinds. The official language was weighed in the balance, and found wanting. It proved grossly unequal to the challenge of such mighty events as the Japanese earthquake, labor unrest in Wisconsin, and the political embarrassments of government radio. And then along came Libya.

As usual, the commander in chief led the nation into linguistic battle on most of the fronts available; and as usual, he was beaten in every skirmish. About Wisconsin he did what he ordinarily does; he tried to get into the fight, while also trying to stay out of it. A violent proponent of unions, and an eager recipient of union funds, he still hopes to win the electoral votes of all those states that are in financial turmoil because of the demands of public employee unions. So he acknowledged the states’ budget problems, and then he said, “It is wrong to use those budget cuts to vilify workers.” A little later, when asked to state Obama’s position on the continuing turmoil in Wisconsin, his press agent repeated that inane remark.

Of course, nobody was vilifying workers, even if you are crazy enough to equate workers with government employees. What some people were doing — and suddenly, such a lot of people — was trying to keep the unions that represent people employed by state and local governments from bankrupting their employers. Obama’s feckless verbal feint would have turned into a factual rout if some White House correspondent had asked the obvious question: “What vilification are you referring to?” But nobody seemed able to do that.

The commander in chief led the nation into linguistic battle on most of the fronts available; and as usual, he was beaten in every skirmish.

Meanwhile, union shock troops were occupying the capitol of Wisconsin, trying to prevent its legislature from voting. These vilified workers caused over seven million dollars of damage. Yet even Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, a rightwing personality on a rightwing channel, was willing to call the Wisconsin actions “peaceful.” You see what I mean about the official language not being adequate to the crisis? Suppose I came over to your house with a few thousand friends chanting obscene slogans against you, and we camped in your living room for weeks, attempting to force you to do what we wanted you to do — would you call that peaceful? Of course not, but only one person in the media, a volunteer bloggist whom Yahoo! News, in a fit of common sense, allowed on its site, made a point like that. Congratulations, bloggist. You have linguistic qualifications that none of the media professionals can equal. But they’re the ones who are getting paid.

Among this country’s most influential purveyors of the American official language is National Public Radio. I’m calling it that because it is currently attempting to deny its identity as government radio by calling itself by a set of non-referential initials: it just wants to be known as good ‘ol “NPR.” Well, sorry, alphabetical agency: we all know the smell of a government medium. It comes from the money it tries to cadge from the taxpayers.

In early March a highly paid government-radio official was caught on video telling some “Muslim” potential donors that “NPR” would actually be better off without government help, presumably because it would no longer have to pay any attention to the majority of the American people, whom he suggested were ignorant and stupid and susceptible to the racist propaganda of people who actually, believe it or not, would like a smaller government. He identified the tragedy of America as the fact that its educated elite (clearly typified by himself) was so small and uninfluential. Those were the views that Mr. Ron Schiller, senior vice president of National Public Radio, expressed concerning the citizens of the United States, who (perhaps tragically) put the “N” in “NPR.”

Suppose I came over to your house with a few thousand friends chanting obscene slogans against you, and we camped in your living room for weeks, attempting to force you to do what we wanted you to do — would you call that peaceful?

Schiller was forced to resign immediately. His brief public statement assesses his behavior in this way: “While the meeting I participated in turned out to be a ruse, I made statements during the course of the meeting that are counter to NPR’s values and also not reflective of my own beliefs. I offer my sincere apology to those I offended.”

Again we see the limitations of the official language, which proved utterly incapable of specifying what went wrong with Mr. Schiller, who might be offended by his remarks, or why anybody might be offended. In short, the official language was incapable of answering any question that anyone who read his statement would probably ask. And it created new and damaging questions: Why did you make statements that were not reflective of your own beliefs — that is, lie? By the way, what are your beliefs? Do you actually believe that other Americans are smart but you are dumb, yet for some reason you keep maintaining the opposite? If so, how does that happen?What were you thinking, anyway? But no one in the high-class media found the words to ask such simple questions.

Now we come to the terrible events in Japan. Again, Obama was in the vanguard of our linguistic forces. And again . . . Here’s what he said about the earthquake and tsunami, on March 11 — in prepared remarks, presumably edited by numerous White House word wizards, who were struggling to get exactly the right tone. “This,” Obama said, “is a potentially catastrophic disaster.”

Gosh, this thing is so bad, something really bad may happen.

When the president is attacked and captured by his own language, what can we expect of his assistant priests, the writers and readers of the “news” media? The answer is, Even worse. And we got it.

Particularly impressive was the horror-movie approach, with the Japanese cast as Godzilla: “Operators at the Fukushima Daiichi plant's Unit 1 scrambled ferociously to tamp down heat and pressure inside the reactor” (AP report, March 11). I have trouble picturing anyone tamping down heat orpressure, but it’s even harder for me to picture someone doing it ferociously, unless that someone is a monster trying to rescue its offspring from the accursed humans’ nuclear experiments.

But maybe the ferocious beings were actually the talking heads of American TV. On the selfsame day, March 11, Fox News’ late-night guy was calling the earthquake and tsunami “one of the worst natural disasters in the history of mankind.” Fox News’ Rick Folbaum called it “the fifth worst earthquake in the history of earthquakes, folks.” Yet again, the official language just isn’t up to the task. It ought to be able to distinguish between “the hundred years since earthquake records have been scientifically kept” and “the history of earthquakes” or “the history of mankind,” but evidently it can’t. Under communism, hundreds of thousands of people in China lost their lives in natural disasters — but we have no words to speak of them, do we? Or maybe, just maybe, we never read a book, so we don’t know nothin’ ‘bout things like that. In either case, the problem lies with words. We can’t use them, and we can’t read them either.

After Folbaum made his immortal declaration, his colleague, Marianne Rafferty, consoled the audience by promising, “We will keep everyone up-to-dated.” Would anyone who had ever read a book—I mean a real book, with real words—say a thing like that? What would you have to be paid to make such a statement before an audience of educated people, or even just people?

The worst thing is that words are related, in certain ways, to thoughts; so if you don’t have thoughts . . . Some examples:

“Is Japan getting the assistance it needs?” That’s the question that Wolf Blitzer asked the Japanese ambassador to the United States (March 12, CNN). I thought it was a little strange that Japan, one of the richest and most technologically advanced nations on the planet, should be the object of that question. But never mind. In reply, the ambassador noted, somewhat vaguely, that his prime minister had ordered one-fourth of the nation’s armed forces to help the people currently starving a moderate distance north of Tokyo. That apparently satisfied Blitzer. He didn’t say what you would have said: “What! Why isn’t he mobilizing the entire army?” He didn’t say what you would have expected him to say: “Wait a minute! What’s your God damned army for, anyhow? We can get our correspondents into the disaster zone — why can’t you get your army in? And if you can’t, why don’t you air-drop supplies? In short, Mr. Ambassador, what the hell are you talking about?” But I guess Blitzer couldn’t think of those questions. After all, he’s merely one of America’s most famous interviewers.

Marianne Rafferty consoled the audience by promising, “We will keep everyone up-to-dated.” Would anyone who had ever read a book—I mean a real book, with real words—say a thing like that?

“There’s the sense that they’re in this together, and they’re just trying to get along as best they can.” That’s what CNN’s Anderson Cooper said on March 14, describing Japanese people waiting hours for government water, only to have an official tell them that the government had run out of water and they would have to wait an undetermined number of additional hours in line. He liked the way the victims remained stolidly in that line. He thought it was good that they didn’t complain. Yes, in subsequent days of reporting, he did begin doing what any normal information-processor would have done right away: he criticized the Japanese government for its lies and incompetence, at least about the lurking threat that we all fear, nuclear reactors. But he never questioned his favorable view of the people’s passivity (the media word was “calm”). It just wasn’t in him to make the connection between the people’s passivity and the government’s incompetence. Again, he didn’t have the words. I assume that he didn’t have the thoughts, either.

Here’s another instance. “You wonder how any government could deal with such a thing,” intoned Shepard Smith, a Fox News figure momentarily stationed in Japan, on the evening of March 15. He was referring to the combination of the nuclear issue and the disaster relief issue, both of which the Japanese government was supposed to “deal with.” Personally, I didn’t “wonder” about that. I suspect that you didn’t either. Any responsible government could find out how to deal with such problems. There are known procedures for addressing dangers in nuclear power plants, and disaster relief is not an unknown science. This wasn’t World War II. But maybe the Japanese official class is like our own — so tied up in its own linguistic incapacities that it can’t formulate an efficient thought.

Now to Libya. I’ve recently written two reflections about Libya for this journal, so I can hit the ground running. What everyone with a brain is still laughing about is President Obama’s address to the nation on March 28. Generally, watchers identified the most risible part of the speech as Obama’s denial that he intended to get rid of Qaddafi. Admittedly, he wanted Qaddafi gone; yet, he said, “broadening our mission to include regime change would be a mistake.” He couldn’t find the words to say “ousting Qaddafi,” so he said “regime change.” If you’ve got the magic decoder, you’ll understand this. But you still may not understand his policy.

By denying his lust for regime change, he costumed himself as a dove. Unfortunately, that made the hawks wonder whether he really, truly, wanted Qaddafi out. (They’d heard double-talk before.) So on the next day, he back went on TV, to express his satisfaction that the members of Qaddafi’s inner circle supposedly “understand that the noose is tightening.” Ah! Now we are the executioner with the noose. So both the hawks and the doves are happy, right? Well, maybe not.

The vocabulary is missing. The official language has no words for “war,” “making war,” or anything else that Obama was obviously doing.

You can tell when somebody is really dumb, or is really desperate for the attention of people in Washington: that person is eager to go on TV and defend nonsense like this, which nobody else could possibly defend. Thus Bill Richardson, once Clinton’s ambassador to Monica Lewinsky, then governor of New Mexico, now television expert on constitutional law, informing CNN that Obama was acting purely in order “to avert a humanitarian disaster” when he started bombing Libya. Asked whether the president shouldn’t have consulted with someone in Congress before going to war, Richardson said there was no need: “This is not a war powers situation.”

You see! You see! There it is again. The vocabulary is missing. The official language has no words for “war,” “making war,” or anything else that Obama was obviously doing. So we are forced to watch this strange, slow shifting of vehicles around the used car lot, as political salesmen try to find some piece of junk that the suckers will buy: “this is not a war powers situation.

Imagine Libyan planes and rockets bombarding the New Jersey coast. Would that be a war powers situation? Would it turn into one if its goal were regime change? Or would it still be a mission to avert a humanitarian disaster, and therefore immune from legislative review?

But here’s the real stuff. In his address to the nation on March 28, President Obama tried to calculate the scale of the humanitarian disaster he was trying to avert, without the help of long (or even short) consultations with Congress: “We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi — a city nearly the size of Charlotte — could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world."

I know, I know — you can’t resist the unintentional humor of “a city nearly the size of Charlotte,” as if anybody knew, or cared, how large Charlotte (North Carolina?) might be. The desired impression was: Whoa! That big, dude? Then I guess we gotta go to war! The real impression was: Not!

But there are so many other things to notice:

The image that simply makes no sense: try to picture a massacre that reverberates.

The modesty that presidents get whenever they know they’re in trouble, and “I” just naturally transforms itself to “we.” (Were YOU waiting? Did YOU know?)

The Victorian prissiness of “suffer a massacre.”

The pathological specificity of “one more day” and “nearly the size.”

The moral stupidity of “stained the conscience of the world,” which literally means that if some bad thing happens, everyone in the world becomes guilty of it. (All right; you think I’m just being sarcastic. Then tell me what the phrase actually means.)

And finally, the breakdown in thought and grammar evident in the goofy progression of verbs: “If we waited . . . Benghazi could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated.” To see what’s happened here, insert some normal words into the various grammatical slots. Like this: “I knew that if I waited, you could write me a check that would have made me rich.” Huh?

Anyone who knew grammar would have fixed that one up, but as we know, Obama, the world-famous author, has no knowledge of grammar, never having mastered even the like-as distinction, let alone verb progression. But examine his inability to distinguish the meanings of “could” and “would.” The president was forced to admit that he had made a decision, that what he did wasn’t inevitable, and that he wasn’t, like Yahweh, absolutely certain about the future. That’s how “could” got into that abominable sentence. Yet at the same time, he wanted to imply that he was certain about the future: why else could, or might, “we” have made the decision we made? So he put in “would.”

And that solved his problem. So far as he could tell.

Don’t blame him. He speaks only the official language.




Share This


Libya and 2012

 | 

By intervening in the Libyan civil war and dragging the United States into war with Libya, President Obama has effectively signed his resignation papers. There is no way that he will win in 2012.

Republicans already hate Obama, but more and more the modern-liberal Democrats are turning on him. Some say he hasn’t done enough to fight global warming (although he’s done too much already); some say he should implement the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell more quickly (which is quite true); some say that he makes too many compromises (although he doesn’t make enough of them). But all these things aside, Obama was elected first and foremost on an anti-war platform. He has failed to stabilize the situation in Iraq, he has failed to get us out of Afghanistan, and now he has started a war with Libya, a war that he cannot blame on Bush.

And why did we get involved in Libya? Either because of its oil reserves, or because we are now the world’s policeman. Neither reason befits an anti-war politician. The anti-war people are soon going to start abandoning Obama in droves, and he will find that the modern-liberal wing of the Democratic Party is not going to worship him as it did back in 2008. Obama’s “change” has been revealed for what it always was, more of the same old politics. He is vulnerable in 2012, especially if the Republic Party nominates an anti-war, libertarian-leaning candidate.




Share This


Obama Channels Bush Again

 | 

Obama, who has made his political career bashing George W. Bush, especially on the war on terror, has in office pursed a war on terror policy that more or less exactly clones Bush’s. For example, as Donald Rumsfeld cheekily pointed out, despite Obama and other critics savaging Bush for setting up the detention prison at Guantanamo Bay, and despite all of Obama’s promises to close it, he has kept it open to this day. He apparently has come to Rumsfeld’s conclusion that Gitmo is “the least worst place.”

Then there is the recent announcement that, after having suspended military trials (“tribunals”) by executive fiat two years ago, Obama has decided to resume such trials. He may even bring new charges to the military tribunals shortly. By doing this, he not only confirms Bush’s original decision to give terrorists military rather than civilian trials; he completely repudiates Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to give them civilian trials. No doubt the public outcry over Holder’s attempt to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York City — an outcry that led to the withdrawal of the idea — helped Obama see the light.

Obama has a fig leaf for his complete reversal: he has added some “due process” rights for the detainees, such as periodic reviews of those held in indefinite custody. But he will now allow the indefinite custody of terrorists. So this is in reality a complete about-face.

It all comes on the heels of last month’s report that Obama had once again signed an extension of the key provisions of the Patriot Act, pending re-passage of the bill in Congress. These provisions include allowing law enforcement to run “roving” wiretaps on several cell phones associated with a target of investigation, allowing law enforcement to get permission from a special court to view the library and business records of suspects in a terrorist investigation, and permitting the FBI to investigate non-American “lone wolf” terrorist suspects.

If Obama had any integrity, or even bipartisanship, he would apologize for statements in the past such as the one that Bush “runs prisons which lock people away without ever telling them why they’re there or what they are charged with.” After all, if that was what Bush was doing (which it wasn’t), Obama is doing the same thing.

If he keeps channeling Bush, Obama may wind up attacking an Arab country that hasn’t attacked us…oh, wait! He just did!

But that is grist for another reflection.




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2018 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.