Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

American Politics Seen as a Japanese Monster Movie


(Thomas Jefferson's intended original artwork for the Declaration of Independence.)

Marx is the Godzilla of economics – heavy, but not real.
- Unknown

The State is... the coldest of cold monsters.
- Nietzsche


As a teenager, I ran across the two lines above separately, and put together, they made me think of politics as a giant monster movie. Liberty versus equality! Government versus private enterprise! The powerful versus the little guy! Dogs and cats, living together – mass hysteria!

This (mostly) tongue-in-cheek post will take this dubious premise to ludicrous extremes. We owe the Founding Fathers - and Godzilla - nothing less.



Godzilla started as a villain in the movies, but became something of a hero in later films. It's this Shakespearean moral ambiguity that makes him the best character to play the government. Take Thomas Paine's assertions that "government even in its best state is but a necessary evil," and that:

Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices.


Compare this with Thomas Jefferson's contention that:

All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression."


Let's also throw in James Madison from The Federalist No. 51:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.


Many political thinkers have wrestled with the proper balance of individual liberty in relation to a social contract, of restraints upon and license given to the powerful, and of equality under the law and core rights versus the will of the majority. We can see these core issues play out in many works, from John Locke's Second Treatise on Government to the Collected Political Works of Godzilla. For instance, what is the right balance between civil rights and law enforcement? Godzilla occasionally flattens cities and runs amok, but in later films, he's the 'people's monster' and the only one with the might to take on other powerful creatures that make the populace flee in terror. (Eat your heart out, Jack Bauer.)

The authoritarians of movement conservatism and glibertarians claim to hate "big government" and Godzilla, and rail against him constantly. They sometimes have a point - Godzilla has an unfortunate penchant for accidentally destroying raised trains and other forms of public transportation, and can cause other havoc. However, oddly enough, movement conservatives and glibertarians don't have any problem with other monsters rampaging across the countryside and crushing the citizenry – only Godzilla. Some pretend these other monsters don't exist at all – but most of them actually cheer these monsters on. Even more bizarrely, members of this crowd cheer destruction by Godzilla, too – as long as Godzilla destroys people and things they don't like (such as the aforementioned public transportation).

Godzilla alternatively fights alongside, and against, other monsters. While powerful, Godzilla is occasionally bested by Wall Street, represented here by the mighty King Ghidorah:



(Goldman Sachs is more specifically a giant vampire squid.)

Godzilla must also contend with the Military-Industrial Complex (Mechagodzilla, who sometimes tries to fool the populace by going disguised as the actual Godzilla):



There's also the powerful energy industry (Hedorah the Smog Monster):



There's the insurance industry, able to immobile its foes its foes in red tape silk (Mothra):



For social conservatives opposing equal rights, let's go with a giant Sneetch:



(Yeah, a Sneetch ain't a Japanese monster, but it'd still be fun to see one tussle with Godzilla.)

As long as we're not strictly sticking with Japanese monsters, for the theocrats screaming fiery damnation, let's go with the ancient evil Balrog:



For neocons, Randians and anyone else who fights for ideology regardless of reality, there's Mecha-Streisand:



Legitimate citizen watchdog groups sometimes fight Godzilla and occasionally help him against more destructive monsters (as does Anguirus):



Watchdog groups can be tenacious in their fight against powerful monsters.



Reality-based bloggers using the hamster-powered internet tubes normally fight against perceived injustice, like humanoid robots Jet Jaguar, Ultraman and Spectreman:



In contrast, authoritarian bloggers are objectively pro-monster. (Evil monster, that is. For their perceived foes, it's: "Ex-ter-mi-nate!!!")



Most citizens just flee in terror, though.



While we're mainly dealing with domestic politics here, Godzilla sometimes faces foreign foes (like Space Godzilla):



Some political players, like Newt Gingrich, seek to impose a "small Godzilla," like son of Godzilla Minilla:



Or Godzilla's clownish son Godzooky (shudder):



In any case, if we're running with this (increasingly strained) analogy, anarchists and certain libertarians seek to destroy all monsters. There may be some people who want to destroy every monster save Godzilla, but they seem to be rare in America. "Classic" liberals such as liberals and rule-of-law conservatives believe that the power of all monsters must be contained, but that Godzilla can be a force for good - or at least that he is necessary for combating the destructive impulses of the many other monsters. When Wall Street (Ghidorah) or other monsters attack the screaming populace, citizen groups can only do so much, and the weight of Godzilla is the most powerful counter. However, when Godzilla is under mind-control (a frequent monster movie trope) or otherwise teams up with Ghidorah or one of the other monsters, the populace is in big trouble. Americans don't like to believe we have a class system. But when Godzilla takes a laissez-faire slumber beneath the waves, or shows monster class solidarity and lets the other monsters trample citizens – or even joins in – the devastation can be terrible. Just think back on the last, monstrous regime. The Bush administration let loose the creatures of Monster Island, torched America and the world with nuclear mutant lizard flame, and trampled on human rights like a crazed, sweaty man in a giant rubber suit on a model metropolis.

It bears repeating: the authoritarians of movement conservatism love to criticize Godzilla, but they're eager to exploit his power when they have him under control. Glibertarians are much the same, and will insist that the other monsters aren't rampaging across the countryside and crushing citizens, or that those monsters simply don't exist. (Like the aliens in some of the Godzilla flicks, they're indifferent to the destruction of others, and happy for it if it profits them.) "Classic" liberals are intent on building a system of Godzilla-management that's responsible and benefits everybody. Authoritarians are only interested in power and fortune, regardless of where or how they acquire it, and no matter who gets hurt in the process. They cannot be trusted with the power of Godzilla.

Most of American politics really comes down to competing views on Godzilla. Is Godzilla, good, evil, or a neutral force? Is a starve the beast strategy really wise, or is competence in Godzilla-management important? Should other monsters be free to eat screaming citizens - and if so, how many? A pundit's feelings on Godzilla are as a window to the soul. For instance, can Glenn Beck really be trusted? Is this crying, teabagging demagogue a Godzilla kind of guy?

And while this analogy may seem silly and strained - really, when you think about it, doesn't every Sunday morning political show pretty much sound like this?




"RRRAAAAAAAAAA-aaaaaaaAHH!!!!"


Update: Darkblack passes on his great picture of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man:



In comments, watchdog votes for Stay-Puft as a "good rep for the insurance agencies, he looks good, but is evil, not good for you and is sticky as hell too." John seconds the vote, and makes the case for including King Kong as "the will of the American people." As for King Caesar and some of the other monsters, I already linked this Godzilla roll call video above, but there were too many to include them all.

The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man is an inspired choice for the insurance industry, or maybe giant food corporations loading packaged food with sugar and salt. Still, the version above, with the Cheney face and hapless Lady Liberty, makes me think a bit of the torture and warrantless surveillance crowd, promising you'll be cozy, warm and safe in child-like innocence as the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, well - tramples on human rights like a crazed, sweaty man in a giant (foam) rubber suit on a model metropolis. But hey, go with what ya like.

Meanwhile, Mike "Monster Keyboards" Finnigan (who kindly linked this post) passes on the final battle:



It's not just classic monster cinema, folks, it's Democracy in Action. (Now if only the Obama administration would do the same to Wall Street scoundrels...)

Update 2 (12/3/09): All right, I'm wary of infinite updates, but there have been some really good suggestions in comments. In accordance with general consensus, we'll stick with the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man for the insurance industry:



Mothra is now the United Nations instead, endowed with a global perspective and special powers of communication. She normally aids peace among other monsters, but sometimes her webbing powers impede good things as well. While quite powerful, Mothra doesn't always get that much respect, because as opposed to being a giant nuclear dinosaur, she's, ya know, a moth. A giant gardenia or (energy efficient) light bulb might immobilize her. Or, as Rhadamanthus puts it:

Mothra's never been able to hold opponents down for long with her silk/webs (UN pressures) or public protests in other nations (largely ineffective nips at opponents' tails in larval form). Even when killed (League of Nations?) she "returns" in the form of new progeny hatching.




The tiny singing women can represent UN diplomats, the smaller, peace-seeking nations of the world, and Bono.




I agree that "giant, flying turtle" Gamera works very well for the media. Quoth Rhadamanthus:

While we may want him to fight all evil monsters, he tends to get tired easily and goes off to rest. Bad things usually happen during this time, and everyone wonders, "What has happened to Gamera?"





The Wiki entry lists several Gamera flying methods, but like Watchdog, it's the spinning one I remember:

Gamera also has the ability to fly. Generally, Gamera pulls in his arms, legs, head, and tail into his shell, fires flames out of his arm and leg cavities and spins around like a flying saucer. This mode of flight had an added advantage in the later films, where he used the sharp edges of his shell to cut enemies while spinning, similar to a circular saw.


Spinning furiously and blindly away, occasionally cutting down evil monsters, but also smacking into good monsters and allowing public works to be destroyed; going to nap, and pulling his head inside his shell so he can't see a damn thing even when it should be obvious – yeah, that sounds like our corporate media. Plus, let's not forget the media's ability to flip suddenly on foes, Gymkata-style.

It's sorta scary that this extended silly analogy is already far more sophisticated than anything the teabaggers or glibertarians offer, huh?

(Fixed some formatting.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

We Owe It to Americans To Re-Write History

I've been sent this by several people, including Tim of The Tim Channel:



Also, John Wilkes Booth never killed a U.S. President... after Lincoln.

On the one hand, Perino may have misspoke - since what she said is standard Fox News propaganda, but normally they add the disclaimer "after 9/11," even though that ignores the anthrax attacks. On the other, even with that standard bullshit disclaimer, pretending 9/11 wasn't a colossal indictment of the Bush administration on national security is stunningly dishonest. They abused the trust and rallying spirit of the American people. And claiming that the Bush administration's monarchial abuses of power, lies and war of choice kept us "safe" after their criminal incompetence on and leading up to 9/11 is beyond disgusting. The recent book review of The Ground Truth, "The Lies They Told," recaps some of the lies the Bush team told about 9/11 itself, while the way they exploited it has long been painfully apparent to the reality-based community.

Meanwhile, Perino was just appointed by Obama to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, at GOP request...Sigh.

I'm just a wee bit sick of monstrous lies on matters of grave importance.

Well, folks, I'm determined to have a happy Thanksgiving *dithering* over food and football. (I also donated to my local food bank.) I hope everyone has a good holiday. (I have a few music picks set to go for tomorrow.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Franken Versus the Hudson Institute

This is an old item from late October, but it's great and I never got around to posting it. The short clip is from a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on medical debt. Senator Al Franken is questioning Diana Furchtgott-Roth of the right-wing Hudson Institute. She's claimed that (as Think Progress puts it) "moving towards a European-style system of universal health care would increase bankruptcies." Franken challenges her on this:



A partial transcript:

FRANKEN: I think we disagree on whether health care reform, the health care reform that we’re talking about in Congress now should pass. You said that the way we’re going will increase bankruptcies. I want to ask you, how many medical bankruptcies because of medical crises were there last year in Switzerland?

FURCHTGOTT-ROTT: I don’t have that number in front of me, but I can find out and get back to you.

FRANKEN: I can tell you how many it was. It’s zero. Do you know how many medical bankruptcies there were last year in France?

FURCHTGOTT-ROTT: I don’t have that number, but I can get back to you if I like.

FRANKEN: Yeah, the number is zero. Do you know how many were in Germany?

FURCHTGOTT-ROTT: From the trend of your questions, I’m assuming the number is zero. But I don’t know the precise number and would have to get back to you.

FRANKEN: Well, you’re very good. Very fast. The point is, I think we need to go in that direction, not the opposite direction. Thank you.


The partial transcript comes from , which has a number of other links on the hearings, and the staggering, crippling rate of medical bankruptcies in America:

Medical bankruptcies are an epidemic in the United States. According to a peer-reviewed study published earlier this year in the American Journal of Medicine, nearly 62 percent of all U.S. bankruptcies in 2007 were due to health care costs — and 78 percent of people who were driven into bankruptcy by their medical bills had insurance.


Franken has been doing this sort of debunking since at least 1996 in Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot. What's refreshing is that while Furchgott-Rott is an unconscionable hack, Franken's done his homework and exposes her for what she is. Health care wonks do debate on various measures for reform, but the hacks are there to deceive to impede any improvements. It's doubtful that if Furchgott-Rott had studied health care in any depth she wouldn't know the answer to Franken's questions. Nor if she actually wanted to improve the health care system would she outright lie as she does here (Think Progress links her prepared testimony, which contains much more bullshit). Furchgott-Rott may not be as successful in her hackery as the loathsome Betsy McCaughey, but her goal is the same - lying for pay, all to derail health care reform. If more people die as a result, well, too bad. She's got hers.

It'd be nice to have more honest policy debates, but hackdom is ever in fashion, and it seems hacks are rarely challenged, debunked, and exposed. It was refreshing to watch Al Franken do just that, and I hope he continues.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Delurking Week


Blue Gal is spearheading this one, and has more about its origins. The idea is just what the picture above says - bloggers should thank their readers, and readers - particularly lurkers (people who read but don't comment) - are encouraged to leave one.

So readers of this blog - thanks again! The format of sporadic, long-form posts ain't for everyone. However, I thought the latest blogiversary roundup featured some variety, and personally, I'm glad to have finally finished a set of posts for 11/11 Armistice Day I'd been kicking around in my head for 1-2 years now. It's a big blogosphere, with room for all sorts of pieces and plenty of new bloggers to discover, and I'm grateful for that.

On the gratitude front - I mentioned it last week, but with hunger on the rise in America, and Thanksgiving coming up, it's a good time to consider giving time or money to one's local food bank. Not everyone can afford to, of course, as it's been a tough year for many people. But most food banks make a little bit go a long way. Thanks.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

We're Committed to Saying No, But Let's Debate at Length First

Many hurdles still exist, but yesterday, the Senate voted to bring their health bill to the floor for debate. From what I've seen so far, the House bill is better overall (apart from the Stupak amendment), and many progressive measures have been severely watered down, most of all the public option. Still, it's a big step.

There's plenty of circus to come, though. As Ezra Klein points out, there are many other votes to come, including many other cloture votes. Then there would be committee meetings about merging the bills, and a final vote in each house. DDay outlines several of the other pitfalls, made more perilous by Harry Reid's claim not to use the budget reconciliation process.

Meanwhile, as Steve Benen writes:

On Fox News yesterday, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) explained, in no uncertain terms, that "every single Republican" in the Senate "will oppose" health care reform. Kyl conceded that the reform bill may change before a final floor vote, but every Republican already realizes that the legislation "will only get worse."


Benen quotes a good point from Sam Stein:

...Kyl's prophecy of across-the-board opposition does seem to undercut that other GOP tactic. Why do Senate Republicans need six weeks to debate and consider the legislation if they're already determined to vote against it?


As Benen concludes:

I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that GOP demands for six weeks of debate has very little to do with genuine interest in good-faith deliberations, and everything to do with pointless delay tactics. Call it a hunch.


The need for reform is real and urgent. Benen also covers the recent free health care fair in Little Rock, Arkansas, and some of the other recent ones. There will be a bigger one on December 9th and 10th in Kansas City, Missouri. In an earlier piece I posted 60 Minutes piece on Remote Area Medical, and more recalcitrant legislators need to be forced to respond to pieces like this, and pressed on how they plan to fix it.

For most of the health care "debate," we've seen the conservative Blue Dog democrats fighting for bad (and corrupt) policies, and the Republicans offering almost nothing at all. (Benen does a great job of tracking and debunking politicians' claims if you search back through his archives, and he should be a regular read.) Back near the start of November, the Republicans finally unveiled their big plan, and... well... over to Ezra Klein (from 11/5/09):

Late last night, the Congressional Budget Office released its initial analysis of the health-care reform plan that Republican Minority Leader John Boehner offered as a substitute to the Democratic legislation. CBO begins with the baseline estimate that 17 percent of legal, non-elderly residents won't have health-care insurance in 2010. In 2019, after 10 years of the Republican plan, CBO estimates that ...17 percent of legal, non-elderly residents won't have health-care insurance. The Republican alternative will have helped 3 million people secure coverage, which is barely keeping up with population growth. Compare that to the Democratic bill, which covers 36 million more people and cuts the uninsured population to 4 percent.

But maybe, you say, the Republican bill does a really good job cutting costs. According to CBO, the GOP's alternative will shave $68 billion off the deficit in the next 10 years. The Democrats, CBO says, will slice $104 billion off the deficit.

The Democratic bill, in other words, covers 12 times as many people and saves $36 billion more than the Republican plan. And amazingly, the Democratic bill has already been through three committees and a merger process. It's already been shown to interest groups and advocacy organizations and industry stakeholders. It's already made its compromises with reality. It's already been through the legislative sausage grinder. And yet it saves more money and covers more people than the blank-slate alternative proposed by John Boehner and the House Republicans. The Democrats, constrained by reality, produced a far better plan than Boehner, who was constrained solely by his political imagination and legislative skill.


This wasn't much of a surprise. If the Republicans had ever been serious about health care reform, they could have done it while they were in power, or they could have engaged in serious debate during all of 2009. Apart from a few exceptions, that just hasn't happened.

As for the politics of reform, and the hostage-taking tactics of the Blue Dogs and their ilk, Matthew Yglesias summed up my frustrations very well back in October when he wrote "Compromise is a Two-Way Street":

Al From has one of these op-eds where you urge liberals to drop hopes for a public option in the interests of being pragmatic and passing health reform. I sort of agree with this—reform is worth doing even without a public option. But what these exhortations to practicality always miss is that this is a two-way street. If you think the public option isn’t that big a deal and it’s not worth spiking health reform over it, then you ought to think that it’s not worth spiking health reform in order to kill it either. But here’s Joe Lieberman not only expressing opposition to a public option, but saying he might filibuster any health reform package that includes a public option...

So far there’s been basically no pressure in the media on members who take this position to justify their extreme level of opposition. I get, for example, that Kent Conrad supports the Finance Committee version of health care and opposes adding a public option to it. But suppose a public option does get added. Does that suddenly take a vast package of reforms that he played a key role in crafting and turn it into a terrible bill? Why would that be? Surely Conrad is as aware as anyone else in congress that in order to pass a large, complicated health reform bill many senators are going to have to vote “yes” on a bill that contains some provisions they oppose. After all, the health reform bill contains hundreds of provisions! Are moderate members really so fanatically devoted to the interests of private health insurance companies that they would take a package they otherwise support and kill it purely in order to do the industry’s bidding on one point?


This is what drives me up the wall, in legislation and its coverage – the "debate" is so skewed, and it has everything to do with Beltway Convention Wisdom about hippie-punching, the establishment and reform, and little to do with reality. If Olympia Snowe, Max Baucus, Chuck Grassley, or Joe Lieberman has a position, fine. They get their say – that's how the process works. But they shouldn't be able to hijack the entire process, opposing both good policy and the will of the people, including their own constituents. At the very least, the obstructionists should be grilled on their positions and their reasons for them. It would great if Lieberman had to explain his massive conflicts of interest and constantly shifting, incoherent reasons for opposing reform. The media constantly trumpeted that the public option was dead, but never seemed to ask an obvious question - if four of the five initial bills on health care contained a public option, why should the one that be the one to prevail?

Why are Lieberman, the Blue Dogs and the entire Republican party treated as if they're acting in good faith, even when there's glaring evidence to the contrary? And why must the media treatment of health care reform always be so skewed when it's not outright inaccurate? For that matter, did they completely forget how disastrous the past eight years were, on almost every front? On the recent Senate vote, NBC's Chuck Todd claimed the vote wasn't "momentous" for health care reform - but also claimed it would have been news if the vote lost. As John Cole put it:

Shorter Chuck Todd: It’s only big news if the Democrats fail!...

Can anyone imagine the feeding frenzy for the next two weeks if they had failed to get 60 and advance the debate? Can you imagine the Sunday shows tomorrow? Can you imagine all the headlines speculating if Obama was a lame duck? “Senate fails to advance health care reform. Is Obama’s entire agenda at risk?” and “Obama’s signature legislation killed in Senate. Can he recover?” and “Republicans, spurred by sagging Obama poll numbers and grass roots support from tea party, stop Obama administration in their tracks.”

And Chuck Todd would be leading the goddamned charge with that crap.


Exactly. Our politicians are neither wise nor representative, and our media is in love with a conventional wisdom they manufacture without regard to (and often in contempt of) reality. Despite all this, the Senate can now debate the bill. There are many obstacles to go, but that vote was a positive step.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Rick Perlstein at The Big Think

Via Digby, who has a partial transcript, here's Rick Perlstein, who's always worth a listen.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hunger on the Rise

It's just another day in the richest country in the world:

Just one day after a federal report revealed that 1 in 7 U.S. families struggled to get enough to eat last year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urged lawmakers to reauthorize school nutrition programs that help feed the nation's schoolchildren.

Appearing before the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee on Tuesday, Vilsack said the child nutrition programs provide an opportunity to fight child hunger. A USDA report released Monday said 49 million people experienced what the government calls "food insecurity" in 2008.

"Yesterday, the department released a report showing that in over 500,000 families with children in 2008, one or more children simply do not get enough to eat. They had to cut the size of their meals, skip meals or even go whole days without food at some time during the year," Vilsack said. "This is simply unacceptable in a nation as wealthy and developed as the United States."

In the 2010 budget, President Obama has proposed an additional $10 billion over 10 years for programs to provide meals and improve child nutrition.


It's good the government is doing something, but this state of affairs is shameful. Let's not forget this story from earlier in the month:

Nearly half of all U.S. children and 90 percent of black youngsters will be on food stamps at some point during childhood, and fallout from the current recession could push those numbers even higher, researchers say.


We can and should do better as a nation.

That's not going to change overnight. However, next week is Thanksgiving. If you can, consider donating some time or money to your local food bank (or doing something similar). In my area, the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank claims that they distribute $5 worth of food and product for every $1 donated. A little can go a long way. Thanks.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Our Trustworthy Media

The SNL spoof of Fox News election night coverage (from 11/7/09) was actually pretty good:



Still, no one can touch The Daily Show. They spoof pretty much every political talk show, in perpetuity, near the end of this sequence (from 11/3/09):

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Indecision 2009 - Reindecision 2008 And Beyond
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis


If you want a more serious dissection, Media Matters has a rundown on the rise of conservative media from late October (it's good, I wish they'd pay closer attention to sound levels and mixing):

Friday, November 13, 2009

Avatar and "Call Me Joe"?

And now for something mostly different...

When I first saw the trailers for James Cameron's upcoming film Avatar, I thought, "That looks like "Call Me Joe."" It's nice to see others had the same thought. Cameron's film is much longer, and more involved, as one would expect. However, the central device and other key details appear to be the same as in Poul Anderson's novella "Call Me Joe," which appeared in the "Science Fiction Hall of Fame" book series (so it's not that obscure). It's completely cool to use the story as a launching point, but a little credit (and probably some compensation) might be in order. If and when I see the film, I'll be interested to see how the plot compares (and plays out).

Accusations about rip-offs aren't unusual, and some are definitely unwarranted. Maybe in science fiction, similarities are just more obvious. Darren Aronofsy's film Pi bears some striking similarities to Alfred Bester's short story "The Pi Man," enough so that I was taken aback to see it not credited. On the other hand, The Matrix, Dark City, Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind all use devices that have appeared in science-fiction before, including some fairly famous pieces. Yet I'm pretty sure those films were (mostly) original in conception. Certainly they are much more involved, or the mix, tone, and execution of ideas is original. I can buy that filmmakers might not consciously remember a story. But then the question is, when one becomes aware of a very similar story, what does one do? If one realizes, goddam, I read that story, the honorable thing to do is give some credit.
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This wouldn't be the first time Cameron has faced such an issue, since Harlan Ellison charged Cameron with ripping off two teleplays of his for The Terminator. The difference there is that Cameron admitted it – and in the ending credits he did credit Ellison, who also got a settlement. I haven't seen the two Outer Limits episodes in question, but I have read Harlan Ellison's short story "Soldier," which apparently has some significant plot differences from the TV version. I'd actually say that "Second Variety" by Philip K. Dick, mentioned in the linked Wiki article, is closer to The Terminator that the short story "Soldier" is, but the Outer Limits version of "Soldier" apparently adds a pursuing villain, which makes the comparison to The Terminator much stronger.

At the very least, I hope the film is good...

More on Armistice Day



Several folks on the old blogroll and around the blogosphere also posted something for Armistice Day, or on related themes.

DarkBlack: "In Memory Forever." Canada still does it right.

Evil Slutopia: "Veterans Day Roundup."

BagNewsNotes: One, two and three.

Mahablog: "It's Armistice Day."

Crooked Timber: "Armistice Day," by Australian John Quiggin.

Newshoggers: "Burial at Sea" (a powerful piece) "Veterans, Abortion and Right Wing Hypocrisy" and "Honoring the Fallen."

They Gave Us a Republic: "Why do they call it common sense when it's so damned rare?"

The Reaction: "Remembrance Day 2009."

skippy: "shanti."

Scholars & Rogues: "What's It Wednesday."

No More Mister Nice Blog: "The Earth Never Stands Still."

Lotus – Surviving a Dark Time: "Veterans Day, 2009."

Finally, there's dogs and soldiers. NPR radio show To the Point had a good installment, "Stress in the Military," covering psychiatric service dogs (see also the video in this PTSD post). If you need a pick-me-up, Mental Floss has a series of videos of dogs welcoming home soldiers.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

War and the Denial of Loss

(This post is part of a series on war, and a smaller set of posts for Armistice Day 2009.)

Nations wage unnecessary wars because their leaders lack wisdom or conscience, and the checks to force them to act wisely and conscientiously are tragically wanting. However, wars also start – and persist - because of the denial of loss.

Scoundrels and fools in positions of power and influence can urge splendid, glorious war in large part because it's unlikely they'll pay the terrible costs. Soldiers, civilians and their loved ones bear those, as always. The fashionably hawkish and zealously belligerent will blithely lie to the populace (and sometimes themselves) about the necessity of war and its consequences.

However, those who bear the greatest costs of war can lie to themselves, too. Ironically, horribly, the victims and survivors can inadvertently perpetuate and sharpen the cruel tragedies of war.

Few works capture this dynamic as well as Luigi Pirandello's short story, "War." (Feel free to read the whole thing first if you'd like; I'll look at it in three parts.) Here's the beginning:

The passengers who had left Rome by the night express had had to stop until dawn at the small station of Fabriano in order to continue their journey by the small old-fashioned local joining the main line with Sulmona.

At dawn, in a stuffy and smoky second-class carriage in which five people had already spent the night, a bulky woman in deep mourning was hosted in - almost like a shapeless bundle. Behind her - puffing and moaning, followed her husband - a tiny man; thin and weakly, his face death-white, his eyes small and bright and looking shy and uneasy.

Having at last taken a seat he politely thanked the passengers who had helped his wife and who had made room for her; then he turned round to the woman trying to pull down the collar of her coat and politely inquired:

"Are you all right, dear?"

The wife, instead of answering, pulled up her collar again to her eyes, so as to hide her face.

"Nasty world," muttered the husband with a sad smile.

And he felt it his duty to explain to his traveling companions that the poor woman was to be pitied for the war was taking away from her her only son, a boy of twenty to whom both had devoted their entire life, even breaking up their home at Sulmona to follow him to Rome, where he had to go as a student, then allowing him to volunteer for war with an assurance, however, that at least six months he would not be sent to the front and now, all of a sudden, receiving a wire saying that he was due to leave in three days' time and asking them to go and see him off.

The woman under the big coat was twisting and wriggling, at times growling like a wild animal, feeling certain that all those explanations would not have aroused even a shadow of sympathy from those people who - most likely - were in the same plight as herself. One of them, who had been listening with particular attention, said:

"You should thank God that your son is only leaving now for the front. Mine was sent there the first day of the war. He has already come back twice wounded and been sent back again to the front."

"What about me? I have two sons and three nephews at the front," said another passenger.

"Maybe, but in our case it is our only son," ventured the husband.

"What difference can it make? You may spoil your only son by excessive attentions, but you cannot love him more than you would all your other children if you had any. Parental love is not like bread that can be broken to pieces and split amongst the children in equal shares. A father gives all his love to each one of his children without discrimination, whether it be one or ten, and if I am suffering now for my two sons, I am not suffering half for each of them but double..."

"True...true..." sighed the embarrassed husband, "but suppose (of course we all hope it will never be your case) a father has two sons at the front and he loses one of them, there is still one left to console him...while..."

"Yes," answered the other, getting cross, "a son left to console him but also a son left for whom he must survive, while in the case of the father of an only son if the son dies the father can die too and put an end to his distress. Which of the two positions is worse? Don 't you see how my case would be worse than yours?"


Pirandello's characters often feel the need to justify themselves. This is dark, absurd comedy – it's competitive grief, or actually pre-emptive competitive grief, competitive sympathy, competitive suffering.

In Man's Search for Meaning, Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl commented on both a sense of humor and suffering:

The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent. To draw an analogy: a man's suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the "size" of human suffering is absolutely relative.


To compare suffering like the passengers do, competing for sympathy as a zero-sum game, is silly. However, it's also very, very human.

Let's return to the story:

"True...true..." sighed the embarrassed husband, "but suppose (of course we all hope it will never be your case) a father has two sons at the front and he loses one of them, there is still one left to console him...while..."

"Yes," answered the other, getting cross, "a son left to console him but also a son left for whom he must survive, while in the case of the father of an only son if the son dies the father can die too and put an end to his distress. Which of the two positions is worse? Don 't you see how my case would be worse than yours?"

"Nonsense," interrupted another traveler, a fat, red-faced man with bloodshot eyes of the palest gray.

He was panting. From his bulging eyes seemed to spurt inner violence of an uncontrolled vitality which his weakened body could hardly contain.

"Nonsense," he repeated, trying to cover his mouth with his hand so as to hide the two missing front teeth. "Nonsense. Do we give life to our own children for our own benefit?"

The other travelers stared at him in distress. The one who had had his son at the front since the first day of the war sighed: "You are right. Our children do not belong to us, they belong to the country..."

"Bosh," retorted the fat traveler. "Do we think of the country when we give life to our children? Our sons are born because... well, because they must be born and when they come to life they take our own life with them. This is the truth. We belong to them but they never belong to us. And when they reach twenty they are exactly what we were at their age. We too had a father and mother, but there were so many other things as well... girls, cigarettes, illusions, new ties... and the Country, of course, whose call we would have answered - when we were twenty - even if father and mother had said no. Now, at our age, the love of our Country is still great, of course, but stronger than it is the love of our children. Is there any one of us here who wouldn't gladly take his son's place at the front if he could?"

There was a silence all round, everybody nodding as to approve.

"Why then," continued the fat man, "should we consider the feelings of our children when they are twenty? Isn't it natural that at their age they should consider the love for their Country (I am speaking of decent boys, of course) even greater than the love for us? Isn't it natural that it should be so, as after all they must look upon us as upon old boys who cannot move any more and must sit at home? If Country is a natural necessity like bread of which each of us must eat in order not to die of hunger, somebody must go to defend it. And our sons go, when they are twenty, and they don't want tears, because if they die, they die inflamed and happy (I am speaking, of course, of decent boys). Now, if one dies young and happy, without having the ugly sides of life, the boredom of it, the pettiness, the bitterness of disillusion... what more can we ask for him? Everyone should stop crying; everyone should laugh, as I do... or at least thank God - as I do - because my son, before dying, sent me a message saying that he was dying satisfied at having ended his life in the best way he could have wished. That is why, as you see, I do not even wear mourning..."

He shook his light fawn coat as to show it; his livid lip over his missing teeth was trembling, his eyes were watery and motionless, and soon after he ended with a shrill laugh which might well have been a sob.

"Quite so... quite so..." agreed the others.


Most of the passengers deal with their anxiety by competing with each other for sympathy, but the fat man claims to be above this game. He presents his perspective as a broader, wiser, more cosmic view. The notion of a 'good death,' especially in warfare, in service of one's country, is nothing new. Nor is the idea new that those who die young are spared life's many later disappointments. The third stanza of A.E. Houseman's poem "To an Athlete Dying Young" captures this:

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.


This sentiment sometimes takes a more aggressive, less reflective form, as in the letter to the editor from a WWI British "Little Mother" who taunts "pacifists" (examined in more depth in a previous post). The "Little Mother" has lost her son in the war, and she is insistent that "The blood of the dead and the dying, the blood of the 'common soldier' from his 'slight wounds' will not cry to us in vain." She takes the sentiment of the fat man's words further, insisting that the best way to serve British soldiers ("Tommy") is to face grief with militant stoicism:

Women are created for the purpose of giving life, and men to take it. Now we are giving it in a double sense. It's not likely we are going to fail Tommy. We shall not flinch one iota, but when the war is over he must not grudge us, when we hear the bugle call of 'Lights out', a brief, very brief, space of time to withdraw into our secret chambers and share with Rachel the Silent the lonely anguish of a bereft heart, and to look once more on the college cap, before we emerge stronger women to carry on the glorious work our men's memories have handed down to us for now and all eternity.


Of the many responses to the letter (printed by Robert Graves in Good-Bye to All That, covered in the previous post), the one that has always stuck with me is:

'I have lost my two dear boys, but since I was shown the "Little Mother's" beautiful letter a resignation too perfect to describe has calmed all my aching sorrow, and I would now gladly give my sons twice over.' A Bereaved Mother.


Now, to accompany the passengers' competitive suffering, we have competitive stoicism. In a sense the fat man was doing just this – and changing the game in the carriage. The words of "A Bereaved Mother" may well be hyperbole. Likely the letter of the "Little Mother" gave the "Bereaved Mother" some comfort and consolation. And that form of "comfort" and personal reconciliation is one that means that - however fleetingly - she will accept her sons being killed in combat. She would even choose it. Likely she will support (probably zealously) the war and more mothers' sons being killed in combat - exactly as hers were.

Let's return to the story, and its ending:

"Quite so... quite so..." agreed the others.

The woman who, bundled in a corner under her coat, had been sitting and listening had - for the last three months - tried to find in the words of her husband and her friends something to console her in her deep sorrow, something that might show her how a mother should resign herself to send her son not even to death but to a probable danger of life. Yet not a word had she found amongst the many that had been said...and her grief had been greater in seeing that nobody - as she thought - could share her feelings.

But now the words of the traveler amazed and almost stunned her. She suddenly realized that it wasn't the others who were wrong and could not understand her but herself who could not rise up to the same height of those fathers and mothers willing to resign themselves, without crying, not only to the departure of their sons but even to their death.

She lifted her head, she bent over from her corner trying to listen with great attention to the details which the fat man was giving to his companions about the way his son had fallen as a hero, for his King and his Country, happy and without regrets. It seemed to her that she had stumbled into a world she had never dreamt of, a world so far unknown to her, and she was so pleased to hear everyone joining in congratulating that brave father who could so stoically speak of his child 's death.

Then suddenly, just as if she had heard nothing of what had been said and almost as if waking up from a dream, she turned to the old man, asking him:

"Then... is your son really dead?"

Everyone stared at her. The old man, too, turned to look at her, fixing his great, bulging, horribly watery light gray eyes, deep in her face. For some time he tried to answer, but words failed him. He looked and looked at her, almost as if only then - at that silly, incongruous question - he had suddenly realized at last that his son was really dead - gone for ever - forever. His face contracted, became horribly distorted, then he snatched in haste a handkerchief from his pocket and, to the amazement of everyone, broke into harrowing, heart-breaking, uncontrollable sobs.


This is the reality, and it comes crashing in. He told himself a tale to deal with a terrible loss, but when he told the same tale to the other passengers, the façade unexpectedly crumpled.

It's hard not to be sympathetic to the fat man. He didn't choose for his son to die. He might not have sent him to the front, he might not have recruited him, and he didn't give any military orders. Most likely, like most civilians in war, he was relatively powerless to prevent his loved one's death. He can only react to this cataclysm to his entire world. And he constructs a reason, a rationale, an excuse - that countless others have constructed before - to cope with a tragedy that might be unbearable if faced directly.

There's a Zen tale about a monk who's asked by a man to write a blessing for his newly born grandson. He writes, "Father dies, son dies, grandson dies." The family is outraged initially, but the monk explains that this is the natural order, and that, for instance, the father would be devastated if his son died before him. The family comes to understand. Anyone who has lost a loved one knows how painful it can be. Losing a friend or family member is horrible. Losing a parent is devastating enough, but losing a child is supposedly almost unbearable. In a sense, it's silly to "compare" grief, loss and suffering, as Frankl points out. (Sharing it is another matter.) So let us say instead that these deaths are important, because these lives were, are, important. Attention must be paid.

Scoundrels and fools in power often tell lies to start wars. They lie about the costs; they deny that there will be death and loss. The victims and survivors, like the fat man, are left to cope as best they can. But their coping mechanisms can amount to lying of a different sort. The fat man was in a sense lying to himself about his own pain, and denying his own loss. It's hard to fault him on a personal level. However, his coping mechanism can interfere with others' coping mechanisms. Even worse, his stance, just as with the Bereaved Mother responding to the Little Mother, could lead to other parents feeling the same horrible loss he feels. It's highly unlikely he would consciously choose to inflict that pain on anyone else, certainly not on any of the other passengers. And yet, ironically, horribly, by preaching the virtues of dying 'young, inflamed and happy' he may contribute to precisely that outcome.

Even if we suppose that some wars are necessary, is there any doubt that these dynamics of grief, loss and denial occur? Are they healthy? Should war policy be decided on these emotions?

As we've looked at in earlier posts, psychological issues do play a major role in war policy. Some leaders perpetuate wars with a sincere double-down mentality, while others might cynically play on the grief of survivors in a further act of exploitation.

On the human level, rather than competing with each other for sympathy, the (civilian) passengers could choose to support one another. Are there other means of coping the fat man and those in his horrible situation could choose?

Some, when confronted with the death of a loved one, may be religious, and find comfort in thinking of a better afterlife for the person who died. If that works for them, I wouldn't want to dissuade them. I've seen this be powerful, and vital for going on. But personally, it just makes me think of an exchange from late in the play The Elephant Man, where a bishop is left stunned by a deeply despairing Doctor Treves:

Bishop: I do wish I understood you, sir. But as for consolation, there is in Christ's church consolation.

Treves: I am sure we were not born for mere consolation.


Religion, or something similar, might help some. But it won't help everyone. And even then, in the case of war, it will only help some people deal with a violent, sudden loss in their lives – it will not prevent further loss, or prevent it altogether in the first place.

Numbing one's self can be a conscious, necessary, even courageous choice. Seasoned WWII vet E.B. Sledge (featured in an earlier post) told Studs Terkel about a Wilfred Owen poem, "Insensibility":

I
Happy are men who yet before they are killed
Can let their veins run cold.
Whom no compassion fleers
Or makes their feet
Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers.
The front line withers.
But they are troops who fade, not flowers,
For poets' tearful fooling:
Men, gaps for filling:
Losses, who might have fought
Longer; but no one bothers.

II
And some cease feeling
Even themselves or for themselves.
Dullness best solves
The tease and doubt of shelling,
And Chance's strange arithmetic
Comes simpler than the reckoning of their shilling.
They keep no check on armies' decimation.


There's more. But Sledge felt Owen, also a combat vet, really captured what it was like to be on the front lines.

Faith, of a very secular sort, can also be a conscious choice. The most powerful installment of the NPR series "This I Believe" I've heard is probably "My Husband Will Call Me Tomorrow," recorded by Becky Herz in 2007. Her husband was serving in Iraq at the time:

I believe that my husband will call me tomorrow.

Tonight I'll say, "Have a great day," and "I love you" to my husband, who is 11 time zones away in Iraq. Then I'll hang up the phone. I'll fall asleep as I did last night, next to our baby daughter. We'll sleep in the guest bedroom downstairs — it's less lonely to sleep there for now.

First, I'll pet and talk to our dogs. I weaned them from sleeping with me a few months ago, but they still seem a bit disappointed when I go off to bed without them. I'll promise them a long walk tomorrow, and I'll make good.

In bed, I'll lay my hand on our daughter's chest several times before I fall asleep, just to make sure that she is breathing. I'll curl up in two blankets: one from Guatemala, one from Peru. I'll allow these souvenirs of past travels to warm the empty space in the bed. I'll get up three times during the night to feed our baby. Each of those times I'll tell her that she has a beautiful life to look forward to. I can say this because I believe that my husband will call me tomorrow.

In the morning after my cup of coffee, I'll change diapers and move around loads of laundry. I'll pour dog food, eat cereal, get dressed, and do the dishes — all with one hand, holding our baby in the other. I'll do the shopping, pay the bills, and stop in at work to see how my employees are getting by. Every three hours I'll stop what I'm doing to feed, change and play with our daughter. I'll make good on the promised walk with our baby strapped to my chest and a dog-leash in each hand. When people say, "Looks like you have your hands full," I'll smile and acknowledge that it's true, but I make the best of it because I believe that my husband will call me tomorrow.

If there is a letter addressed to me from the military, I'll open it because I believe that my husband will call me tomorrow. If there is a knock at the door, I'll answer it, because I believe that my husband will call me tomorrow.

And when he does, I'll talk to him and tell him again that I love him. I'll be able to hang up the phone, keeping my fear at bay, because I believe — I must believe — that my husband will call me tomorrow.


Jeff Leonard's "Did we do everything we could?" hits the same basic pang. And then there's this astounding piece by Minstrel Boy. Or consider Ewa Klonowski's story:

The grim reality of exhumation is something they don't have to deal with. One of the forensic scientists, a Polish woman by the name of Ewa Klonowski, who is usually the first to go down into a mass grave, speaks of what she found in the newly opened one near Prijedor. "I was digging with the knowledge that I'd found some children," she says.

It's all the same to me whether I dig up a child or an old person. Bones are bones. With the one difference that children have more small bones; they are less durable. And I came upon some small bones of the kind I was expecting to find. And a toy next to them - a Superman doll. I had to put it in a plastic bag. I couldn't do it. I was holding it in my hand, and the child's father was there above me. I felt as if I could no longer cope. I was about to start crying. I rationalized it to myself by thinking, "Ewa, someone has to work here. Bones are bones. This is a toy found next to some bones. You must put it in the plastic bag and get on with the next body."


Unlike the fat man in "War," Ewa Klonowski has a good sense of what has happened. But like the fat man, the reality and weight of what has occurred comes crashing in on her unexpectedly.

There is great courage in facing loss and tragedy of this depth. In contrast, it takes absolutely no courage, just cowardice and fecklessness, to inflict this level of pain on another human being.

The political rhetoric of "good deaths," and the emotional struggle to deal with loss, have very real consequences. The "we must keep going, so that their deaths will not have been in vain," argument is one that some feel very sincerely. In fact, it often appears on the national stage. Consider the tale of the dueling bracelets from the first presidential debate between McCain and Obama on September 26th, 2008:

McCain: So I have a record. I have a record of being involved in these national security issues, which involve the highest responsibility and the toughest decisions that any president can make, and that is to send our young men and women into harm's way.

And I'll tell you, I had a town hall meeting in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, and a woman stood up and she said, "Senator McCain, I want you to do me the honor of wearing a bracelet with my son's name on it."

He was 22 years old and he was killed in combat outside of Baghdad, Matthew Stanley, before Christmas last year. This was last August, a year ago. And I said, "I will -- I will wear his bracelet with honor."

And this was August, a year ago. And then she said, "But, Senator McCain, I want you to do everything -- promise me one thing, that you'll do everything in your power to make sure that my son's death was not in vain."

That means that that mission succeeds, just like those young people who re-enlisted in Baghdad, just like the mother I met at the airport the other day whose son was killed. And they all say to me that we don't want defeat.

A war that I was in, where we had an Army, that it wasn't through any fault of their own, but they were defeated. And I know how hard it is for that -- for an Army and a military to recover from that. And it did and we will win this one and we won't come home in defeat and dishonor and probably have to go back if we fail.

Obama: Jim, let me just make a point. I've got a bracelet, too, from Sergeant - from the mother of Sergeant Ryan David Jopeck, given to me in Green Bay. She asked me, can you please make sure another mother is not going through what I'm going through.

No U.S. soldier ever dies in vain because they're carrying out the missions of their commander in chief. And we honor all the service that they've provided. Our troops have performed brilliantly. The question is for the next president, are we making good judgments about how to keep America safe precisely because sending our military into battle is such an enormous step.

And the point that I originally made is that we took our eye off Afghanistan, we took our eye off the folks who perpetrated 9/11, they are still sending out videotapes and Senator McCain, nobody is talking about defeat in Iraq, but I have to say we are having enormous problems in Afghanistan because of that decision.

And it is not true you have consistently been concerned about what happened in Afghanistan. At one point, while you were focused on Iraq, you said well, we can "muddle through" Afghanistan. You don't muddle through the central front on terror and you don't muddle through going after bin Laden. You don't muddle through stamping out the Taliban.

I think that is something we have to take seriously. And when I'm president, I will.


(And we shall see about that.)

Gary Trudeau satirized the "not die in vain" mentality superbly in a 2005 Sunday cartoon, which includes this line from his Bush: "Again, we'll stay the course. We cannot dishonor the upcoming sacrifice of those who have yet to die." (Read the whole thing.) I commented in a 2007 post on it:

The stupidity of leaders or the pointlessness of a mission do not diminish the heroism of the troops themselves. Troops only die in vain if we are too stupid to learn from our mistakes or face our own vanities. Having the courage to admit someone acted heroically, but died unnecessarily, can be essential for preventing more unnecessary deaths. No one should die for pride and image alone, and the pain of facing the harsh truth of a given mistake is as nothing to the pain of actually dying or the pain of mourning a loved one. To pretend otherwise is dreadful, deadly vanity.


Or (to quote an earlier post in this cycle), consider Pat Tillman, killed by "friendly fire." Clearly his service was honorable, but just as clearly, his death was unnecessary. One could say, of so many dead in senseless wars: They were honorable but the mission was flawed. They did not die for nothing. Or one could say: They died for nothing. But they will not have died in vain if you fight to prevent others from dying for nothing. Their deaths were meaningless only if you learn nothing from them, and let this needless, horrible waste continue.

But these are rational considerations, and ones that also requiring an enormous emotional courage. It is normally a long process to deal with a loss that acute. Grief drowns everything else out. It may never truly subside. As Walt Whitman wrote, "I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring."

Once again, the Little Mother:

To the man who pathetically calls himself a 'common soldier', may I say we women, who demand to be heard, will tolerate no such cry as "Peace! Peace!' where there is no peace. The corn that will wave over land watered by the blood was not split in vain. We only need that force of character behind all motives to see this monstrous world tragedy brought to a victorious ending. The blood of the dead and the dying, the blood of the 'common soldier' from his 'slight wounds' will not cry to us in vain. They have all done their share, and we, as women, will do ours without murmuring and without complaint.


And once again, Pirandello:

Everyone stared at her. The old man, too, turned to look at her, fixing his great, bulging, horribly watery light gray eyes, deep in her face. For some time he tried to answer, but words failed him. He looked and looked at her, almost as if only then - at that silly, incongruous question - he had suddenly realized at last that his son was really dead - gone for ever - forever. His face contracted, became horribly distorted, then he snatched in haste a handkerchief from his pocket and, to the amazement of everyone, broke into harrowing, heart-breaking, uncontrollable sobs.


One of the last exchanges in Kurosawa's epic tragedy Ran comes when one character (Kyoami the fool) yells at the gods for being cruel. Tango (the Kent figure) replies that it's not that the gods are cruel; they weep. But they cannot save humans from themselves, and their seeming love of chaos and self-inflicted tragedy.

Starting and stopping wars is a political battle. Anyone who has spoken out to stop an unnecessary war knows this all too well. When the powerful urge an unnecessary war, it may be due to corruption, greed, or imperialist ambitions. For politicians and pundits, urging war is often quite a stew: a failure of memory, rationality, decision-making, reflection, compassion and accountability. Sadly, hubris and vanity are almost always in fashion up high. But on another level, personal or societal, the continuation of war depends on the denial of loss, of grief, of mortality, and our own humanity.

To return to an earlier piece in this cycle, War is Hell. It's a moral imperative to remember this. No normal person who truly understands this, and the pain of great loss - understands this in their bones - would choose it lightly, or choose to inflict it on another human being. It's essential to understand these things not only rationally, but emotionally, and above all to really see. Attention must be paid. Luigi Pirandello understood this, as did Wilfred Owen, Walt Whitman, and many others featured above. So, to close, did Auschwitz survivor Charlotte Delbo:

Marie

Her father, her mother, her brothers and sisters were all gassed on arrival.
Her parents were too old, the children too young.
She says, "She was beautiful, my little sister.
You can't imagine how beautiful she was.
They mustn't have looked at her.
If they had, they would never have killed her.
They couldn't have."

The Little Mother


(British WWI poster.)


One of the most memorable sections of Robert Graves' WWI memoir, Good-Bye to All That, is his reprinting of a newspaper letter written "By a Little Mother" and the reactions it spurred. It might help to know that "Tommy Atkins" or "Tommy" is "a term for a common soldier in the British Army."

It's late in the year 1916, and a disillusioned Graves is recovering from injuries back in England:

England looked strange to us returned soldiers. We could not understand the war madness that ran about everywhere, looking for a pseudo-military outlet. The civilians talked a foreign language; and it was newspaper language. I found serious conversation with my parents all but impossible. Quotation from a single typical document of this time will be enough to show what we were facing.

A MOTHER'S ANSWER TO 'A COMMON SOLDIER'


By a Little Mother
A Message to the Pacifists A Message to the Bereaved
A Message to the Trenches


Owing to the immense demand from home and from the trenches for the this letter, which appeared in the The Morning Post, the editor found in necessary to place it in the hands of London publishers to be reprinted in pamphlet form, seventy-five thousand copies of which were sold in less than a week direct from the publishers.

Extract from a letter from Her Majesty


The Queen was deeply touched at the 'Little Mother's' beautiful letter, and Her Majesty fully realizes what her words must mean to our soldiers in the trenches and in hospitals.

To the Editor of the 'The Morning Post'


Sir,–As a mother of an only child–a son who was early and eager to do his duty–may I be permitted to reply to Tommy Atkins, whose letter appeared in your issue of the 9th inst.? Perhaps he will kindly convey to his friends in the trenches, not what the Government thinks, not what the Pacifists think, but what the mothers of the British race think of our fighting men. It is a voice which demands to be heard, seeing that we play the most important part in the history of the world, for it is we who 'mother the men' who have to uphold the honour and traditions not only of our Empire but of the whole civilized world.

To the man who pathetically calls himself a 'common soldier', may I say we women, who demand to be heard, will tolerate no such cry as "Peace! Peace!' where there is no peace. The corn that will wave over land watered by the blood was not split in vain. We only need that force of character behind all motives to see this monstrous world tragedy brought to a victorious ending. The blood of the dead and the dying, the blood of the 'common soldier' from his 'slight wounds' will not cry to us in vain. They have all done their share, and we, as women, will do ours without murmuring and without complaint. Send the Pacifists to us and we shall very soon show them, and show the world, that in our homes at least there shall be no 'sitting at home warm and cosy in the winter, cool and "comfy" in the summer'. There is only one temperature for the women of the British race, and that is white heat. With those who disgrace their sacred trust of motherhood we have nothing in common. Our ears are not deaf to the cry that is ever ascending from the battlefield from men of flesh and blood whose indomitable courage is borne to us, so to speak, on every blast of the wind. We women pass on the human ammunition of 'only sons' to fill up the gaps, so that when the 'common soldier' looks back before going 'over the top' he may see the women of the British race at his hells, reliable, dependent, uncomplaining.

The reinforcements of women are, therefore, behind the 'common soldier'. We gentle-nurtured, timid sex did not want the war. It is no pleasure to us to have our homes made desolate and the apple of our eye taken away. We would sooner our lovable, promising, rollicking boy stayed at school. We would have much preferred to have gone on in a light-hearted way with our amusements and our hobbies. But the bugle call came, and we have hung up the tennis racquet, we've fetched our laddie from school, we've put his cap away, and we have glanced lovingly over his last report, which said 'Excellent'–we've wrapped them all in a Union Jack and locked them up, to be taken out only after the war to be looked at. A 'common soldier', perhaps, did not count on the women, but they have their part to play, and and we have risen to our responsibility. We are proud of our men, and they in turn have to be proud of us. If the men fail, Tommy Atkins, the women won't.

Tommy Atkins to the front,
He has gone to bear the brunt.
Shall 'stay-at-homes' do naught but snivel and but sigh?
No, while your eyes are filling
We are up and doing, willing
To face the music with you–or to die!

Women are created for the purpose of giving life, and men to take it. Now we are giving it in a double sense. It's not likely we are going to fail Tommy. We shall not flinch one iota, but when the war is over he must not grudge us, when we hear the bugle call of 'Lights out', a brief, very brief, space of time to withdraw into our secret chambers and share with Rachel the Silent the lonely anguish of a bereft heart, and to look once more on the college cap, before we emerge stronger women to carry on the glorious work our men's memories have handed down to us for now and all eternity.

Yours, etc.
A Little Mother

EXTRACTS AND PRESS CRITICISMS


"The widest possible circulation is of the utmost importance.' The Morning Post.

'Deservedly attracting a great deal of attention, as expressing with rare eloquence and force the feelings with which the British wives and mothers have faced and are facing the supreme sacrifice." The Morning Post.

'Excites widespread interest.' The Gentlewoman.

'A letter which has become celebrated.' The Star.

'We would like to see it hung up in our wards.' Hospital Blue.

'One of the grandest things ever written, for it combines a height of courage with a depth of tenderness which should be, and is, the stamp of all that is noblest and best in human nature.' A Soldier in France.

'Florence Nightingale did great and grand things for the soldiers of her day, but no woman has done more than the "Little Mother", whose now famous letter of The Morning Post has spread like wild-fire from trench to trench. I hope to God it will be handed down in history, for nothing like it has ever made such an impression on fighting men. I defy any man to feel weak-hearted after reading it... My God! she makes us die happy.' One who has Fought and Bled.

'Worthy of far more than a passing notice; it ought to be reprinted and sent out to every man at the front. It is a masterpiece and fills one with pride, noble, level-headed, and pathetic to a degree.' Severely Wounded.

'I have lost my two dear boys, but since I was shown the "Little Mother's" beautiful letter a resignation too perfect to describe has calmed all my aching sorrow, and I would now gladly give my sons twice over.' A Bereaved Mother.

'The Little Mother's" letter should reach every corner of the earth–a letter of the loftiest ideal, tempered with courage and the most sublime sacrifice.' Percival H. Monkton.

"The exquisite letter by a "Letter Mother" is making us feel prouder every day. We women desire to fan the flame which she has so superbly kindled in our hearts.' A British Mother of an Only Son.

- As printed in Good-Bye to All That, by Robert Graves. Chapter 21, pp. 228-232.


Paul Fussell comments on the letter and its reaction in his introduction to the book, after relating how Graves had mistakenly been reported dead to his parents:

Thus, the world that the war has taught Graves to see is a world of contingency and constant mistakes, not to mention outright fatuity. Hence, the farcical mistransmission in Morse code that sends a battalion assigned to York to Cork instead.

But the prize mad document in Grave's collection is probably the Letter of the "Little Mother," which first appeared in the London Morning Post and was then widely reprinted to loud acclaim. It was designed as "A Message to the Pacifist" agitating for a negotiated peace. The "Little Mother" registers her pride in having supplied her only son to be killed. The testimonials earned by this famous letter suggest a society for which the only accurate term would be "sick": "A Bereaved Mother" writes, 'I have lost my two dear boys, but since I was shown the "Little Mother's" beautiful letter a resignation too perfect to describe has calmed all my aching sorrow, and I would now gladly give my sons twice over.'

The wide gulf separating Graves' vision from that of the ordinary patriotic British citizen can be measured in one letter from a outraged reader of Good-Bye to All That:

You are a discredit to the Service, disloyal to your comrades and typical of that miserable breed which tries to gain notoriety by belittling others. Your language is just "water-closet," and evidently your regiment resented such an undesirable member. The only good page is that quoting The Little Mother, but even there you betray the degenerate mind by interleaving it between obscenities.


Graves's fellow officers in his regiment did not go quite so far, but many were furious at his levities and what they considered his disrespect to those fallen in a noble cause. Sassoon and Edmund Blunden were so outraged that they set to work annotating a copy of the book, entering over five thousand words of corrections on two hundred and fifty pages. (They planned to deposit this annotated copy in the British Museum, but never did so.) And the book appalled some readers not directly concerned with the dignity of the army. Graves had taken a broad aim, saying good-bye not just to militarism but—as he said—to stylish chatter about politics, religion and literature, as well as such concerns of the empty-minded as drinking, dances, ad "fun." Those are what "all that" encompasses.

Graves's reliance on broad comedy to make very serious points about life and death seems to anticipate and illustrate Friedrich Dürrenmatt's post-Second World War conviction that "comedy alone is suitable for us." The reason? "Tragedy presupposes guilt, despair, moderation, lucidity, vision, a sense of responsibility," none of which we have got:

In the Punch and Judy show of our century... there are no more guilty, and also, no responsible men. It is always, "We couldn't help it" and "We didn't really want that to happen." And indeed, things happen without anyone in particular being responsible for them. Everything is dragged along and everyone gets caught somewhere in the sweep of events. We are all collectively guilty, collectively bogged down in the sins of our fathers and of our forefathers... That is our misfortune, but not our guilt... Comedy alone is suitable for us.


As I wrote earlier, Graves' book is cynical and cerebral, witty and sarcastic, and may occasionally be unreliable in its details. But I'm reminded of Maynard Mack's observation about Shakespeare's King Lear, that "it abandons verisimilitude to find out truth," as well as Jan Kott's assertion that the cruelties of Lear and Titus Andronicus resonated more with contemporary audiences after WWI and WWII. Graves captures his own shifts in attitude, and creates a memorable, stark portrait of the insanity and horrors of WWI. It remains a valuable first-person account.

I'll discuss "the Little Mother" a bit more in the final piece today, but I thought its flag-waving, obstinate madness was remarkable enough it warranted its own post.

(This post is part of a series on war, and a smaller set of posts for Armistice Day 2009.)