We're All Turning Into Trust-fund Babies


No cause is so noble that it won't attract fuggheads (Niven’s Law #17). Which, naturally, brings me to Peter Buttigieg.

Now I don’t want to refer to anybody who holds such an august position as mayor of a middle-sized city in Indiana as a fugghead, but it’s hard to take seriously a man who calls himself “Mayor Pete,” not if he aspires to any position requiring more gravitas than community organizer of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood. Still, I think Hizzonor is onto something with his talk about national service.

I know the arguments in opposition; they’ve been well made right here at Liberty — that universal service, whether mandatory or just customary, is a form of slavery. And I yield to no one in my admiration for Lori Heine and Stephen Cox, both as to their talents as writers and the acuity of the thinking that illuminates their writing, but I believe they’re missing an important point about slavery. And citizenship, for that matter. To start with, I don’t think universal service has anything to do with slavery.

It’s hard to take seriously a man who calls himself “Mayor Pete,” not if he aspires to any position requiring more gravitas than community organizer of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Nobody would accuse the citizens of ancient Athens of being slaves. That’s what they had slaves for. The citizens ran the place and elected their leaders and debated in the agora. Some headed up schools of philosophy during business hours, and spent their spare time embarrassing people in the street by asking questions the people couldn’t answer. Socrates was famous for that. He also put in a lot of time in national service. In his case, the infantry. Heavy infantry hoplites fitted out with up to 30 kilos of armor, greaves, shield, spear, sword, helmet. Socrates served in the military, when Athens needed infantry, from his early twenties straight through to his late forties. Close to 30 years: two in training, others disputing against Potidaeans, then Boeotians, and then Spartans.

Here’s why we Americans should care: it was the philosophers who did the fighting, not the slaves, because slaves weren’t citizens, philosophers were, and military service was a badge of citizenship. Even a philosopher who questioned pretty much everything else never asked whether his talents were best suited to the infantry. I don’t know what reasons a middle-aged Socrates would have given for picking up all that gear and heading off to battle time after time, other than that it was his duty as a citizen, but here’s a list of reasons why I think Americans should do national service.

1. The Islam Principle (also applies to academics who can’t get it out of their heads that somewhere, someplace, communism will actually work, members of Kool-Aid cults, people who’ve spent 30 years in psychotherapy, and those who think Hillary Clinton should have another go at the presidency).

Socrates served in the military, when Athens needed infantry, from his early twenties straight through to his late forties.

It doesn’t cost anything to be an American, and it should. There’s a principle in psychology that the more it takes to obtain something the more valuable that something is. Also in economics. You can see this in what people give up to become Muslims: alcohol; bacon; companionable relations with the other sex; the right of women not to be dehumanized by having to wear special costumes when they step out of the house; the right not to dissipate one’s wealth on overpriced trips to Mecca . . . I could go on. It doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to know it’s the sense of community that Muslims derive from mutually suffering through this nonsense that gives Islam the strength to resist the otherwise universal solvent of Enlightenment values.

2. Everybody needs a little skin in the game. Not only are Americans not required to serve in our military; 44% of us don’t even pay federal taxes. But we all expect the military to protect us. We expect air-traffic controllers to keep our planes from bumping into things. We expect the FDA to keep our food from killing us. We expect interstate highway bridges not to collapse beneath us. We expect our harbors not to silt up. We expect . . . oh, you get the point. The 44% of us who don’t pay for any of this, and the 93% who never serve in the military, expect it as much as everybody else.

It’s moral hazard. It’s easy come easy go. It’s welfare queens, rentseekers, and trust-fund babies.

3. The Eisenhower Principle. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no fan of the military as an institution. One of the things you learn from having served is how wasteful, how bloated, how bureaucratic, how just plain stupid the military can be, and that’s not a bad thing for our civilian leaders to know from personal experience.

It doesn’t cost anything to be an American, and it should.

Ike didn’t drop the bomb in Korea, and he didn’t drop it all over again when the Red Chinese were threatening Quemoy and Matsu, even though just about every general he talked with was hounding him to do just that. He knew enough about the military, he knew enough about strategic thinking and, especially, he knew enough about military leaders not to be bullied into doing the wrong thing. I’m not saying every candidate for president should be a five-star general, but I am saying that having leaders who’ve spent enough time in the military to know not to take military people too seriously might save a lot of us from some serious incineration down the road.

4. To know, know, know them is to . . . well, if you don’t love all of them, at least the ones you dislike you dislike because they’re jerks. Here’s another principle in psychology: You’re scared of people you don’t know.

In the military you do know them. You know them because you live in a big room with them. I was a white boy from the suburbs of Atlanta bunking with tough, rural whites; a guy who claimed to be connected to one of the New York crime families and might well have been; a guy from Mississippi who said his family were Druids who’d immigrated to America in the 1700s; sharecroppers; northern whites with hideous, aggressive accents who looked like they stole things; a lawyer; a cowboy who called everybody “partner”; a campus cop from the University of Colorado who’d let himself into the room containing photos from Project Bluebook and came away convinced that flying saucers were real; an African-American chemist who went AWOL and never came back; Chicanos who didn’t want us to eat grapes; ghetto blacks who called each other “nigger” and probably had knives to back it up; and an Eskimo. It all seemed very strange.

One of the things you learn from having served is how wasteful, how bloated, how bureaucratic, how just plain stupid the military can be.

It’s remarkable how that changed. By the time I got out of the army we’d become relaxed around each other and funny. We were loud and raucous and sang along with the Righteous Brothers or Creedence or Waylon and worried about what our girlfriends were up to but, mostly, we just wanted to go home . . . all except the chemist, who may have already been home for all anybody knew. I came to admire some, I never liked all of them, but I liked most of them, and I liked some of them a lot. And the ones I didn’t like, I didn’t like because I didn’t like them personally, not as representativesof something or other I’d never met. It’s not just our leaders who need experience in the military; it’s our people who need experience of America.

5. It makes one hell of a gap year (or two). I’m not going to say that I enjoyed every moment I was in the army. There were times, and plenty of them, I would gladly have been almost anywhere else. But that doesn’t mean I’m not glad I did it. I wasn’t even sorry at the time.

For a young man who’d done nothing more exciting than sit in school and keep his mouth shut while people talked at him, the army scratched a primordial itch. Instead of telling me to sit still and listen, the army told me to run around and yell, and the faster I ran and the louder I yelled, the better they liked it. The army gave me a gun to shoot and things to throw that blew up. It sent me to a strange foreign place and gave me a boat to drive. That was fun and interesting and exotic. There were strange foreign people along the river banks and in sampans, and they were interesting and exotic, too. Sometimes, I got to throw things in their direction that blew up and, other times, they tried to blow me up. I can’t say all that was fun, but I sure wasn’t the same person when I came home. And I was glad of that. I especially wasn’t anything like the people who never went, and I’m even gladder about that. I was stronger and more mature, and had seen some of the world and had a pretty good sense of how I wanted to spend the rest of my life, and it didn’t have much to do with what the people who wanted me to sit at desks and be quiet thought I should do. And I’m most glad about that.

6. It would put a stop to store clerks thanking you for your service. Not that this annoys me, exactly, but these thank yous never seem to reek of sincerity. Now, I’m the last one to argue that Home Depot should discontinue its discount for veterans. Ten percent off goes a long way on big-ticket items. It’s just that the store clerks who thank me don’t know whether I ran a typewriter at Fort Dix or a patrol boat on the Saigon River, which doesn’t make me feel like I’m being thanked for anything I specifically did. Mostly the thankyous come across as smarmy, and hints at some kind of psychiatric sugar-coating for people who either feel smug about not having been in the army or secretly wish they’d had a bit more adventure when they were young. At bottom, I’m just not persuaded that anybody should be thanked for serving in the military. Nobody thanks you for paying taxes. Or sitting on a jury. Or voting. Those are duties that come with citizenship.

Instead of telling me to sit still and listen, the army told me to run around and yell.

I’ve been running on about the military, as if that were the only way to accomplish any of this; but, of course, it’s not. For one thing, the military couldn’t accommodate that many people, and God save the republic if it tried. There are plenty of other things our nation needs doing, not the least of which is just doing things together.

7. Life is better when you’re the landowner. Fifteen, twenty years ago I was at an overlook at Bryce when this old guy got out of his car and walked over and admired the trail leading down into the canyon. The trail was wet and sloppy and stuck so thoroughly to your boots from late-season snow that it was like trying to walk in glue, and boy did that old guy love that trail. When he was a teenager he’d been in the Civilian Conservation Corps and he’d built it. “That trail, right there.”

Sixty or so years later he still came to visit it sometimes. His trail, the one we were looking at. That trail, right there. His wife stayed in the car and harrumphed. She’d been through this before. And she’d never been in the CCC.

There are plenty of things our nation needs doing, not the least of which is just doing things together.

OK, I can hear what you’re thinking. You’re thinking Bill? Bill? The CCC? Really? Enough with this collectivist talk.

But I don’t see it that way. It seems to me I’m talking about responsibility, which is as far from collectivism as you can get because collectivists don’t take responsibility for anything, least of all the country they live in. Collectivists expect the country to take responsibility for them. We’re the libertarians. We’re the ones who take responsibility. We take responsibility for ourselves. We take responsibility for the people we care about. And, at least if you’re me, we’re the ones who should take responsibility for our country as a whole . . . because if we leave it up to the collectivists we’re not going to have a country. At least not a country any of us would want to live in.

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Kashmir: The Constant Conflict


On February 26, 2019, the Indian Air Force, for the first time since 1971, conducted a raid inside Pakistan, and allegedly hit a terrorist training camp, killing more than 250 terrorists. Pakistan showed photographs of damage to a tree or two. According to Pakistani officials, no one died and no infrastructure was damaged.

It is hard to know the truth, for India did not provide any evidence, nor did Pakistan allow journalists access to the site. Both governments blatantly lie to their citizens, retailing falsehoods so hilarious that even a half-sane person could see through them. But drunk in nationalism, Indians and Pakistanis normally don’t.

India’s intrusion was in response to a suicide car-bombing on February 14 in Kashmir, a bombing that killed 45 troops. Indians were moving a convoy of 2,500. They were in buses, not in armoured cars, as officially stated. Challenging the army is sacrilegious, so no one asks why their movement was so badly planned, and why they had not been airlifted, which would have been far cheaper and easier.

Both governments blatantly lie to their citizens, retailing falsehoods so hilarious that even a half-sane person could see through them.

In all the ramping up of emotions in the aftermath of the suicide bombing on the troops, it became very clear that the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, would lose the next elections, which are due in a couple of months, unless he retaliated. Sending India to war was a small price.

Soon after India’s intrusion, Pakistan closed its airspace. Tension at the border went up significantly, and continues.

A day later, Pakistan attempted airstrikes in India. In the ensuing challenge, one of India’s MIG-21, known as flying coffins because they are very old and outdated, was shot down by a Pakistani missile. The Indian pilot parachuted into Pakistani territory. India claimed to have downed a Pakistani F-16. Pakistan denied the claim.

TV stations in both countries were singing songs about the valor of their troops, which consist of uneducated rural people with no other job opportunities and absolutely no clue about what they’re fighting for. These troops act as gladiators for the spectacle of the bored, TV-watching masses, who feel vicariously brave while munching their chips. Of course, the social media warriors know that it is not they who would be at the frontlines in any serious conflict.

It became very clear that the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, would lose upcoming elections unless he retaliated. Sending India to war was a small price.

It is not in the culture of the Third World masses to feel peace and happiness. Either they are slogging away in the field and going to sleep a bit hungry — which helps to keep them focused and sane — or, if they have time on their hands, they become hedonistic and graduate to deriving pleasure from destructive activities. The latter becomes apparent as soon as they have enough to eat. This feedback system in their culture applies entropic force to take them back to Malthusian equilibrium.

Pakistan’s raison d'etre is to obsess over Kashmir and the human rights violations therein that the Indian army inflicts, oblivious of a much worse tyranny provided by its own army and fanatics, particularly in Baluchistan. Once Pakistan’s social media had put the people into a trance of war, officials had no option but to retaliate.

Both armies are thoroughly incompetent and disorganized, and extremely corrupt. (Troops in India actually double up as house-servants of their bosses — something that would be inconceivable to a well-organized and truly nationalistic body of soldiers.) The tribal societies of Pakistan and India merely posture; they have no courage to go into a real war. But alas! Posturing can become reality.

On this occasion, threats of nuclear bombing were made. The bombs would probably have failed to explode, but it was obvious that the United States could not be a bystander. Despite the fact that Trump was busy in Vietnam with another nuclear-armed country, North Korea, he had to make a few calls. He had to interfere, as an adult does when two kids are fighting. Those of us who complain — quite rightly — about the US military-industrial complex should consider the unseen, unrecognized good that the US does in helping to avoid a nuclear holocaust.

Once Pakistan’s social media had put the people into a trance of war, officials had no option but to retaliate.

The cause of such a war — the stated point of contention between between India and Pakistan — is Kashmir. They both want to have Kashmir. And, just to complicate things, some Kashmiris want full independence. But it must be said: the approach of everyone involved is grossly stupid.

Kashmir (including Jammu, “the gateway to Kashmir”) has a GDP of US $22 billion. It has only 1% of India’s population, but it gets 10% of federal grants. India’s defense budget is US $52 billion, with Kashmir as the primary reason; and because of Kashmir a lot of additional funds are spent on internal security, including the 500,000 Indian troops positioned there.

Kashmir is a bottomless pit for India, and the money does no good for Kashmir, either. Kashmir must exist under the tyranny of terrorists and of Indian forces, who under the law do not face accountability in the courts. Kashmir has no resources of value or any economy of substance; its populace is inward-looking and fanatic. There is no reason for India not to kick Kashmir out of the federation.

Pakistan, with a fraction of India’s economy, spends money comparable to India’s to try to take over Kashmir, occupy the one-third of Kashmir that it has right now, train terrorists, and, as a consequence, destroy itself economically and socially. Were Kashmir to join Pakistan, it would offer only negative value, dragging down Pakistan’s per capita GDP. There is no rational reason for Pakistan to accept Kashmir, let along fight for it.

Threats of nuclear bombing were made. The bombs would probably have failed to explode, but it was obvious that the United States could not be a bystander.

Kashmir as an independent country would be landlocked and not much different from Afghanistan. No sane Kashmiri would want to be independent from India. Although India is backward and wallows in poverty and tyranny, in relative terms it is the best hope for Kashmir. Moreover, Ahmadi Muslims who went to Pakistan after the separation of 1947 are deemed non-Muslims by mainstream Pakistanis and by Pakistan’s constitution. The same fate awaits Kashmiris if they join Pakistan.

In a sane world, there is nothing to negotiate. As you can see above, I could be on any of the three sides of the negotiating table and accept demands of the other two without asking for anything in return. Unfortunately, my compromises would not be seen as such. In keeping with Third World proclivities, they would be seen as signs of weakness, and new demands would soon be made, ceaselessly generated by superstition, ego, expediency, tribalism, and emotion. This, not Kashmir, is the primary problem, and this is the reason why here is no solution, ever.

Muslims are not the only culprits — it is merely that talking about them post-9/11 is politically more acceptable. In the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and Africa, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims are all included in the cycle of tyranny and irrationality. If Islam comes across as worse, it is mostly because in these places it has institutionalized irrationality, fed on it, and been self-victimized by it.

Kashmir is a bottomless pit for India, and the money does no good for Kashmir, either.

Since the inclusion of the sharia in Pakistan’s constitution in the 1980s, Pakistan, which was until then richer than India on a per capita basis, has taken a rapid slide downwards. Today, freedom of speech is so constrained that any accusation of having said a word against the “holy” book or the army can result in capital punishment — if, that is, one avoids getting lynched before reaching the courts.

A Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death in Pakistan in 2010 for the crime of drinking water from a cup reserved for Muslims. After a decade of prison, she was released, not because the supreme court saw the case as utterly stupid, which it should have, but because it didn’t see a clear proof that she had committed the “crime.” Pakistan erupted in civil chaos as millions walked the streets, asking for her blood. In my totem pole of values and consequences, Pakistan is 25 years ahead of India in self-destruction.

I arrived in India last week. Corruption these days hits me soon after I land. It has now become customary for the toilet-caretaker at the airport to demand a tip. With his dirty hands he offers tissue paper to me and tries to make me feel guilty if I don’t accept it.

In the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and Africa, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims are all included in the cycle of tyranny and irrationality.

The Indian government has tried to control corruption, through the demonetization of 86% of currency in 2016 and the imposition of a nationwide sales tax a year later. While these haven’t controlled corruption, they have managed to seriously harm the economy by destroying the informal sector, which employs 82% of Indians. And without the informal sector, the formal sector will falter.

Financial corruption is not even the real problem. Were bribery to stop, India would rapidly become North Korea or Eritrea. I say that because financial corruption is a necessary safety valve in overregulated societies. When such backward societies do manage to control bribery in isolation, they create extremely suffocating environments. North Korea and Eritrea have actually controlled bribery by getting their citizens to snitch on each other and by extraordinary levels of punishments. Backward societies like these are necessarily subdued and stagnant, lack of skills being the real reason for their backwardness; and the lack of the safety valve of bribery constricts whatever potential they have. But financial corruption, a symptomatic problem, is seen as the prime problem by politically correct kids who go to study at Ivy League colleges and then to work for IMF, the World Bank, etc., without a real-life experience. They see financial corruption being removed from one place, only to find it reappearing in another; they don’t understand what is happening.

India is an ocean of corruption, but it’s not just financial. More importantly, it’s cultural. The real corruption is cultural irrationality, the irrationality of people who operate not through honesty, pride, compassion, or honor, but through expediency. Trying to control bribery in such societies does not work, because bribes are just a part of the whole package of social corruption and irrationality.

Financial corruption is a necessary safety valve in overregulated societies. When such backward societies do manage to control bribery in isolation, they create extremely suffocating environments.

As the economy has grown, India has been on a path to increased fanaticism and violent nationalism. These days, if you are found to be in possession of beef, you risk getting lynched. Nationalism is on the rise, rather rapidly. You are forced to stand up for the national anthem before the start of movies in cinema halls. Complaining against the Prime Minister on social media can land you in prison. Opposing his policies can get you beaten up. India’s constitution stays secular, but the trend is in the same direction that Pakistan has been on.

The World Bank, IMF, etc. continue to report that India is among the fastest growing economies in the world, and is perhaps even faster growing than China. While these numbers are completely erroneous, even if they weren’t, institutionally the Indian subcontinent has been rudderless since the time the British left. All economic growth since the time of so-called independence has come because of importation of technology from the West.

But what about the fact that India has one of the largest numbers of engineers and PhDs in the world? It is easy to get a degree without studying — and not just in India — and the results are obvious. In the age of the internet, when a competent engineer can work remotely for a Western client, Indian “engineers” work as taxi drivers, deliver Amazon products, or get jobs as janitors. Their degrees are just degrees on paper.

India has been on a path to increased fanaticism and violent nationalism. These days, if you are found to be in possession of beef, you risk getting lynched.

Moreover, education is a tool; so is technology. They must be employed by reason. Without reason, “education” and technology serve the wrong masters: tribalism and superstitions. No wonder that with increasing prosperity, “educational” achievement, and better technology, India is regressing culturally.

India is massively lacking in skills. As I write sitting in India today, I ask my maid, who is joining the university soon, not to put the dusty carpet on my bed. But I must remind her this every day. She struggles to write her own name. Very simple algebra is beyond her grasp. Her case might be an extreme one, but most Indians are completely unprepared for the modern economy. This is the reason why you hardly see anything in Western markets that is made in India, despite India’s having more than one-sixth of the world’s population. It is virtually impossible to form a company of five people in India and expect it to work with any kind of efficiency.

People often blame China for copying Western technology. While that is true, one must recognize that copying takes a certain amount of skills that people in some other economies simply don’t have. The situation of India has worsened as the best of Indians now increasingly prefer to leave for greener pastures, even including Papua New Guinea. Lacking leadership, post-British India is rapidly becoming tribal, fanatic, and nationalistic. We must remember that India as a union is together only because of inertia from the days of the British. When the inertia is gone, India will fall into tribal units, as will Pakistan and much of the rest of the Third World.

Without reason, “education” and technology serve the wrong masters: tribalism and superstitions.

A horrible war will one day break out between India and Pakistan. It will not be because of Kashmir, which is just an excuse, but because irrational people always blame others, envy, and hate them. They fail to negotiate. They have no valor, but constant posturing will eventually trigger something. There is no solution to their problems. Every problem that the British left behind has simmered and gotten worse.

As soon as India reaches a stage where it can no longer grow economically because of imported technology, its cultural decline will become rapidly visible. Though India is 25 years behind Pakistan, both are walking toward self-destruction, to a tribal, medieval past.

As for the US, the job of any rational US president is to help ensure that destruction stays within the borders of India and Pakistan.

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War from the Individual Perspective


It’s a sunny blue-sky day in a charming French provincial town, when propaganda leaflets start raining down from the sky. Three soldiers walk into the foreground until the camera rests on the handsome young face of one of them, the story’s eventual protagonist (Fionn Whitehead). He spies a hose coiled next to a house and falls to his knees, upending the coil so the standing water drips into his mouth. I can taste the stagnant warmth of the water even as I feel its wet relief on his parched throat. The day may be sunny, but it’s far from bucolic.

Shots ring out and the men begin running toward a fence, joined by other soldiers equally determined to escape the Germans. One by one they’re picked off by the bullets. Only our unnamed and unvoiced hero makes it over the fence. My heart races with empathic panic and I think of how desperately he needs that helmet he took off to drink the water. How can I be so invested so quickly in the life of a character who is virtually unknown? I realize that the tension in my heart is being controlled by the tension of the music and the pace of the action, as it will be controlled throughout this movie.

Why does he survive when the other six soldiers fleeing the town are shot? Why does he survive when hundreds of soldiers awaiting rescue on the beach around him are killed?

I went to Dunkirk expecting to learn about the strategic significance of the battle that was waged there, when nearly 400,000 Allied troops were stranded near the beaches of France, waiting either for reinforcement or evacuation. Much has been written about the decision of German leaders not to press forward to annihilate the Allied troops, and British leaders’ hesitation to send a full barrage of support. It is considered the greatest defeat and the greatest triumph of the Second World War. I’ll be on the beaches of Dunkirk and Normandy next month, and I thought that watching this movie would enhance my appreciation of visiting the site.

But that’s not what the movie is about.

If you didn’t already know what happened at Dunkirk, the movie might make you think it was a minor skirmish involving a handful of soldiers, a couple of fighter planes, a few queues of Brits lined up to wait (unsuccessfully) for the next transport ship, and a single fishing boat crossing the channel to rescue them all, with a few random German bombers and snipers causing unexpected havoc along the way. We’re aware of the crowds of soldiers on the beach and the boats in the water, but they don’t have the vast impact of the same scene in films such as Atonement (2007); they seem almost like set dressing. And the French soldiers who kept the Germans at bay have no place in this film. In fact, the only French soldier in Dunkirk is portrayed as something of a coward.

Instead, this film focuses on our unnamed soldier and the inexplicable randomness of survival. Why does he survive when the other six soldiers fleeing the town are shot? Why does he survive when hundreds of soldiers awaiting rescue on the beach around him are killed by strafing or blown up by bombs? Why does he survive while those “fortunate enough” to board the rescue boats are lost? Director Christopher Nolan deliberately cast young unknown actors to emphasize the youth and inexperience of the soldiers at Dunkirk and the senseless serendipity of who survives and who does not.

The score is not melodic in the usual sense, but it pervades the film and invades the viewer.

Meanwhile, Captain Dawson (Mark Rylance) of a small fishing vessel hurries across the channel with a boatload of life vests, teamed only with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a family friend, George (Barry Koeghan). Dawson seems a sad sack of a man, but his small stature belies his strong character; he is determined to get those boys home. His character is loosely based on Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller, a Titanic survivor who at Dunkirk rescued 55 soldiers in his personal yacht, the Sundowner, when he was 66. (Dawson’s boat is called the Moonstone.) Rounding out the rescue team are two pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), whose job is to take down the German planes that are targeting the rescue ships, and two officers, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), who are overseeing the evacuation in France.

The film is impressionistic in that each of these groups is representative of a larger whole, and the story is neither chronological nor complete. You’ll be confused by the juxtaposition of seemingly simultaneous scenes set in daylight and dark until you realize that one of the scenes is a flashback. Nolan explained that the alteration of time was necessary in order to bring the three storylines together, one taking a week (on the beach) one taking a day (on the ocean) and one taking an hour (in the air). In sum, Dunkirk provides an impression of the battle rather than a chronological history, and the sooner you realize that, the easier it is to follow the movie.

Dunkirk doesn’t have the flying limbs, disemboweled torsos, and spurting blood we’ve come to expect.

Contributing significantly to the film’s success is its quiet, relentlessly rising musical motif based thematically on Elgar’s “Nimrod” and scored by Hans Zimmer. Zimmer used a pocket watch that Nolan sent to him as an instrument in the orchestration to create the underlying pulse that subconsciously controls the viewer’s heartbeat, while Elgar’s theme and Zimmer’s use of cellos at the limits of their normal pitch creates a sense of anxiety. They also incorporated a technique called the “Shepard Tone,” which is a kind of musical version of M.C. Escher’s never-ending staircase that gives the impression of a never-ending rise in pitch. All of this leads to the continuous, unresolved tension. The resulting score is not melodic in the usual sense, but it pervades the film and invades the viewer. The Shepard Tone is also mirrored visually in Nolan’s juxtaposition of the three storylines (shore, sea, and air), in which one is always beginning, one is always climaxing, and a third is always ending.

Dunkirk is not a typical war movie. It doesn’t have the flying limbs, disemboweled torsos, and spurting blood we’ve come to expect after the gruesome realism Spielberg introduced in the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan 23 years ago. It’s a quiet film about individual courage, cowardice, suspicion, randomness, and the unrelenting desire for home.

Editor's Note: Review of "Dunkirk," directed by Christopher Nolan. Warner Brothers, 2017, 106 minutes.

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Out of the Silence


Jesuit missionaries arrived in Japan during the mid-16th century, and Christianity initially flourished, with over 100,000 converts. But as the church’s influence over the people grew, the civil government resisted, banning Jesuit missionaries in 1587 and outlawing Christianity completely in 1620 (ironically the same year when oppressed Christian pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock). Many Japanese converts abandoned the church, while others went underground and practiced their religion secretly. Many of those were tortured and killed.

Silence is set against this backdrop of silent, secret worship. When church leaders hear that a beloved priest, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has recanted his testimony and converted to Buddhism, two of his protégés, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) refuse to believe the rumor of his apostasy and resolve to travel to Japan in search of their mentor.

In Japan Rodrigues and Garupe discover a community of secret Christians who greet them with joy and beg them to stay. The priests hide in a mountain hut during the day and perform furtive ordinances of baptism, communion, and confession at night. The literal darkness of these scenes contributes to the spiritual darkness of the film. Despite being about sacrifices made on behalf of faith, it is utterly without light or hope.

Many Japanese converts abandoned the church, while others went underground and practiced their religion secretly. Many of those were tortured and killed.

We see people anxious to make confession and priests willing to absolve them, but we see no actual change in their moral character resulting from their Christian experience; in fact, the only consistency about one person is his continual backsliding and serial confession for the same treacherous sin. We see villagers eager to receive Father Rodrigues’ humbly crafted crosses and the beads he shares by disassembling his own rosary, but no visible improvement in their lives. We see torture and brutality, but we see no evidence of what motivates faith. We hear no homilies or scripture stories to promote conversion or stave off apostasy. We see people willing to die for their religion, but no apparent reason to live for it. Even Father Rodrigues, who has sacrificed everything for his faith, begins to question the Silence he hears from God. When Father Ferreira turns to teaching medicine and astronomy instead of Christianity, he sighs, “It’s fulfilling to finally be of use in this country.”

In short, what we don’t see in this film about religion is any real experience of religion. Despite the serenity of the gorgeous landscapes and the sincerity of the acting, there is a vast spiritual emptiness in this film that purports to be about unwavering faith. The torture feels gratuitous and the sacrifice of these souls unnecessary. No good comes from their torture and deaths. No one lives because they die. Their resistance to the ban against Christianity begins to feel more like arrogance than submission to God. When Rodrigues devoutly refuses to step on a tile image of Christ, even though his parishioners will be tortured until he does, the Japanese Inquisitor (Issei Ogata) scoffs, “The price for your glory is their suffering!”

Rodrigues’ anguish for the people is palpable, but is his stand truly noble? Christ died so that others could live. He endured immeasurable suffering at Gethsemane, and withstood mockery and humiliation from his tormentors, with patience and forgiveness. Would he really be so terribly offended if a priest stepped on his picture in order to save a community of faithful Christians? Or would he be glad that Rodrigues gave up his pride in his own spiritual strength, in order to protect them? Making a false statement with fingers crossed was designed exactly for this kind of moment. The Inquisitor doesn’t even care whether the recantation is sincere. He urges, “You don’t have to believe it. Just do it.” So do it, I thought, and let these poor Christian villagers go free.

We see torture and brutality, but we see no evidence of what motivates faith.

Rodrigues’ resistance demonstrates, ironically, a lack of faith in the mercy and love of Christ. Peter himself denied knowing Jesus in the hours before the crucifixion (an event alluded to in the movie with the crowing of a rooster at a significant moment), but Jesus did not condemn Peter for it. In fact, the false denial might have been the reason that Peter remained alive and free. Days later, Jesus met him on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and called him with the words, “Feed my sheep.” Peter then served as the leader of the church until his death. Sometimes the expedient choice is the correct one, especially in the face of tyrants.

In Silence, Andrew Garfield is fully committed to his character. He imbues Father Rodrigues with pitiable angst and heartache. I have no criticism to bring against his acting skills, or those of Adam Driver (who lost 50 pounds for his role) or the others in the fine cast. I also admire the cinematography skills of Rodrigo Prieto, whose work on this film has been nominated for an Oscar. But they couldn’t rise above the misguided script.

Let’s compare the spiritual emptiness ofSilence with the noble richness of Hacksaw Ridge, another film in which Andrew Garfield portrays a Christian driven by spiritual commitment, in this case to perform herculean deeds. In Hacksaw Ridge, his character risks his life for something grand and important, something well worth the sacrifice.

Desmond Doss was the first conscientious objector to serve as a medic at the battlefront. He didn’t carry a gun, but he saved the lives of at least 50 Marines at the battle for Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa. Witnesses put the number at closer to 100; in awarding him the Congressional Medal of Honor, officials set it at 75. The movie about that terrible battle is inspiring, brutalizing, and sometimes overwhelming in its alternating beauty and horror.

Sometimes the expedient choice is the correct one, especially in the face of tyrants.

Act I offers a slice of Blue Ridge Americana, filmed in bright airy daylight that contrasts with the dark, smoky scenes of Act II, during the battle. That first act opens on young Desmond (Darcy Bryce) and his brother Hal (Roman Guerriero) racing through the sunny woods and up the face of a cliff. We meet Desmond’s parents and his rural community, and we see his sweetly innocent courtship with the angelic Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), a courtship that includes a romantic climb to the top of the mountain. We get it — despite his slight build, Desmond has spent a lifetime building endurance and strength.

Two events lead to Desmond’s decision never to take up arms. First, he nearly kills his brother with a brick in a boyhood tussle. Second, his drunken, abusive father nearly kills his mother with a gun, and Desmond nearly uses that gun to protect her from him. Shaken by the strength of his own anger, he vows never to touch a gun again. Nevertheless, he is determined to serve in the military. And with good reason — he sees how “survivor guilt” has affected his father.

Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving), Desmond’s father, is a veteran of World War I. He fought bravely and was decorated twice. But he was overcome by the guilt of returning alive, while most of his buddies returned in a box. He returned from the war safe, but not sound. His sullenness, his drinking, and his wife-beating are a direct result of his guilt and the senseless deaths of his friends. Tom argues eloquently about the futility of war, and for a libertarian viewer, his lines are some of the best in the film. Nevertheless, Desmond joins up. “I had to enlist,” he tells Dorothy on the day he proposes to her. “I can’t stay here while all of them go fight for me.”

At boot camp Desmond encounters a different argument, this one favoring war. “We fight to defend our rights, and to protect our women and children,” Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) tells him, and Desmond agrees. One could argue the relative merits of leaving those women and children at home while traveling thousands of miles across the sea to defend them, but at least Howell argues for defense rather than expansion and plunder. When Desmond adamantly refuses to pick up a gun, even for target practice, Howell tries to have him sent home. Again, his reasoning is sound. “A unit is no stronger than its weakest member,” Howell says, and a member who can’t or won’t defend himself seems as weak as they come. Protecting a conscientious objector in the fray of battle could become a deadly distraction. In a situation that recalls the central conflict in A Few Good Men, Howell and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) do their best to get rid of Doss. The derision, the beatings, and even a court martial serve only to strengthen him for what lies ahead.

Tom argues eloquently about the futility of war, and for a libertarian viewer, his lines are some of the best in the film.

Knowing director Mel Gibson’s penchant for gruesome realism, I braced myself for the battle scenes. In the first few moments of the climactic battle, as the soldiers scale the ridge and move forward toward the enemy, the remains of the previous day’s battle reminded me of the set dressing at Universal Horror Nights: dismembered guts and body parts strew the ground, but they seem rubbery and painted. I relax. I can handle this. Then the actual battle explodes, and holy moly, does it become gruesome! One soldier picks up the torso of a dead man, blood dripping from where the legs used to be, and uses it as a shield while he runs forward, shooting into the oncoming lines. I learned what eyelids are made for and used them judiciously for the next half hour. But the screaming and explosions of war are inescapable (and their realism led to Oscar nominations for both sound and sound editing).

The brutality of these scenes is graphic but not gratuitous, as it prepares us to understand more fully what Desmond Doss experienced that night. Surrounded by gunfire, grenades, and flamethrowers, he scrambles through the carnage to find the wounded, administer field dressings and morphine, and drag people to safety. Even when the rest of the regiment is ordered to withdraw to safety while it regroups, Doss remains behind until at least 75 wounded men have been rescued. At one point he looks to the sky and cries out, “What do you want of me? I can’t hear you!” I thought of Father Rodrigues’ discouraged prayer in Silence. But on Hacksaw Ridge, there is no such silence. The answer screams from the field: “Help me!” Doss gets to work. Throughout the night, as he searches and hauls, and dodges the enemy whom he refuses to kill, this mantra carries him through the exhausting night: “Please, Lord, help me get one more! Help me get one more . . . one more . . . just one more.”

Seeing Hacksaw Ridge the first time, I was moved to tears by the humble courage and determination of the heroic protagonist. Seeing it the second time, I was impressed even more by the subtle ways Gibson used Act I to foreshadow Act II, especially the scenes in which Doss is running and climbing cliffs with his brother and later with Dorothy. The sunlit grandeur of his childhood climbs belies the dark forbidding face of Hacksaw Ridge. His closing scenes are equally artistic and evocative. Gibson is not well liked in Hollywood because of his drunken rant during a traffic stop a decade ago and because of his conservative political views, so I was shocked — pleasantly — when the Academy voters recognized the quality of the filmmaking and the heroism of the story and nominated Hacksaw Ridge for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. For me, in a year when the competition is tight and every single Best Picture nominee is, in my opinion, worthy of the grand prize, Hacksaw Ridge is the best film of the year.

Editor's Note: Review of "Silence," directed by Martin Scorsese. EFO Films, 2016, 161 minutes; and "Hacksaw Ridge," directed by Mel Gibson. Cross Creek Pictures, 2016, 139 minutes.

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Better than Advertised


If you encountered the trailers for War Dogs, you would probably expect to see a typically raunchy Todd Phillips and Jonah Hill road trip, set untypically in the Middle East. But you would be wrong, and that’s a good thing. While there is indeed a wild ride from Jordan to Iraq as Mr. Hill’s character is being chased by Fallujahns wielding AK-47s, War Dogs is a surprisingly satisfying and informative film. It’s based on the true story of an unlikely pair of entrepreneurs who managed to live as fat as drug dealers in Miami by procuring supplies for the military.

David Packouz (Miles Teller) is working as a door-to-door massage therapist when middle-school chum Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) comes back into his life and invites him to help in his new business — providing materiel for the military. Partly as a reaction to the profits Dick Cheney made in the Middle East through his company Haliburton, Congress changed US policy in the ’90s so as to require multiple bids in procuring supplies. Efraim realized that big companies only wanted to bid on big contracts, and that created a niche for him. “Everyone’s fighting over the same pie and ignoring the crumbs,” he explains to David. “I live off the crumbs.”

What isn’t legal is the way Efraim and David create the required resumes and business history out of thin air and Photoshop.

Soon the two are in business together, living off more than crumbs in their newly purchased Miami beachfront condos and poring over contract listings to search for the buttons, belts, and bullets that other companies are likely to ignore. “It costs $17,500 to outfit one American soldier,” David, who narrates the story, tells the audience. You can make just as much money selling helmets and gloves as you can selling tanks and airplanes. Sometimes more, as Efraim and David discover. One deal is for more than $300 million. All of this is legal, and necessary. Competitive bids, after all, should keep the price down, and provide some relief to the taxpayer.

What isn’t legal is the way Efraim and David create the required resumes and business history out of thin air and Photoshop. Or how they work with shady characters around the world to fulfill the orders they’ve promised to supply. Or how they circumvent embargoes and other regulations to make sure their deliveries go through. They’re like FedEx on steroids. And cocaine.

Efraim is wild, unpredictable, greedy, and self-serving — a role tailor-made for Jonah Hill. By contrast, David is a family man with a new baby and a conscience. He wants a better life for his family than what he can provide as a massage therapist, but he doesn’t want to destroy his relationship with his partner Iz (Ana de Armas) in the process. The dynamic between these two character types, one virtually amoral and the other morally connected, drives the conflict of the film and creates a satisfying storyline.

They’re like FedEx on steroids. And cocaine.

As the film came to an end on the night I saw it, and the audience stood up to leave, I was struck by the number of young men who had come in packs. I don’t think they were Iraqi veterans looking to reminisce about their latest tour of duty. They had come for a mindless, raunchy Todd Phillips comedy, à la The Hangover Part IV: Iraqi Nights or something like that — the film the trailer promised to deliver. What they got was something else — something you could also say about the characters in the film. From the conversations I overheard, they didn’t seem disappointed. War Dogs is entertaining throughout, with well-developed characters and a healthy underlying cynicism about war.

Narrator David asks us, “What do you know about war? They’ll tell you it’s about patriotism, democracy. . . . But you wanna know what it’s really about? . . . War is an economy. Anybody who tells you otherwise is either in on it or stupid.” David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli were both — they were in on it, and ultimately they were stupid. Nevertheless, he continues, “War dogs [are] bottom feeders who make money off of war without ever stepping foot on the battlefield. It was supposed to be derogatory, but we kind of liked it.“

Whether they’re bottom feeders or not, I kind of liked this film.

Editor's Note: Review of "War Dogs," directed by Todd Phillips. Green Hat Films, 2016, 114 minutes.

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They Don’t Know What Everyone Else Knows


According to an AP report of July 17, the FBI is feverishly hunting for a motive for the terrorist massacre committed in Chattanooga by a radical Muslim named Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez:

Authorities “have not determined whether it was an act of terrorism or whether it was a criminal act,” Ed Reinhold, an FBI special agent in charge, told reporters. “We are looking at every possible avenue, whether it was terrorism — whether it was domestic, international — or whether it was a simple, criminal act.”

“We have no idea what his motivation was behind this shooting,” Reinhold said.

A leading Muslim imam did better, lots better. Suhaib Webb, who leads an Islamic institute in Washington DC, said, “It will probably be that he’s done this in the name of some radical Muslim group. . . . No official motive has been established, but sadly, I've seen this too many times. While millions are excited to celebrate Eid [the Muslim holiday], groups like ISIS, al-Qāidah and others continue to show that they have no regard for life or traditions, Muslim or not, young or old.”

But back to the FBI agent. For what reason would he possibly say such a preposterous thing? For what reason should anyone be paid for suggesting that he and his colleagues had “no idea” what they were doing? It used to be that we paid cops less, and they had more brains.

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Decorating the Dead


My grandmother and her friends used to call Memorial Day by its old name, Decoration Day. People went out to the cemeteries to “decorate” the graves. As a young man, I thought, “What hypocrisy! Millions of people are slaughtered in wars, and they are ‘remembered’ by people who ‘decorate’ their graves!”

The thought still seems unavoidable, especially when you see the Memorial Day ceremonies at a military cemetery. Here are thousands of identical white tombstones, “memorializing” individual men and women who are, for the most part, remembered by no one. And these are only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of people slaughtered by wars and revolutions during the past two centuries — shot, drowned, blown apart, starved to death.

Nor is mass slaughter merely a feature of the modern world. The Iroquois wiped out the civilization of the Hurons, and tried to wipe out the Hurons themselves. They almost succeeded. Where are the tribes of the ancient European world? In many cases, only their names remain to be “memorialized,” by the rare scholar who knows their names.

Yet I believe that the idea of “decoration” or “remembrance” can be more than hypocrisy, if we — like, perhaps, my grandmother and her friends — actually use it as a way of asserting the significance of individual human lives. Though lost to specific memory, the lives of those people whose graves we see beyond the cemetery fence were real and important. If in decorating a tomb we actually do remember that, and at the same time remember the horrors that inevitably occur when the significance of the individual is forgotten, we may do well.

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Obama's ISIS Strategy: Death by Flatulence


The more the Obama administration talks about the war on terrorism, the less we know. What are we fighting? Is it violent extremism or radical Islam? OK, it's actually radical Islam (we only need to kill jihadists, not all Muslims); the term "violent extremism" is less offensive to violent Islamists and no one cares about its repugnance to non-Muslim violent extremists — a subset in the Venn diagram of terrorism that is imperceptible to all but a handful of White House officials.

But is it Sunni radical Muslims or Shiite radical Muslims that are the problem? Or both? (And who are we to make such judgments — after the Crusades and all?) Do we need to worry about Iran, with its expanding regional hegemony, soon to be bolstered by nuclear weapons? Or Iraq, which, having been abandoned by the US in 2010, has descended into barbaric chaos with the Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) running amok throughout its north, and equally vicious Iranian militia groups running amok everywhere else? Or both?

And what about the original Syrian rebels, valiantly fighting Bashar Assad? When, in 2011, the civilian death toll from Assad's brutal regime had reached 2,000, a horrified Mr. Obama declared that Assad must step aside. Yet, after drawing his famous red line, it was Obama who stepped aside, allowing both ISIS and Iranian thugs to trespass into Syria. What are we to make of Obama's silence today, when the Syrian death toll exceeds 200,000? And, as Hezbollah fighters and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) creep into the Golan Heights and Hamas wages war in Gaza, why has Mr. Obama become displeased with Israeli president, Nethenyahu? Is it time to abandon Israel?

When it comes to facing ISIS on the ground, those with the most to lose have the greatest aversion to do so.

Some experts believe that if we (Western infidels) knew what radical Muslims wanted, then a reasonably peaceful coexistence agreement could be reached. But, as President Obama is discovering in his negotiations with Iran, even when we know what radical Muslims want, compromise is a charade, with reason playing, at best, a bit part to concession.

Despite his Herculean appeasement efforts, Obama has been unable to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program. His support for President Nouri al-Maliki (a puppet of Iran ) and his (Maliki's) violent purge of Sunni participation in Iraqi government affairs; his hasty withdrawal of American military forces — just when the Bush-Petraeus surge had stabilized the country and Vice President Biden was gleefully declaring that Iraq was "going to be one of the great achievements of this administration"; his refusal to help the Kurds fight ISIS militants; his blind eye to the spread of Shiite terrorism in Syria, Iraq, Lebenon, Yemen, and Gaza — all has been for naught.

In 2012, Obama issued a crystal clear promise to "do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from producing an atomic bomb." That promise became nebulous with a November 2013 agreement to forge, within six months, a treaty to freeze or reverse progress at all of Iran’s major nuclear facilities. Today, as the delays (and the relaxation of economic sanctions against Iran) continue, Obama's promise is idle. The mullahs, who have been playing him for a sucker all along, will get their bomb. Obama can only hope for a toothless treaty that postpones Iran's acquisition of a functioning ICBM system — until after he leaves office, when nuclear proliferation in the Middle East will become his successor's problem.

As al Qaeda continues to be a grave threat, Mr. Obama has convinced himself that for ISIS — the now much larger threat — we can pretend that everything's going to be OK.

We also know what Sunni Muslim radical organizations such as ISIS want. They tell us, loudly and unequivocally: 7th-century Islam, a caliphate, with sharia law, and remorseless death to all who interfere. That they are pathologically indifferent to diplomacy, negotiation, or compromise is demonstrated in a relentless parade of choreographed atrocities: decapitation, crucifixion, immolation, torture, rape, slavery, and mass murder, to name a few. In his brilliant and disturbing exposé, What ISIS Really Wants, Graeme Wood elucidates,

We can gather that their state [ISIS] rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of — and headline player in — the imminent end of the world.

Wood suspects that, in the past year, president Obama's confusion over the nature of ISIS "may have contributed to significant strategic errors." The confusion extends much further back. As ISIS marauded into Iraq in late 2013, Obama may have believed that he could reason with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of what Obama perceived to be the al Qaeda JV team. However, already embroiled in the war against terrorism and fully aware of ISIS's fanatical designs on Iraq, he might have followed the advice of Benjamin Franklin, arguably the finest diplomat in US history, who knew that sometimes "force shites on the back of reason." Had Obama chosen this path, any time before January 3, 2014, the day when Fallujah fell to al-Baghdadi's brutal thugs, would have been a fine time for overwhelming military force to shit on the back of ISIS.

It did not. Unchallenged, ISIS continued its rapid expansion, conquering most of northern Iraq by early June, when it captured the city of Mosul. It wasn't until August, when American journalist James Foley was beheaded, that Obama sprang into action — in a press briefing, where the president announced, to the dismay of our allies in the Middle East and Europe, that he had no strategy.

By the following week, however, he had hastily cobbled together a plan to "degrade and ultimately defeat" ISIS. Enlisting the aid of allies (nine, initially), it would involve air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and not involve American "boots on the ground" anywhere. With Syria but a tattered impression in his entangled memory, Secretary of State John Kerry spouted, “Obviously I think that’s a red line for everybody here.” ISIS poses no existential threat to the US, yet. The immediate threat is to Iraq, the oil producing monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula, and, to a lesser extent, Europe. When it comes to facing ISIS on the ground, those with the most to lose have the greatest aversion to do so.

Obama's goal may be to defeat ISIS, but his strategy is based on constraint.

Only the Kurds have been willing to face ISIS. Apart from Israel, they are our only true ally in the region. They struggle alone, except for sporadic US air support. Their weapons are obsolete. The ISIS attackers wield vastly superior American weapons, stolen from the Iraqi military. Kurdish pleas for such weapons have found nothing but Obama's shameless denial.

Our other Middle East allies meekly stand by, partly because of their reluctance to face any grueling warfare, but also, perhaps more significantly, because of their suspicions about Obama. They are Sunnis, who, while appreciating Obama's dilemma in Syria (where he can't bomb ISIS without helping Assad), are deeply troubled by his concessions to Iran — a Shiite juggernaut feared more than ISIS. Why should they follow a leader whose ultimate sympathies lie with their ultimate enemy?

President Obama entered office vowing to deliver on his campaign pledge to improve America's image in the Middle East. Apologizing for America's arrogance (including the War in Iraq, torture, Gitmo, and more), he did his best to ingratiate himself to the Muslim world. He did, however, warn that "al Qaeda is still a threat and that we cannot pretend somehow that because Barack Hussein Obama got elected as president suddenly everything's going to be OK."

But ending the Iraq War did not win the favor of Islam. Indeed, Obama's hasty withdrawal from Iraq (against the wishes of his military advisors) thrust that country into a violent chaos that destroyed what he himself called “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq" and touted as "an extraordinary achievement." It allowed ISIS to be created — reconstituted from the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) that had been defeated by the Bush-Petraeus surge. With his pre-announced 2016 exit, Afghanistan is likely to follow the same trajectory. And we were kicked out of Libya, Yemen, and Syria by Sunni Muslim terrorists, Shiite Muslim terrorists, and Vladimir Putin, respectively. So much for America's image.

As al Qaeda continues to be a grave threat, Mr. Obama has convinced himself that for ISIS — the now much larger threat — we can pretend that everything's going to be OK. In his recent Vox interview, he asserted that the media exaggerates terrorism and that climate change and epidemic disease may be more important issues. He concedes that it is legitimate for Americans to be concerned "when you've got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris," fastidiously avoiding, of course, any association with radical Islam. We should not be alarmed by the organization that he once dismissed as a JV team, and now dismisses as a caliphate, believing that it will collapse under its own weight. Says Obama, "It [ISIS] can talk about setting up the new caliphate but nobody is under any illusions that they can actually, you know, sustain or feed people or educate people or organize a society that would work."

Nevertheless, with the gruesome ISIS murders, in early February, of a Japanese journalist (beheaded), a Jordanian pilot (burned alive in a cage), and 21 Egyptian Christians (beheaded), Obama was spurred to action. He convened a global summit, in Washington DC, where leaders from 60 countries came to combat "violent extremism” — by the surprising method of "empowering local communities" that can provide "economic, educational and entrepreneurial development so people have hope for a life of dignity." Said the president, "We can help Muslim entrepreneurs and youths work with the private sector to develop social media tools to counter extremist narratives on the Internet." To that end, the State Department promptly opened 350 twitter accounts (designed, apparently, to deluge the violent extremists with clever anti-barbarism tweets) and a new web site: "The Solution to Violent Extremism Begins in your Community."

Strangely, they are serious. Violent extremism, says John Kerry, is "the defining fight of our generation." Back in the real world, however, it is quite astonishing that Obama has been unable to convince countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Gulf states to join the fight against ISIS. These Sunni Muslim nations, having the most to lose, should be the most willing to put their own boots on the ground against ISIS. Nothing would please America more than to see Arab Muslim soldiers at the forefront of Obama's "degrade and ultimately defeat" ISIS’ campaign. Should this happen, I am sure that Christians, Jews, and those of other faiths would march together with Muslim Americans through the streets of America cheering for our president and praising his inspired leadership.

Hope could work. It has worked very well for Obama in the past. After all, it's how he was elected president.

But it's not likely. Obama's goal may be to defeat ISIS, but his strategy is based on constraint: can't bomb Syria, can't cross Kerry's redline, can't jeopardize negotiations with Iran, can't offend Islam, can't capture terrorists, and so forth. Such a strategy, together with his indecisiveness and distaste for military force, crowds out the possibility of victory. Besides, even if ISIS is defeated, al Qaeda and numerous other radical Muslim organizations remain — not to mention Iran, an immensely virulent, existing terrorist organization, on the fast track to obtain nuclear weapons.

President Obama, therefore, has retreated to his community organizer roots, where he finds, as chief weapons against Islamic terrorism: political rhetoric, social media, and hope — hope that ISIS self-destructs, that budding terrorists find jobs, that Iran abandons its nuclear ambitions, that pithy tweets will curb terrorist atrocities and stymie terrorist recruitment, and that the media stops exaggerating the barbarous acts committed, as Obama is careful to insist, by "individuals from various religions."

Hope could work. It has worked very well for Obama in the past. After all, it's how he was elected president. On the other hand, in Poor Richard’s Almanack, Franklin also warned, "He that lives upon Hope, dies farting."

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Brilliant and Troubling


Unless you’ve had your head under a rock for the past month, you have heard the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Known as the deadliest sniper in American history, he served four tours of duty in Iraq, during which time he was credited with killing over 160 people (some say the actual number is twice that), was shot three times, endured multiple surgeries, and was awarded two Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars, and numerous other honors. After retiring from active duty, Kyle spent the rest of his short life working with disabled veterans to help them overcome their physical and psychological injuries.

American Sniper tells the Chris Kyle story. It has been nominated for six Academy Awards and has entered superhero territory at the box office, raking in over $100 million in its first wide-release weekend, more than the total combined earnings of the other nominees for Best Picture and likely enough to break director Clint Eastwood’s personal box office records. And with good reason: American Sniper is tight, intense, and emotionally disturbing, the way a war movie ought to be. It takes us into the fray with the soldiers, while also keeping us at home with the families who fear for their lives. In one memorable scene, Kyle’s wife Taya (Sienna Miller) listens in anguish to the battle exploding around her husband when his squad is caught in a street fight and he drops his phone without disconnecting it. In that same scene, an Iraqi family friendly to the Americans is caught in a terrifying standoff with a man known as “The Butcher.” The juxtaposition of two families on opposite sides of the globe vying for one man’s protection is emotionally overwhelming. I cried.

When Bradley Cooper bought the movie rights to Chris Kyle’s memoir, he intended to serve as producer with Chris Pratt in the title role. Pratt is the right build and look, and could have been a good choice. But Cooper is brilliant. I have often commented in these reviews on the intensity and clarity of Cooper’s eyes. He can communicate the thoughts, emotions, and complexity of a character without moving a muscle or uttering a word. Those eyes serve him superbly well in this role, in which, as a sniper, he often waits motionless, searching the distance, ready to squeeze the trigger. Through his eyes we see at various times cold determination, impassioned anguish, psychological uncertainty, and bitter defeat. Through those eyes we see a man who, like so many soldiers, returns home safe, but not sound.

When Iraqis see this film, will they want to send their best snipers to our rooftops to pick off our children and mothers and grandfathers?

Several cinematic nuances contribute to the brilliance of the film. At one point, the camera focuses in through the lens of Kyle’s rifle’s sights, magnifying his deadly eye. I was reminded of a scene from Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” when Farquhar, a condemned Confederate saboteur, looks up from the river toward the Union soldier who is trying to shoot him: “The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle.” An impossible feat, of course — just as impossible as Kyle’s ability to see a sniper 2,000 yards away. And yet, he does. In another scene, we see an homage to Frank Sinatra in Von Ryan’s Express as a dust storm swirls relentlessly around the soldiers. These subtle allusions magnify the emotion and intensity of the storytelling.

So what about the controversy swirling around this film? Much of it stems from the fact that Chris Kyle’s kills did not occur randomly in the heat of battle, but with deadly calm and careful aim taken from neighborhood rooftops. Somehow it is considered honorable and acceptable to kill hundreds of enemies on the battlefield with bombs and machine guns, but pick them off one by one — and admit that you love doing it — and you become a sadistic, calculating murderer.

Kyle is portrayed as a red-white-and-blue patriot who fights, as he often says, to protect Americans. But the film is far from jingoistic. It presents a balanced picture of the aftermath of war — honorable soldiers with doubts about America’s mission, other soldiers mangled and maimed from injuries, still others suffering from PTSD; children growing up without their fathers, and wives suffering from loneliness, fear, and anxiety. It even presents the fearful experience of the enemy, with scenes of Americans bursting into homes while screaming vulgarities and waving rifles in the faces of terrified women and children — hardly an image of patriotism or moral rectitude in the free world.

Watching these events, even from the perspective of a highly decorated Navy SEAL, I couldn’t help but sympathize with the Iraqis. Who do we think we are, rolling through their towns with tanks and jeeps, smashing up their roads, blowing up their buildings, and bursting into their homes with guns drawn and trigger-fingers itchy? And when Iraqis (and other Middle Easterners) see this film, how will they feel? Will they want to send their best snipers to our rooftops to pick off our children and mothers and grandfathers?

Through Cooper's eyes we see at various times cold determination, impassioned anguish, psychological uncertainty, and bitter defeat.

Traditionally, wars have been fought on battlefields, away from home and civilians. Soldiers die and resources are used up until, finally, one side surrenders, and the conflict ends. By contrast, this is a war fought not only on the home front, but also in it. Middle East soldiers live at home with their families, and they attack in packs. Kyle observed the worst of those “pack attacks” on September 11, 2001, when 19 warriors turned four passenger jets into weapons, killing 3,000 civilians (and some military personnel) as they were starting their work day. This, he says, was his motivation for enduring the grueling training required to become a SEAL and go to war. America had been attacked. But it’s hard to justify a war that goes on and on, where soldiers continue to die and resources continue to be used up, but no one seems ready to surrender.

Historically there have been four excuses for going to war: 1) to expand one’s borders; 2) to plunder resources; 3) to change a culture and belief system perceived as immoral; and 4) to defend oneself from aggressors. Only the final two are remotely justifiable, but in this war, none of these reasons is being observed. We aren’t enriching ourselves; we aren’t changing anything; and we wouldn’t need to defend ourselves if we weren’t there. And there are only two smart ways to deal with a hornet’s nest: either smash it entirely, or leave it alone. Unless we are willing to do the former, we ought to do the latter. The most dangerous approach is to poke at it but leave it intact.

American Sniper is stirring the conversation, and that’s a good thing. It’s also a brilliantly made film, better in many ways than Saving Private Ryan, and deserves the accolades it is receiving. No matter how you feel about war, this is a film worth seeing and discussing.

Editor's Note: Review of "American Sniper," directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Brothers, 2014, 137 minutes.

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Whatever Happened to His Nobel Prize?


I’ve been asking my friends a question. It’s a question that should have occurred to me before, but it hit me rather suddenly a few days ago, during President Obama’s fulminations about what he was going to do to ISIS (“ISIL,” in his chronic though unexplained vocabulary). I couldn’t answer the question, so I began asking other people.

The question is: whatever happened to Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize? I mean, when was the last time you heard anybody mention it?

I can only speculate about the last occasion when I heard of it. I imagine it was mentioned when Obama was destroying the government of Libya and replacing it with another one (and that turned out well, didn’t it?). But I don’t actually remember anybody bringing it up. I would also imagine that someone mentioned it when Obama was campaigning for reelection on the claim that he had killed Osama bin Laden. Again, however, I can’t specifically recall anyone drawing attention to the Nobel Prize. The Prize for Peace, remember.

I hope this means that the Nobel Prize has become irrelevant. I mean, Al Gore got one.

Then came the Drone Wars, with more brags from Obama about liquidating his enemies. Then his first attempt at invading Syria, with all those statements about drawing lines in the sand. I can’t remember any discussion, at the time, of the peculiar moral and intellectual evolution experienced by the Nobel laureate. Then came . . .

You get the picture. I can’t identify anyone who discussed that issue, ever. Of course, there must have been someone who did. I can’t read everything.

So when we got to Obama’s ISIS bombing campaign, I started asking other people. Nobody could remember any references, printed or televised, to a Nobel Prize for Peace. A few said they hoped that meant it was all a bad dream — Obama, the prize, everything. A few wanted to debate what Obama should have done about the prize in the first place. Some thought he should have refused it, saying he wanted to do something to deserve the honor, which he hadn’t had the opportunity to do as yet; or saying that as the president of a country that often needs to protect itself by engaging in military force, he would be hypocritical if he accepted a prize for Peace. I’d favor the first option, myself. I think it would have been the best public relations move a president ever made. But what’s obvious to me isn’t obvious to Obama.

Anyway, since my friends couldn’t remember any references to the irony of Obama the peace-prize man, I started monitoring my TV more closely. I have yet to encounter the faintest allusion to Obama’s Nobel Prize. Indeed, everyone seems to be studiously avoiding it. To specify just one example: Peter Baker, a big guy at the New York Times, prattling to CNN on Sept. 29. The subject was promising for a Peace Prize mention: Baker had been invited to discuss the president’s inability to describe his actions regarding ISIS as warfare, not just “being in a war environment” and so on. So now, I thought, Baker will certainly mention the Prize. Now he’ll have to mention the Prize. But no. He dished out the usual statements about Obama’s wanting to be “a peace president,” as his interviewer said, but he never even got close to a Nobel Prize.

I hope this means that the Nobel Prize has become irrelevant. I mean, Al Gore got one. I also hope that Obama is becoming irrelevant. But I’m afraid that what is now irrelevant is the human memory.

For memory’s sake, therefore, I wish to specify, for the record, that according to the Nobel Prize website, “the Nobel Peace Prize 2009 was awarded to Barack H. Obama ‘for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.’"

Well, that’s all right. They gave him the prize about one second after he became president. How did they know what would happen afterward?

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