Below is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads (note: I have not actually read these books yet, and these are previews not reviews).
No one in the world was surprised that Vladimir Putin was elected President of the Russian Federation yet again this year. News about Russian opposition movements — none too threatening to Putin’s grip on Russia — has been featured on the front pages of the Western press for the past couple of months. As that nation seems to be tragically slinking back into old habits of autocracy, historians have been looking to Russia’s past to find success stories when moderating forces opposed corrupt centralization of power. The primary question these historians seem to be asking is this: is autocracy inevitable in Russia?
A classic work of this type is Victor Leontovitsch’s The History of Liberalism in Russia, which was published in English for the first time this January (it was written in German and first released in 1957). In May of last year, Julia Berest published a biographical account of one of Russia’s early liberals during the Napoleonic era: Alexander Kunitsyn. A more recent contribution to the debate will be published in June of this year by the university press of my alma mater: the University of Wisconsin. Anton A. Fedyashin’s Liberals under Autocracy: Modernization and Civil Society in Russia, 1866-1904 utilizes the history of Russia’s primary liberal journal before the 1917 revolution, The Herald of Europe (Vestnik Evropy) as a lens into what he sees as a uniquely Russian brand of liberalism. (more…)
I have recently been reading Pete Blaber’s memoir, The Mission, The Men, and Me: Lessons from a Former Delta Force Commander, about his experiences during training and in combat around the world (including action in Iraq and Afghanistan). As may be gleamed from some of my previous posts, I have a high degree of admiration for battle-tested warriors such as this Chicago-born operative in the military’s perhaps most unconventional unit.
During late 2001 and early 2002, when Americans special forces were making their first incursions into Afghanistan, Pete Blaber was commanding a detachment of advanced force operations (AFO) soldiers. He describes this early phase of the war in Afghanistan as an uncharacteristic one.
The U.S. government, according to Blaber, knew very little about the country they were invading, and special forces were sent in to acquire contextual information and carry out the initial attacks on the enemy. Since the character of the war to come was still unknown, these various units were allowed to organize and operate in a way that did not necessarily reflect their usual departmental divisions. Combat teams were frequently formed and reformed around a mix of AFO, the Green Berets, and CIA agents as need dictated without a regard for traditional military structure. In true special forces fashion, the only thing that mattered was completing the mission no matter how unconventional the means.
Much like I am in awe of master craftsmen who restore old aircraft, I am stunned by the audacity of the challenges that such special forces troops undertake. My confusion about the morality of war aside, when viewed simply as a problem-solving endeavor, the task of entering a hostile country in small teams of a few dozen men to chase out the entire ruling class baffles the mind. Sure the U.S. soldiers were equipped with the latest supplies and technology to help them accomplish this mission (not to mention scores of Northern Alliance soldiers as allies), but as Blaber describes and the U.S. military had to learn the hard way, technology is never a substitute for one of the basic assets of warfare: contextual knowledge of the people, locations, customs, and ways of thinking of others, especially the enemy. (more…)
I’m glad Avatar did not win the Academy Award for Best Picture this Sunday, and not just because it was over-hyped. The Hurt Locker was genuinely a much better film. I’ve seen many, many war films and The Hurt Locker was unlike any other. It portrayed a type of soldier that I did not know even existed, but, after seeing the movie, seems very real now. The Hurt Locker is about about a specialist in a U.S. Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team whose personal reasons for fighting in the Iraq War have nothing to do with patriotism, financial need, or even supporting his fellow soldiers. SFC William James is in Iraq because he is addicted to the adrenaline high of high-intensity combat.
The Hurt Locker opens with a quote by a New York Times war correspondent that summarizes the theme of the movie: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” For this unique portrayal of war, I think The Hurt Locker deserved all of the Oscars it received.
On another note, I am excited to watch the upcoming HBO miniseries The Pacific. Like the film Saving Private Ryan (1998) and the miniseries Band of Brothers (2001), this is another collaboration by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks portraying American soldiers during World War II, this time in the campaign against Japan. I am most curious about from what angle Spielberg and Hanks will approach this series to make it different from the others. Spielberg is such a great artist and storyteller, in my opinion, that this won’t just be “another war film”.
Saving Private Ryan is a monumental film – it’s an icon of the horrific events of D-Day, June 6, 1944, in the imagination of a younger generation of Americans. Band of Brothers is also unique in that it follows a single unit of American paratroopers throughout their combat experiences during the entire war, but in a style similar to another HBO series, The Sopranos, where each episode focuses on a different character to create a portrait of the entire group. What will The Pacific be like? I’m eager to find out (the first episode premieres on Sunday, March 14 at 8p CST on HBO).
On a final note, Christoph Waltz, who won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role this year for portraying a Nazi “Jew Hunter” in Inglorious Basterds, performed one of the best feats of acting I have ever seen. If you haven’t seen this movie, go see it if for nothing other than to watch Christoph Waltz portray Standartenführer Hans Landa, whom director Quentin Tarantino described as “one of the best characters I’ve ever written and ever will write”.
Gone are the days when the History Channel disproportionately focused on programs about World War II instead of disproportionately fixating on Bigfoot and Mayan prophecies. Until now. History Channel has a new series which stands apart from the network’s bizarre trend of shows about UFOs, astrology, and monster-hunters. “WWII in HD”, a throwback to History Channel’s roots, is a truly innovative series.
“WWII in HD” features almost exclusively rare color war footage. The effect of this is to enliven the 1940s. It feels like watching film from the Vietnam War, which seems more “real” to me because I associate it with color.
The other outstanding element about this series is the dialogue. The show follows twelve American men and women during their service in the war. They are interviewed as elderly veterans, but when the war footage is shown, the interviews transition into voice-overs by younger men and women. This technique is elegantly executed and makes you aware that these aged heroes of an inaccessible age were once the youth of the world. The dialogue is poignant, and the transitional phrases especially are epic.
Finally, the most lasting impression of the series is the footage of carnage. I have heard veterans speak of that shocking aspect of war – the odor of burning flesh, bodies thickly littering the battlefield, disfigured faces. But hearing about it—no matter how vividly told—can not compare to seeing it in color. Short of smelling the awful stench of war, “WWII in HD” portrays the nauseating reality of indiscriminate and grotesque death in battle.
In one episode, President Franklin Roosevelt asks a war correspondent whether he should allow a documentary film about the Battle of Tarawa to be show uncensored to the American public. The reporter, who had been embedded with the Marines in combat, replied that the soldiers wanted the civilians back home to know that the war was not all about victory and glory. The documentary, which featured graphic portrayals of combat, went on to win an Academy Award and significantly increased the sale of war bonds. Like “With the Marines at Tarawa”, “WWII in HD” is a transformative and balanced memorial to the Second World War.
The Trials of Henry Kissinger is a documentary by Eugene Jarecki, who also directed Why We Fight. This film has challenged my opinion of Henry Kissinger, who I previously admired for his reputation of being a brilliant diplomat. Genius strategist he was, the documentary admits, but Jarecki also makes the case that Kissinger had committed war crimes that resulted in the deaths of many innocent civilians. According to the documentary, Kissinger allegedly sabotaged peace talks to end the Vietnam War in 1968 (resulting in two more years of bloody conflict), authorized illegal bombings of Cambodia (destabilizing the country which led to the Khmer Rouge genocide), and armed the Indonesian army for mass-murder in East Timor, among other atrocities.
Kissinger has never faced trial for any of these charges. Future historians will judge – when more evidence has been released to the public – whether he was in actuality a war criminal who cared for nothing other than his political ambitions. Though Kissinger will most likely die a free, wealthy, and respected man (unlike the Ottoman sultan Beyazit, whose ambitions led to a degrading demise), if he was guilty, he still serves a sentence no criminal can avoid. This is the punishment suffered by Rodion Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The documentary ends with these words:
“I do think that somewhere down deep he knows what he was doing, he knows it was against a lot of first principles, which is why so much is masked and hidden. There’s so much distrust. It’s a very, very sad way to go through your life. Whatever he did, whatever he accomplished, I’m not sure it’s worth it, because he had to live a lot more years. He’s been out of power for a long time: 25 years now. In it’s own way, the reason I don’t worry about war crimes or anything else is he’s got his own sentence, he’s got to live with himself.”
Yesterday, there was an interesting video op-ed on nytimes.com titled, “Last Jew in Afghanistan”. The man interviewed, Zablon Simantov, is perhaps the last member of a 13-century-old community. While watching the documentary, I wondered about the man who sent his family away to Israel while continuing to live alone in his homeland. Was it stubborn pride that stayed his flight? He criticized the other Jews who lacked his courage to stay in Afghanistan. Yet, living behind the abandoned synagogue and caring for the flowers that grow in its courtyard, he seems like a humble man. Zablon appears sincere yet still enigmatic. He harshly criticizes the Taliban and admits that Afghanistan is still in shoddy shape even after their downfall. So what keeps this man there, alone? Maybe Zablon simply loves, like Rhett Butler in the movie Gone With the Wind and any man who has a heart for something on earth, “lost causes once they’re really lost”.