A Guided Tour Through a Graveyard: Some Representations of War and the Hazards of Strong Contextualism

I shall describe and attempt to interpret a difference in representations of war in two television series made by the same people about the same war, Band of Brothers, which aired in 2001, and The Pacific, which aired in 2010.  I hope to show that despite influential argument to the contrary—most notably Paul Fussell’s celebrated The Great War and Modern Memory—it is imprudent to make strong historicist or contextualist claims that the transformed nature of war since 1914 is a sine qua non for explaining modern ironic and anti-heroic representations of combat.

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Deep France

Un village français, a French television serial, was first broadcast on France 3 in 2009; the channel began showing the serial’s seventh and final season in October of 2016, and at the end of its run sixty-six episodes had been broadcast.  Around the time it first appeared a Francophone friend recommended it as startlingly good TV, but warned that subtitled versions other than one season with French subtitles had proved impossible to locate.  The belated appearance of a version subtitled in English is a very welcome gift.  Along with the policier Engrenages, which stars several of the same actors, Un village français made even malevolent foreigners concede that French TV, under de Gaulle sometimes pilloried as a medium specializing in documentaries about beehives, had no reason to fear comparison to any televisual culture in the world.

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The Trouble with Charlie

In 2006 Charlie Hebdo republished the Jyllands-Posten cartoons (as did First of the Month), and were sued by three Muslim organizations. This attempted use of the courts to punish speech did not provoke any memorable censure by the people who have recently protested PEN’s decision to honor the courage of the journalists who worked (and then died) at Charlie Hebdo. In that same year Alberta’s Human Right Commission investigated a newspaper (the Western Standard) over its republication of the cartoons; defending itself cost the Western Standard $100,000 (which would have bankrupted First of the Month many times over) and cost the organizations making the complaint nothing—by no means an inefficient approach to suppressing speech. Teju Cole and his allies within PEN seem to have let this episode, too, pass without comment. On November 2, 2011 the offices of Charlie Hebo were firebombed, which seems to have yet again failed to provoke any indignation from Cole, Prose or the rest. On January 7th Islamist murderers shot dead twelve people in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, and at this point Teju Cole could no longer keep silent. In a piece titled “Unmournable Bodies”, which was published in the New Yorker a few days later, he attacked the dead journalists.

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The Resistance to “American Sniper”

As more than twenty-five million Americans now know, American Sniper dramatizes the life of Navy Seal Chris Kyle, who with 160 confirmed kills and 255 probables became the most lethal sniper in our history. An imperfectly-successful rodeo rider, Kyle enlisted at the age of thirty after hearing about Al Qaeda’s embassy bombings in 1998. Almost immediately after marrying he served four tours in Iraq, retired, contended with PTSD, and began helping other veterans by taking them shooting, one of whom murdered him. There is not even a whisper of a rumor that Kyle committed any war crimes in Iraq. This might have made American Sniper an unlikely film to have excited the savage moralizing that the newspapers began reporting within days of the its release (“How Clint Eastwood’s ‘American Sniper’ stoked the American culture wars”, in the Washington Post shortly after the film’s release, another such in the New York Times, and since then a lot more). Eastwood’s Americans neither commit atrocities which Eastwood then excuses—the charge leveled against Zero Dark Thirty—nor do they suffer any, real or invented, which might plausibly stoke Islamophobia. The only atrocities committed by Eastwood’s Iraqis are committed upon one another, and the only Iraqi atrocity we see committed is the punishment of an informer, clearly intended to discourage others. While very ugly—the scene shows a Sunni insurgent threatening a child and then murdering an adult with an electric drill—atrocious reprisals against informers are proverbial in most insurgencies. Kyle calls the insurgents ‘savages’, and although the word has provoked a lot of indignation it surely ranks pretty low on the scale of offensive things soldiers have called one another, and may not be absolutely unforgiveable in a character contending with child suicide bombers and electric drill murders.

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State of Play

J.M. Shaw has now published a second novel, Ten Weeks in Africa. It feels significantly bleaker and also more intricate than his first, but it is also an often-satirical novel of politics. Ten Weeks In Africa is set in an imagined and renamed version of Kenya with a bit of Uganda added to the mix, and its non-African characters are mostly British or Pakistani, but the kind of pseudo-politics Shaw is satirizing have an unhappy relevance for Americans. Professed and even sincere good intentions mean much less than we hope they do, a point Shaw makes repeatedly in Ten Weeks In Africa: his novel’s most effective hero is a businessman who, among his other enterprises, bribes police officials to allow his employees to steal tourists’ luggage from an international airport. This businessman’s newest employee, a small boy unhappily resolved to help notorious thieves in order to buy medicine for his dying mother, seems on first encounter to have fallen into an African Fagan’s hands, but we slowly realize that the boy is now working for a man who is in effect an unsentimental, wholly modernized and absolutely plausible version of one of the Cheerybles, the benevolent merchants from Nicholas Nickleby

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Fish and Chips: The Crisis of the Humanities in the U.K. and U.S.A

Politics in the United States and Great Britain are again marked by intense hostility toward the expanded role of modern liberal states. Since most opponents of public investment are simultaneously enthusiastic consumers of many of its results—for example, public education—the feebleness of most defenses of public investment is usually hard to understand. But not always, because it is notoriously difficult to persuade people one cannot be bothered to understand, or toward whom one is visibly contemptuous.

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Nailing Avatar

The fallacy that great events have great causes tempts both film critics and civilian interpreters to explain mass ticket sales in pretty grandiose terms. Avatar, touted to displace Titanic as the movie with the biggest box office gross in history, has provoked this impulse with a vengeance.

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Two Nations

“Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.”

Disraeli published Sybil, or The Two Nations in 1845, when his two nations were very famously the rich and the poor. The thought the phrase encapsulates is in part obsolete, for modern societies combine increasing economic inequality with a striking amount of cultural egalitarianism via a pervasive mass culture. In another respect, the phrase is very far from obsolete. A little over a year ago Elizabeth Samet published a fascinating book about a meeting of two nations between whom there is nowadays disturbingly little intercourse and sympathy: American military officers, and academics who have very confident opinions about what military officers are like.

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Stop Breaking Down

One of the cartoons which my local newspaper has refused to print shows two veiled women, their staring round eyes, all that can be seen of their faces, expressing alarm, while a bearded man, apparently the Prophet, with a bar obscuring his eyes, his features otherwise visible, radiates a chilling and furious certainty. It is a pretty good cartoon: it raises the question of who is blinded, and to what, and who has been silenced, and how. It does this with remarkable economy, and with compassionate if mirthless wit. As economical if mirthless jokes go, it isn’t a patch on the one represented by the editors, academics and politicians who claim that reproducing that cartoon is a mistake more or less equivalent to threatening to murder whoever drew it.

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A Hard Case

Beyond Baghdad: Postmodern War and Peace by Ralph Peters

Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World by Ralph Peters

Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph? by Ralph Peters

Flames of Heaven: A Novel of the End of the Soviet Union by Ralph Peters

The Perfect Soldier by Ralph Peters

The Devil’s Garden by Ralph Peters

Traitor by Ralph Peters

Faded Coat of Blue by Owen Parry

…the Cold War deformed American strategic thought and our applied values beyond recognition. From the amoral defender of Europe’s rotten empires, we descended to an immoral propping up of every soulless dictator who preferred our payments to those offered by Moscow. We utterly rejected our professed values, consistently struggling against genuine national liberation movements because we saw the hand of Moscow wherever a poor man reached out for food or asked for dignity. At our worst in the Middle East, we unreservedly supported–or enthroned–medieval despots who suppressed popular liberalization efforts, thus driving moderate dissidents into the arms of fanatics. From our diplomatic personnel held hostage in Iran a generation ago, to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on the United States, we have suffered for our support of repressive, “stable” regimes that radicalized their own impoverished citizens. In the interests of stability, we looked the other way while secret police tortured and shabby armies massacred their own people, from Iran to Guatemala. But the shah always falls.

Would that we could tattoo that on the back of every diplomat’s hand: The shah always falls.

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Al Is Conscience and Tendre Hearte

A couple of days after the attacks on the World Trade Center, a number of NYU students were wearing white ribbons in solidarity with the dead firemen. A friend who teaches there was fascinated to see undergraduates singing “God Bless America” in Washington Square Park, a spectacle she could not have imagined forty-eight hours before. Maybe it helped to be able to smell the fires that were still consuming the dead – you could do this from Washington Square Park. At approximately the same time, at a college a bit over the city line, where the dead could neither be smelt nor, perhaps, fully imagined, white ribbons instead signaled solidarity with those “faculty and students of color” who felt unsafe in the face of American racist violence.

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