It must have been a couple decades back. I was at a small party in Forth Defiance. Those attending included a number of officials in the Navajo tribal government. Fort Defiance serves as kind of a bedroom community for the capital of the Navajo Nation, so this was hardly unexpected. What none of us expected that evening was a quick lesson that began when our host asked if anyone knew the name of the main street going through the town? No-one did. As it happens, the name was Kit Carson Drive.
Apparently, it still is.
To say that most of the party-goers found this shocking is putting it mildly. It may not be obvious to some of my readers why a room full of Navajos would object to a street named after Kit Carson, but even the most cursory knowledge of their history would make this pretty well obvious. The man is popularly known as an old western Indian fighter, and as it happens, a good number of the Indians he fought were Navajo. When General James H. Carleton, the Army Commander for the Territory of New Mexico decided to go to war with the Navajo people, it was Colonel Kit Carson that he sent off to do it. Carson marched through Canyon de Chelly, the heart of Navajo territory, destroying resources (just as Sherman might have) and letting winter bring his enemies in to surrender. This campaign, and the four years of internment at Hwéeldi (Fort Sumner) still constitute the darkest chapter of most historical narratives about the Navajo people. So, you can just imagine what it must have meant for people who can still tell you about relatives lost on the long walk to Fort Sumner to learn that a road right through their community bears the name of the man responsible for their deaths.
Kinda put a damper on the party.
You might think it odd that folks didn’t know the name of the road to begin with, but it’s hardly unusual. Folks don’t pay that much attention to street names out that way. Many of the roads don’t have signs at all, and I don’t recall seeing that particular name on a street sign when I lived out there (though one can certainly be found in Fort Defiance today). This party was the only time anyone ever mentioned it to me.
The old south isn’t the only place in this country with a questionable sense of public history from the Civil War era. Those in the Southwest have less to do with the war between the states than the early stages of the Indian wars which would dominate the interior west for a couple decades. Kit Carson Drive is one of many such examples. The Obelisk in the town square of Santa Fe provides another. It’s had its own share of controversies over the years, not the least of them being this dedication:
“To the heroes who have fallen in various battles with savage Indians in the Territory of New Mexico.”
It should come as no surprise that this line acquired its share of critics over the years. It has had some defenders as well, to be sure, but plenty of critics. The sentiments might have seemed appropriate enough to those who erected it in 1868, but in the 1970s, sentiments had changed a bit, as had the political status of some of those ‘savage Indians’ referenced in the piece. So it really should have come as no surprise when calls went out for removal or modification of the monument. Today, at least, it may seem a little surprising to find the monument had Native American defenders, which apparently it did. Attempts were made to put the original wording into it’s proper context, so to speak, preserving it without appearing to endorse it, but some clearly weren’t satisfied with this way of thinking about the issue. Resolution apparently came in the form of a chisel, and the result is a monument with its own fill-in-the-blank question.
It seems, the American public is hashing out a new round of debates over public monuments, particularly those in the South. Some no doubt find the entire debate quite trivial. Who reads the placards on a monument anyway? Of course when people fight over seemingly trivial things, you can bet your ass they aren’t really fighting over the trivial things. It isn’t actually history (much less historical monuments) that has people up in arms over Confederate Statues, just as it wasn’t really history that caused a word to fall off the monument in Santa Fe. Such battles are always about the present. They are about the way that people think and use history to shape the present, and there are usually some very specific present implications in these battles.
People typically see the present interests loud and clear when they confront advocates of social justice. If anyone ever forgets this, the term ‘political correctness’ is right there to remind us that someone (or at least someone on the left) has an agenda. What folks are slower to get, it seems, is the fact that these sorts of gestures are hardly neutral to begin with. There is a reason James W. Loewen devoted a fair portion of his book, Lies Across America, to Confederate monuments, and it wasn’t because these monuments contain sober and thoughtful commentary on the actual history of the region. A statue to a confederate hero isn’t just a reference to history as such; it says something to those who those whose ancestors those heroes fought to keep in bondage. And a monument to heroes who died fighting ‘savage Indians’ may say something noble to those descended from colonists (Spanish or Anglo) in the American southwest; it says something else to those descended from those very ‘savage Indians’.
To be sure, complications abound. Some folks may have ancestors on either end or neither of his memorial demographics, and some people may have no dog in the fight at all. Also ironic usage happens. Not every Native American takes umbrage at the word ‘savage’ just as not every Native American objects to the term ‘Redskins’. But we should be wary of efforts to make these exceptions into the rule. The Washington football team has, for, example paid good money trying to find, cultivate, and promote just about any Native American willing to help foster the notion that the team name reflects anything but a racist stereotype. Were the team name really so bland, one might almost wonder what use it would have for people interested in such a martial sport! And of course we now have the Cheetoh-in-Chief (who has his own bullshit civil war monument) mourning the loss of beautiful artwork and a desecration of history with every Confederate statue that goes down. His language is so flowery and positive. You’d almost think these monuments held no serious political significance in the present age.
Of course the folks delivering the Nazi salute in defense of Robert E. Lee might seem to argue otherwise.
There are people, times, and places who don’t find it necessary to remove or modify monuments to their sordid past. Some of these might not even be terrible people, places, or times. But if the monuments to an abusive past aren’t so toxic, this isn’t simply because potential critics choose to let it slide; it’s because the community as a whole has somehow managed to handle the issues in question. When the dominant voices prove tone-deaf or outright hostile to the interests of those on the wrong-side of monumental history, then we are all a lot less likely to get along. Then statues get pulled down.
…or someone just shows up with a chisel.
Just a few pics of Canyon de Chelly (click to embiggen):
Someone I know and love likes to say that Game of Thrones is all fake. It’s fantasy, so there is nothing realistic about it. This same individual (whom I know and love) eats up reality TV like it was candy. I think he knows as well as I do that those shows are often contrived, but that doesn’t stop him from getting really into the moment that alligator is on the hook and the second guy in the boat can’t seem to find his shot. I know as well as he does that Westeros ain’t real, but that doesn’t stop me from worrying about the fate of Jon Snow. Each mode of storytelling works for one of us and not the other.
But what does realism have to do with it? Or anything else for that matter?
It’s easier to see the connection for reality TV, not because it’s more real in an objective sense, but because the theme is more central to the genre. Reality television purports to be showing us something about how people in some part of this world really do live. That’s a claim that goes a bit beyond the story-line itself and reaches into the mess of life we sometimes call the real world. That claim constitutes a significant portion of the genre’s appeal. It’s a bit like porn, actually. The dialogue may be utter crap, but somehow the sense that you are seeing something real makes it a little more interesting. At least I think that’s the point, or at least part of it. For myself, I just can’t get into it. Knowing just how much manipulation goes into the stories told in reality television, constitutes a bit of deal-breaker for me. Perhaps I would enjoy it more if I could suspend disbelief and just enjoy the stories, but how does that suspension of disbelief work when a sense of veracity is central to the genre?
…also, there is the expository crutch!
Reality television leans very heavily on the use of exposition. Far too often, for me anyway, they break away from the action to have one of the characters explain events to the audience in their own words. Without these moments we would be missing a lot of the plot-line. Reality television uses these moments to fill in the gaps. It also uses them to tell us what’s at stake in the action, often playing up the drama well beyond any significance we could draw from the events ourselves. …if we don’t get this fish trap to work we’ll starve! We need to fix the oil leak in our car or we’ll freeze to death on this mountain top. That chef needs to change his recipe or the whole business will go under! …you get the idea. They’ll repeat these narratives a few times each episode, just to make sure you get caught up in the point. Maybe, I’m a hard sell, but most of the time I just don’t believe them. More importantly, I find the whole convention damned tedious. When did so much exposition become good writing? I’m guessing that moment in television history came during the early episodes of MTV’s Real World and that first season of Survivor.
Remember Survivor? Remember the hype leading up to the first episode? This was supposed to be about people surviving on their own under primitive conditions. Only they couldn’t! Those guys really couldn’t do much to feed themselves and contribute to their own survival. But they did get just enough food and water from the show producers to survive so long as they didn’t waste their energy trying to survive on their own. So they mostly sat around and bickered with each other. Somewhere in there, I imagine, the production team must have had a collective panic attack. …My God, the whole story just ain’t happening! What do we do? The answer turned out to be high school soap opera, and thus the master script was born for just about every reality television program made ever since.
That’s how I imagine it anyway. It may not be real, but if you had me and five of my friends telling you the story of this blog post, I’ll bet it would pass muster for reality TV.
“…this really is a must write blog post for Dan. He’s at his breaking point.”
“I knew, I had to do post something today. This post was like a dark cloud hanging over my head.”
“If Dan doesn’t finish this post today, I’m pretty sure he’ll be eaten by black bears.”
“I don’t see what the big deal is. Nobody reads blogs anymore anyway.”
I’m voting that last fucker of the island!
But let’s come back to the Game of Thrones! I get the concern. It’s fantasy. There are dragons. Magic works (except when it doesn’t), and well, hell, did I mention there are dragons? Clearly, some things about Game of Thrones are not real at all. Still, I think the show has two (maybe three) realisms lacking in many more ‘realistic’ genres.
First and foremost, it’s all the death, the gruesome terrible deaths, the ones that happen to central characters that we all know and love. Love it or hate it, George R.R. Martin’s penchant for killing off key protagonists has long since become the defining feature of the show. For myself, I love it, but there is a certain dwarf that better be in good health at the end of this coming season or I’ll, I’ll, …I don’t know what I’ll do.
Take that Martin!
People ask Martin about this all the time. I’m particularly fond of the answer he once gave The Independent:
“A writer, even a fantasy writer, has an obligation to tell the truth and the truth is, as we say in Game of Thrones, all men must die,” he told Galaxy’s Edge Magazine. “Particularly if you’re writing about war, which is certainly a central subject in Game of Thrones.”
He continued: “We’ve all read this story a million times when a bunch of heroes set out on an adventure and it’s the hero and his best friend and his girlfriend and they go through amazing hair-raising adventures and none of them die. The only ones who die are extras.
“That’s such a cheat. It doesn’t happen that way. They go into battle and their best friend dies or they get horribly wounded. They lose their leg or death comes at them unexpectedly.”
The author goes on to explain, slightly morbidly, that we’re all going to die at some stage as mortality is inevitable. “Once you’ve accepted that you have to include death then you should be honest about death and indicate it can strike down anybody at any time.
“You don’t get to live forever just because you are a cute kid or the hero’s best friend or the hero. Sometimes the hero dies, at least in my books.”
I take that to be a kind of realism. It’s not about authentic costumes or weaponry, or the details of some known historical event. It’s about the human cost of warfare. Martin is known to have patterned his fiction after some real historical conflicts (most notably the War of the Roses), but of course his work remains fiction. Hell, it remains fantasy-fiction. So, we have no baseline from which to compare his description of events to a known fact, at least not any he is obligated to render with accuracy. Still, Martin’s willingness to kill off the characters we care about tells us something about war that many more ‘realistic’ stories keep leaving out.
I would add that it isn’t just Martin’s willingness to kill important characters that sets his stories off from others. It’s his willingness to do it unexpectedly, suddenly, and often without any hint of heroics in the moment of death. Time and again, Game of Thrones invites us to identify with a character, to root for them, only to kill them
in the end.
…only to leave us watching as the struggle goes on without those whose story arc had once defined the whole meaning of the show for us.
That is a kind of realism, one largely absent in a good deal of historical fiction.
None of this is exactly Italian neorealism. But each of these genres effects a kind of realism amidst a story-line saturated with fiction. Where one purports to show us something akin to lives of people in odd walks of life, another aims to show us how human beings struggle to deal with terrible events. For either to work, something in story-line must resonate for the viewer (or reader). Each in its own way speaks to a sense of reality, though each also weds that sense of reality to a fabricated universe of its own.
Historical accuracy might be thought to present another type of realism, but of course historical films (and even documentaries) are saturated with their own contrivances. The blog, An Historian Goes to the Movies presented a very thoughtful discussion of the subject here, here, and here (and really throughout his entire website). In one of the most interesting passages in this series, he talks about the public’s penchant for scrutinizing the accuracy of material culture and fighting techniques in film while ignoring the historical accuracy of plot points:
I find it very striking that audiences apparently want a sense of accuracy about violence, but not about plot. They cheerfully accept absurd plot developments (like Isabella being way too young and way too far way to have an affair with Wallace), but will complain if the sword fighting looks too fake. (Compare contemporary film violence to that from the 60s, for example, to see just how much effort Hollywood has put into improving the realism of its violence.)
Imagine for a moment a film in which the emphasis was on accuracy of the plot, but not on accuracy of the costuming or weaponry. Picture William Wallace running around in a 20th century British military uniform carrying an AK-47 but engaging in fairly accurate political maneuverings.
Most people would react to that poorly, I suspect, because Hollywood trains us that accuracy means specific things and generally excludes other things. But theatrical and cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare employ this device fairly frequently. Instead of setting his Richard III in the 1480s, like the historical Richard III, or in the 1590s, when the play was first performed, Ian McKellan set his version of the play in the 1930s, depicting Richard as a would-be fascist dictator. A particular favorite detail is the arrangement of 16th century poem “Come Live with Me and Be My Love” as a sort of Swing-era piece. The famous “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech becomes a political speech. It works beautifully, and while the setting isn’t faithful to the play as Shakespeare envisioned it, it works marvelously and offers a wonderful comment on the politics of both the 15th and the 20th centuries while still being true to the spirit of the play. This is a film making careful, clever use of its choices about historical inaccuracy.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this commentary lies in the comparison with Shakespearean theater. While it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the kind of bias he exposes here is just to expected from viewers, the comparison with Shakespeare shows us that it isn’t. There is indeed at least one genre which reverses the emphasis, taking us out of the realm of period dress and sword techniques and inviting us to dwell on the plot-line.
I want to underscore at least one aspect of this question about accurate plot-lines, namely the sense of a character’s world view. Historical plot-lines can be inaccurate for any number of reasons, but one of the most interesting and common inaccuracies would seem to be a penchant for reading modern thought worlds into the motivations of historical characters. In this respect, Mel Gibson is the gift that keeps on giving. Whether it be a southern plantation owner who doesn’t own slaves, or William Wallace crying ‘freedom’ as he is about to die, his historical characters typically speak to the sensibilities of modern peoples more than those of the era in which they purportedly lived. Whatever the (in-)accuracy of his dress or battlefield depictions, Gibson’s characters are often living anachronisms, thinking and behaving in ways that have less to do with the period than the social order of the modern day.
Here is another respect in which I think Game of Thrones is particularly good. For those of us who live in a modern republic, the logic of an aristocracy can seem quite vicious, often unnecessarily so. Why all the fighting? Is it vain ambition? And if these characters must fight for control of their worlds, could they not at least spare the children of their enemies? Even the title of the series points to the answer, but I believe it was Cercei who explained it best.
Again, this is fiction. Hell, it’s fantasy fiction, but it’s fantasy fiction pointing at a kind of world that has existed in human history, one many of us have trouble grasping. It’s a world in which heredity defines power, and even a child with the wrong bloodline is a very real threat to the powers that be. This too is a kind of realism, one which reminds us people in other times and places may not be able to act as we would, even if they wanted to. I admired Eddard Stark’s efforts to show mercy in this scene, and I expect I’m not entirely alone in this. But of course we call know how that turned out. We are 6 seasons into the show, and thus far, I have every reason to believe Cersei was right about this. Not just Certei. Martin too. This is Martin telling us something about the social order of a certain kind of world. His world may be fiction, but others like it would not be, and his story does indeed help to illustrate how those worlds work. Is it realism? Not quite. But you could learn a lot about real worlds from this kind of story.
So it seems the attempt to show us how certain people live in certain times and places always reflect the priorities of those who produce them. Are they trying to show us how people dressed, how a certain series of events unfolded, or how people thought about their lives in the context of the times depicted? One could find other priorities in a film, to be sure, but it would be a rare story that didn’t have some serious blind spots.
The funny thing about such blind spots is they can be hard to see at first, but once you find them, they can be equally hard to ignore.
Okay, so one of the ways I am cheating my way through this topic, so far, is that I keep picking examples where one can arrive at a reasonably sure sense of what the facts would say about a given issue, what would count as real if we chose to care about it. What about when you don’t know? What is realism when we don’t exactly know what the fact is?
Take the film, Atanarjuat (Fast Runner). Better yet, take the film Reel Injun in which director, Zacharias Kunuk discusses one of the challenges he faced in making Atanarjuat. He wanted to shoot some love scenes, but that raised an interesting question. How would two Inuits living essentially in the pre-contact era have actually made love. He couldn’t very well just have them start sucking face for foreplay, as would be the case in most love scenes, because Inuit in the precontact era didn’t kiss the way people do now. Lots of people have heard of an ‘Eskimo kiss’, which is essentially rubbing noses, or so we are told, but how does that work? Past movies set in the arctic depict this in rather comic terms, which was definitely not what Kunuk was going for. He wanted to portray this as accurately as possible. So, he talked to the elders in his own community and based his own love scenes on their answers.
So, is the ‘Eskimo kiss’ in Atanarjuat accurate? Is it realistic?
It seems rather likely that the answer is ‘yes’, but that isn’t entirely obvious. The elders Kunuk spoke to, might have been wrong. It’s certainly possible. Historical information isn’t carried in the blood, and customs change a great deal over time while people’s ideas about tradition are often rooted in the eras of their own youth. So, it is possible that Kunuk’s elders might have been factually wrong about an Eskimo kiss.
So what if they were?
Worst case scenario, the love scene in Atanarjuat is still the best answer that an Inuit director could come up with after speaking with Inuit elders in preparation for a movie with an Inuit cast and made essentially with an Inuit audience in mind. I can manufacture (as I just did) an objective question that Kunuk might have gotten wrong, but his answer is still the most authoritative I know of. It is certainly the most authoritative answer most of his non-Inuit audience will ever see. Whatever the facts of this topic, Kunuk’s portrayal is still a thoughtful expression of an Inuit perspective about the subject. That has to count for something.
So if someone asks me what is an ‘Eskimo kiss’, how am I going to answer them? I’m going to point them right to Atanarjuat, or maybe to Reel Injun. Of course, I could also say that an ‘Eskimo kiss’ is a silly western caricature of what different Eskimo peoples actually did, but then I’m still going to point them to Fast Runner, because what happens in Fast Runner is STILL the most authoritative answer to that question that I know of, at least on film. In effect, it is the most realistic film portrayal that I’m aware of at present.
The point here in this overly-belabored sub-theme is that realism isn’t always about objective facts. Sometimes it’s about perspective, Sometimes, it’s about the most authentic voice(s) you can find on a subject, the ones whose values and priorities are most relevant to a subject. This is particularly true of movies about exotic peoples, whether they be past civilizations, foreign cultures, or just the guy who does that really odd job. An outsider might manage a perfectly accurate portrayal of the lives of such people, but without some insight into their thinking, what would that be worth? Such insights must involve a native voice at some point. Better still when that voice can actually shape the narrative!
Will such a voice come with its own contrivance?
Also, there is no Santa Clause.
I was a little surprised to see a museum crammed into one of the small shops on 4th street in Anchorage. I was even more surprised to find just how much history they managed to cram into The Alaska Veterans Museum. It’s best to take your time in this place, because every inch of wall space in this venues contains something worth a second look, and maybe even a third.
The museum is of course a testament to the lives and work of Alaska’s veterans. For those of us interested in the history of Alaska, it also contains materials illustrating some of the more interesting parts of Alaskan history. No sooner had I walked through the door, for example, than the volunteer asked me if I knew where the last shots of the civil war had been fired. I suppose “the Shenandoah” wasn’t technically the right answer, but he smiled when I said it, and anyway, the point is they have a section for the history of this Confederate buccaneer up on the wall here.
…which had me smiling from the start of my visit.
The museum also features extensive coverage of the Aleutian campaign. It’s one of the quirks of Alaskan history. Where most of the lower 48 speaks of World War II as something that happened ‘over there’, some of the fighting actually did take place in this state. Not only did the Japanese bomb Dutch Harbor, they also occupied two islands in the Aleutian chain, all of which is well represented in the collections on display here at the museum.
The Alaskan Territorial Guard also gets prominent treatment here, though I am ashamed to say I didn’t get great pictures of that section. Just clumsy lensmanship on my part. The museum itself covers the history of this unit, comprised largely of Alaska Natives under the leadership of Major Marvin ‘Muktuk’ Marston. The unit (including a number of women) was charged with monitoring the coastline to act as a first line of defense. They also had to be on the look out for balloon bombs (sent over the Pacific in the hopes of starting forest fires in the U.S.).
The museum includes several outstanding dioramas, most of which feature naval operations. I struggled to get a good picture of the aircraft carrier, but in the end I had to settle for a few close-ups. The model itself was just too big to get in a single shot.
I was unfamiliar with the story of the U.S.S. Grunion, a submarine lost near Kiska, so this part of the exhibit was entirely new to me. One particular veteran, Percy Blatchford, had a section to himself. You can find him around the net as well. Each of the major conflicts of American history receive some treatment here, in each case focusing on the experiences of Alaskan military personnel.
A couple stories that didn’t get into the museum (at least I don’t think so) would include the Navy’s bombing of Angoon in 1882 and the story of Aleutian internment. They do cover the Japanese internment of Aleutians, but no mention is made of those taken off those Islands by the U.S. personnel. I’m not entirely sure I caught everything during my visits last month, and I am still amazed at the breadth of materials they got into the collection. As I understand it, they have a great deal more in storage, and that storage may be spilling into the homes of those behind the museum itself. It’s obviously a labor of love, so I suppose that is to be expected.
On one of my visits to the Museum, I had the pleasure of meeting Col. Suellyn Wright Novak who heads up the Museum. She had a number of great stories to tell, including that of the Alaskan Territorial Guard statue out in front. Some wonder why it doesn’t have a plaque on it? Those more observant have wondered why the information plaque is behind the guardsman. It turns out, the museum staff just didn’t want anyone to be run-over while reading the plaque from the street.
I am posting a few pics here, but of course they don’t do the museum justice. As usual, you may click to embiggen.
Alaska Territorial Guard
The U.S.S. Grunion
…or the comfort of your home.
For me, The Fog of War (2003) is absolutely the gift that keeps on giving. I get more fascinated every time I watch this film. There are so many angles to it, so many sub-themes to explore. Lately, I find myself more and more interested in its language. The Fog of War was directed by Errol Morris (of the Thin Blue Line). It consists of a series of interviews with Robert S. McNamara, a man at the center of conflict throughout much of the twentieth-century. Few people could have provided more direct insight into the thinking behind some of the most terrible decisions of that era. By ‘terrible decisions’ I don’t mean poor choices so much as decisions with so much at stake, one can’t help tremble at the thought of them. That many of these decisions were also (arguably) also poor choices in the other sense, choices that cost the lives of countless people is also a big part of this story.
A lesser man might not struggle with such questions at all, resting certain in whatever rationalizations suited him best. But there McNamara is in the Fog of War, right on screen talking about those very decisions, and trembling at the thought of them, right in front of the camera. For a man with blood on his hands (and frankly, enormous quantities of it), McNamara is remarkably candid. Also remarkably thoughtful. Still, there are moments when his honesty fails him. Limits he doesn’t seem quite willing to cross, and possibilities he clearly doesn’t want to explore. In those moments, the hesitation is all over his language.
It begins in some of the first frames of the movie. McNamara tells us that in the course of his life he has been “part of wars.” Fair enough, one might say, but more fairly still he has been more than part of wars. He has been a driving force in wars, perhaps in some cases against his better judgement, but he has certainly been more than part of wars. The wording is mild, perhaps a simple lead-in, but the phrase just doesn’t do justice to the facts that will follow.
The film is punctuated with lessons drawn from McNamara’s experiences. It is Morris that pulls the lessons out of the narrative and presents them as bullet points for our benefit. The first lesson begins with the importance of empathy, not simply as a source of human kindness, but as a method of survival, a means of understanding adversaries. This alone saved the world from total devastation during the Cuban Missile Crisis, according to McNamara. Morris interrupts him to suggest that McNamara left out a few things in his account of the Russian motivations. Perhaps he didn’t like being interrupted. Perhaps, he wasn’t prepared to acknowledge some of the facts at issue. McNamara is reluctant to get into the issue of genuine Russian grievances, but rallies so to speak, even going so far as to add a few facts in their favor. Still, he wavers at the end, not quite able to come clean on his own role in some of those grievances.
Morris: “Also, we had attempted to invade Cuba.
McNamara: Well, with the Bay of Pigs, that undoubtedly influenced their thinking. I think that’s correct, but more importantly, from a Cuban and a Russian point of view, they knew, what in a sense I really didn’t know. We had attempted to assassinate Castro under Eisenhower and under Kennedy, and later under Johnson, and in addition to that, major voices in the U.S. were calling for invasion.
Every time I watch this film, I wonder what that means. In what sense is it that McNamara didn’t know that the U.S. had tried to assassinate Castro? Is this a fatal failure moral courage? Is McNamara simply unable to admit what he knew? Or is this a key to understanding the (dis-)organization of American diplomacy? Is it possible that he was the left hand, only dimly aware of what the right one was up to? Don’t know, but seriously, that’s a Hell of a hedge coming through an otherwise brilliant narrative.
McNamara served in the U.S. Air Forces during World War II, serving under General Curtis LeMay. He provided statistical analysis of U.S. bombing missions. I know paperwork, right? But sometimes the pen really is mightier than the sword, or even the canon. Clearly, McNamara’s reports were not simply filed…
McNamara: I was on the island of Guam, in his command, in March of 1945. In that single night, we burned to death a hundred thousand Japanese civilians in Tokyo. Men, Women, and children.
Morris: Were you aware this was going to happen?
McNamara: Well, I was…, I was part of a mechanism that in a sense recommended it.
I analyzed bombing operations and how to make them more efficient, i.e. not more efficient in the sense of killing more, but more efficient in the sense of weakening the adversary. I wrote one report analyzing the efficiency of the B-29 operations. The B-29 could get above the fighter aircraft, and above the air defense, so the loss rate would be much less. The problem was the accuracy was also much less. Now I don’t want to suggest that it was my report that led to, I’ll call it the firebombing. It isn’t that I’m trying to absolve myself of blame for the firebombing. I don’t want to suggest that it was I that put in LeMay’s mind that his operations were totally inefficient and had to be drastically changed, but anyway that’s what he did. He took the B-29s down to 5,000 feet, and he decided to bomb with firebombs.
The first phrasing of interest here is the recommendation. This is a double hedge. McNamara doesn’t take personal responsibility in this statement. He submerges himself in a larger “mechanism,” but that isn’t enough, because that mechanism only recommends the firebombing “in a sense.” McNamara thus starts his answer to Morris two full shields removed from personal responsibility for the firebombings. He then goes onto assure us that the measure of efficiency he used was not simply the number of people killed but the effectiveness of the bombing in weakening the enemy. It is an interesting distinction, albeit one perhaps lost at the moment when the fires reached their victims. That McNamara struggles with this is clear enough throughout this and many other segments of the film. I don’t mean to suggest he is insensitive to the topic. Rather, his struggle seems to suggest the opposite. McNamara hasn’t quite explained his own role adequately to himself, and the result is the final mess of hedging about the question of personal responsibility. He denies it, but he also denies that he denies it. It’s easy enough to point to LeMay, and with good reason; it was LeMay’s decision. Still, I can’t help thinking that answer wasn’t even sufficient for McNamara.
Morris: The choice of incendiary bombs, where did that come from?
McNamara: I think the issue is not so much incendiary bombs. I think the issue is in order to win a war should you kill a hundred thousand people in one night, by firebombing or any other way. LeMay’s answer would be clearly ‘yes’. McNamara do you mean to say that instead of killing a hundred thousand, burning to death of a hundred thousand Japanese civilians in that one night, we should have burned to death a lesser number, or none, and then had our soldiers cross the beaches in Tokyo and been slaughtered in the tens of thousands? Is that what you’re proposing? Is that moral? Is that wise?
Why was it necessary to drop the nuclear bomb if LeMay was burning up Japan? And he went on from Tokyo to firebomb other cities. 58% of Yokohama. Yokohama is roughly the size of Cleveland. 58% of Cleveland destroyed. Tokyo is roughly the size of New York. 51% percent of New York destroyed. 99% of the equivalent of Chattanooga, which was Toyama. 40% of the equivalent of Los Angeles, which was Nagoya. This was all done before the dropping of the nuclear bomb, which by the way was dropped by LeMay’s command. Proportionality should be a guideline in war. Killing 50% to 90% of the people of 67 Japanese cities and then bombing them with two nuclear bombs is not proportional, in the minds of some people, to the objectives we were trying to achieve. I don’t fault Truman for dropping the nuclear bomb. The U.S. Japanese war was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history; kamikaze pilots, suicide, unbelievable. What one can criticize is that the human race, prior to that time, and today, has not really grappled with what are, I’ll call it the rules of war. Was there a rule then that said you shouldn’t bomb, shouldn’t kill, shouldn’t burn to death a hundred thousand civilians in a night. LeMay said, if we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if your lose and not immoral if you win?
This one of the most fascinating monologues I have yet seen in a film. McNamara seems determined to ensure we understand the full gravity of the situation, almost urging the case against himself and others. He wants us to know this was a terrible decision, perhaps even a crime. And yet, he builds a kind of defense into the narrative. It begins with his refusal to answer the question. He had been asked who was responsible for the decision to use incendiary bombs, thus generating more civilian deaths than conventional ordinance might have. Whatever else, McNamara’s speech here gives us, it does not give us a direct answer to that question.
The narrative also serves to shape questions about McNamara’s own role in the affair in terms of his relationship to his commander. It is LeMay’s thoughts on the subject which control McNamara’s story-line. His own decisions are thus framed in terms of what LeMay might have said in response to any argument against the decision to firebomb the Japanese cities. If McNamara himself might have objected, this story suggests, his concerns would have been simply overruled.
Lastly, McNamara deflects the moral questions onto humanity itself. Nevermind who was responsible for this particular decision. The real question is one that falls to humanity itself. How might humanity have handled such an issue? McNamara seems to suggest, the answer would take the form of a rule of war. The specific feasibility of such rules at that time (or any other) is not so clear, but seems to be how he wants to address the issue. And in the end, this means NOT addressing the issue of just who is responsible for burning all those women and children up during World War II. McNamara wants us to understand it’s a serious issue, but he is at great pains to avoid dealing with it too directly.
This may seem like a side-issue, but I can’t help thinking it points to a Hell of a drama in its own right. McNamara’s thoughts on his own family and the impact of his service as Secretary of Defense under President Kennedy contain some interesting hedges of their own.
That’s the way it (his role as Secretary of State) began. You know, there was a traumatic period. My wife probably got ulcers from it, may have even ultimately have died from the stress. My son got ulcers; it was a very traumatic, but they were some of the best years of our lives, and all the members of my family benefited from it. It was terrific.
I can’t help wondering how McNamara could say that his service benefited all members of his family while telling us the job may well have killed his wife. It seems cruel to me, even to point this out, and yet, it seems an important fact. Among the many who suffered through this man’s career, one may well count members of his own family. No doubt, this too has its reasons, reasons he doesn’t owe us, but as much as he gives is damned disturbing. And I wonder if that sort of story isn’t a bit more common than one might suspect.
Regarding the build-up of the Vietnam War…
There was a coup in South Vietnam. Diem was overthrown, and he and his brother were killed. I was present with the President when together we received information of that coup. I have never seem him more upset. He totally blanched. President Kennedy and I had tremendous problems with Diem, but My God! He was the authority, he was the head of state, and he was overthrown by a military coup, and Kennedy knew, and I knew, that to some degree the U.S. Government was responsible for that.
Here again, one seems to see McNamara posing as the left hand struggling to understand what the right hand was doing. Government is complex, sure, but I can’t help wondering; if I were in a more polemic mood, might I start a criticism of this war by asking just how in the Hell the CIA could give it’s blessings to a coup the President and his Secretary of Defence didn’t support?
Speaking of Vietnam, there is a fascinating moment covering the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Twice in August of 1964, the Destroyer USS Maddox reported attacks from North Vietnamese forces. These attacks have long been disputed, but nevertheless, they provided the rational for a resolution authorizing use of greater force by Lyndon Johnson. McNamara provides his own take on the details. One of the more interesting gems here is an audio-taped recording of a man on the Maddox reporting the attacks. Asked if he is sure that a torpedo had been fired at the ship, he replies in the affirmative; “No doubt about that, …I think.”
“What I’m doing is thinking it through with hindsight, but you don’t have hindsight available at the time. I’m very proud of my accomplishments, and I’m very sorry that in the process of accomplishing things, I’ve made errors.”
This line comes toward the end of the film as McNamara is beginning to summarize the whole thing. One might question whether or not ‘errors’ would be the most appropriate word to use for the sense of moral transgression that haunts this film. Perhaps, this may seem unfair. McNamara and those he served with had responsibilities some of us will thankfully never know. Had he done too little, he might well have faced similarly questions about the loss of American lives due to failure of nerve. So, does this render the whole issue a kind of practical calculation, a simple cost-benefit analysis? McNamara seems to have been well trained in such accounting. This might well be his honest sense of the issues. Sill, one has to wonder at the use of ‘error’ to describe the moral significance of lives lost wasted.
What is morally appropriate in a wartime environment? Let me give you an illustration. While I was Secretary, we used what’s called “Agent Orange” in Vietnam, a chemical that strips leaves off of trees. After the war, it is claimed that that was a toxic chemical, and it killed many individuals, soldiers and civilians exposed to it. Were those who issued the approval to use Agent Orange criminals? Were they committing a crime against humanity? Let’s look at the law. Now what kind of law do we have that says these chemicals are acceptable for use in war and these chemicals are not. We don’t have clear definitions of that kind. I never in the world would have authorized an illegal action. I’m not really sure I authorized Agent Orange. I don’t remember it, but it certainly occurred, the use of it occurred while I was Secretary.
What is moist striking about this passage is the distance between McNamara and a decision for which he was clearly responsible. It seems plausible enough to suggest that he may not have been directly involved, or at least not in a way that fully impressed upon him the significance of this choice. Still, McNamara does acknowledge this happened on his watch. And yet he discusses the issue for the most part as though the responsibility must fall on the shoulders of someone else. Again, McNamara seems to look to the laws for answers to these questions, but that too seems to be a bit of a dodge. Does he really need a law to tell him not to poison people.
…also noteworthy hear would be the sense that something is odd about the claim that a chemical that strips leaves from plants might be harmful humans. McNamara doesn’t quite acknowledge that it is harmful. He is content to tell us that “it is claimed…”
Near the end of the film, McNamara relates the story of a protester. His account here is fascinating in many ways. What interests me about it at present is the way he frames the moral questions again in terms of humanity itself. This was a protester who died trying to communicate something to McNamara himself, but McNamara saw the significance of his death in the language of the man’s wife, as a question for all of humanity. Perhaps such questions are well asked of all of humanity, and yet I can’t help thinking that a question asked of all of humanity isn’t really asked of any particular person.
…or perhaps, more to the point, a person weary of answering such questions in his own life, weary of his own answers and the consequences of the answers he has given, might well prefer to have humanity itself grapple with those questions.
Anyway, we’ll leave it with this last quote.
Norman Morrison was a Quaker. He was opposed to war, the violence of war, the killing. He came to the Pentagon, doused himself with gasoline. Burned himself to death below my office. He held a child in his arms, his daughter. Passersby shouted, “Save the child!” He threw the child out of his arms, and the child lived, and is alive today. His wife issued a very moving statement, uh; ‘Human beings must stop killing other human beings.’ And that’s a belief that I shared. I shared it then and I believe it even more strongly today. How much evil must we do in order to do good? We have certain ideals, certain responsibilities. Recognize that at times you will have to engage in evil, but minimize it.
Have a look at the pitch line on this movie. “In the chaos of war, peace can only come from within.” What’s odd about that, you may ask? It is after all a story about a soldier and the psychiatrist who has been assigned to help him recover from Shell Shock. So, the line makes a lot of sense right? Well, yes it does.
Unless of course, you’ve seen the movie.
Because if you’ve seen the movie, then you will likely realize that the premise of the film is actually that the soldier, Sigfried Sassoon is NOT actually suffering from Shell Shock. (Sassoon was in fact a real historical figure, by the way, one well worth knowing about.) He had in fact published an open letter in opposition to the war. As the man was already a highly celebrated war hero and a recipient of the military cross, this posed a bit of an unusual problem for the British high command. You can’t just put a hero in front of a firing squad, can you? So, the British military wasn’t quite sure what to do about this. The solution was to declare him ill and assign a psychiatrist to treat him. By ‘treat’ in this case we mean of course that the psychiatrist in the film was expected to talk Sassoon into going back out to join the fighting. Far from a movie about finding inner peace, this is a film about the misuse of medical science in the politics of war. It is in fact a very bitter tale of a medical practice that wasn’t about finding peace of any kind.
But, hey ad guys! Don’t let that stop you from putting a perfectly vapid cliché on the cover of this wonderful film. Better yet, why don’t you pick a theme that carries forward the very hypocrisy addressed in the movie itself.
Photojournalist Ruben Salvadori started out with the intention of filming riots in East Jerusalem. In time, he came to shift the focus of his own camera to include the photographers around him. The resulting shift in perspective can be quite startling. It’s an ongoing project for Salvadori, and one that certainly seems quite promising.
It isn’t entirely clear to me how Salvadori’s own intervention will play out in the Palestinian crisis. He seems to be suggesting a layer of collusion between the Palestinian protesters and the photographers who cover them, but it isn’t clear that Salvadori means to limit his critique to such a partisan angle. One can as easily address the questions he raises to photojournalists embedded in conventional forces.
The simple inclusion of photographers in the field of vision provides a stark reminder that the images of world conflict do not come to from on high, or even out-of-bounds, but from people who are very much a part of the events they are filming. The stories told in these images are in some sense reflexive, they are also part of the violence itself, but realization of this fact seems to require a little extra work, an effort to shift our attention to this fact. Joshua Oppenheimer’s film, The Act of Killing, helps to reveal that. Salvadori’s project does this as well.
We get a glimpse into the role that media plays on the scene of a conflict every once in awhile. I remember Gerald Vizenor‘s comments about the American Indian Movement helped to break the fourth wall in stories about Wounded Knee and similar events, at least for those who read his works. For many Americans, I suspect the most unexpected (and apparently unwelcome) peek behind the journalistic lens came with the landing of U.S. marines in Mogadishu. The image of combat-ready marines surrounded by photographers caused quite a stir back in the day. I recall quite a few folks lashed out at the photographers for endangering the landing forces with their presence. Few seemed to question the process by which a marine force had come to storm a beach guarded by scores of photographers in the first place.
It’s been some time since that shocking moment when Mogadishu queered the whole subject of war, and it’s good to see someone else tugging at the curtains again. The short clip Salvadori has presently made available (see below) raises more questions than it answers. It will be interesting to see where his project goes.
…and of course that is when it gets really interesting.
By poking an eye out, I am of course talking about a special sort of moment one gets from time to time in the study of anthropology, at least I do. It’s the sort of moment when some cultural practice causes the hair on the back of your neck stand up and your stomach tries to dig its way to China (or Antarctica, as would be the case here in Barrow). I’m talking about that kind of moment when you encounter something in an ethnography that just seems like too much. So, you sit there and ask yourself, “How in the Hell could that be anything but wrong?” And for a little while anyway, your mind just doesn’t want to travel down that road, the one that leads to understanding the practice in its own context. You’d rather just say ‘no’. Hell, you’d rather shout it at them across the waters, over the mountains, and even if need be through the ages, cause someone needs to say it somehow, “This is just wrong!”
For the students in one of my classes this semester that moment came courtesy of the Cherokee blood feud, and the sticking point was very clearly collective responsibility for murder. Simply put, the feud enabled the clan of a murdered individual to claim revenge against any member of the clan to which the offending party belonged. More than that, the terms of this blood feud obligate people to do so.
But I said ‘murdered’ didn’t I?
That’s not quite right. In the old way, any individual responsible for killing another Cherokee could initiate the obligation to exact revenge, even if the killing was an accident. As our reading described it, a horse borrowed for the day could start trouble by bucking its rider off, thus triggering a feud between the clan of its owner and that of the deceased rider. So pretending for this paragraph anyway that I am Cherokee – I’m not, …not even the ubiquitous Cherokee grandmother every other white guy seems to have been blessed with – but let’s just pretend for a moment. If my brother’s horse spooks and kills a rider, I could be killed in revenge for this event. They do not need to take the offending party (if there even is such a person in this example); they might prefer to kill a different member of my brother’s clan (someone like ME, perhaps). So, I could die because of something my brother did, …even if that was an accident. The article we read even contained an instance in which a killer talked the avenging parties into killing someone else from his own clan.
And yes, this bothered my students. I can’t really blame them, because I can remember my own feelings years ago as I came to grips with this kind of dispute-system. It violates my sense of justice too, or at least the master metaphors through which I and my students typically process this kind of information.
But it’s worse than that!
You see, the point here isn’t merely that people do this, but that this system is actually normative. In a certain time and place, according to a certain cultural order, this is what was SUPPOSED to happen. This is what’s right, at least as the Cherokee once defined it, and that proved more than a little disturbing to my students this semester.
I’m inclined to think the sticking point is an intuitive sense that guilt is an individual responsibility, at least for myself and the students in my classroom last week. Guilt is the medium through which we seem to want to look at deviant behavior, and that concept does not seem to want to travel in large groups; it resides in the soul of a single individual.
Heh, …I said soul, didn’t I?
It is perhaps part of the legacy of historical Christianity under which all moral failings could at one time be construed as defiance of the Lord. Whether one had committed murder, taken to drink, or charged interest on a loan, all of these crimes and others were testimony to personal defiance of the Lord. And of course, much like Santa Clause, He would know!
I’m inclined to think the projection of an omniscient judge and jury played an important role in shaping the concepts of guilt so familiar to people today. One can even see a trace of this mythic imaginary in secularized notions such as crimes against the state (or against society as a whole). Guilt is personal, it is absolute, and it obtains even when the social facts proceed on without taking notice of it. Even the medicalized notions of deviance stemming from the mid to late twentieth-century seem to be largely focused on the individual. The insanity defense is about the capacity of an individual to grasp right or wrong, and it is one individual after another whose failures in life can be described as due to this or that syndrome. When we withhold the pronouncement of guilt on an individual, it is rather often to pronounce sickness upon him instead. Either way, we do not typically assign counseling as a condition of probation for all the members of his extended family.
In short, we care who dunnit. We really care!
That of course has less to do with anything inherently wrong with clan-based blood-feuds than it does the cultural logic of western traditions. What pokes my students and I in the eye as we study this custom has less to do with has less to do with Cherokee society than our moral sensibilities. We just can’t fit their approach into our own world, not without feeling a little violated when doing it.
I’ve learned to regard that feeling as evidence that I have just found something worth studying. For some of my students, the problem was collective responsibility, but the real irony here is that we are not really strangers to collective responsibility. Not by a long shot.
It probably won’t help matters much to mention gangs in this regard, though the logic of a gang hit is certainly comparable in some respects (one needn’t get the original culprit, just one of his home-boys). But of course gang members are hardly the only people in modern America to engage in disputation at the level of collective responsibility. We may have fought a war against Saddam Hussein, but in real-world terms that meant killing a lot of Iraqis. The same can be said of the Taliban whose principal cause of war appears to have been sheltering Bin Laden. The story will not change much for any given war; war is by definition a conflict between collective entities. Either way someone is dying because of what some other bastard did, and folks may be sad about it, we might even make a regretful movie or sing a sad song about it, but such is war.
In some cases the absurdity of this collective logic creeps through the practice of war more than others. When I used to teach Navajo history, I used to despair that the first of my two textbooks spent far too much time detailing a pattern of raid and retribution between Navajos and the Spanish. Time and again, the book would describe a raid conducted by Navajos followed by a punitive expedition carried out by the Spanish. It’s a pattern that continued clear up through the Mexican period in the Southwest, and further still into the early years of American occupation. And in all these punitive actions, no-one seems to have bothered to ask if the Navajo communities bearing the brunt of the attack had much to do with those who had been doing the raiding. Collective responsibility was simply assumed.
It should be added that Navajos seem to have taken the brunt of the blame for a pattern of raiding that was fairly ubiquitous in the Southwest. They were certainly not the only group conducting such raids, but that is a gripe for another day.
For their own part Navajos developed an oral tradition describing a very different allocation of responsibility to the specific raiding parties, viewed as irresponsible young men bringing trouble to their own people. This point becomes that much more clear in the wake of the Long Walk and internment at Fort Sumner. This event marks the nadir of most stories about Navajo history, it is story in which Kit Carson ’rounded up’ the vast majority of the Navajo people and took them to a small reservation in Southeastern New Mexico. The next four years (1864-68) were difficult to say the least for Navajos and damned expensive for the U.S. government. In the end they were allowed to return home.
Some have defended Carson’s actions on the grounds that it had at least ended the raiding patterns of the past centuries. What these historians consistently missed was that the raiding patterns continued in the years after fort Sumner. After Fort Sumner, a raid brought Federal troops who went straight to the Navajo police under the leadership of Ganado Mucho or Manuelito. The Navajo police then brought back whatever livestock had been stolen. Before Fort Sumner a Navajo raid was an act of war with collective responsibility applying to the Navajo people as a whole; after Fort Sumner it was a criminal act, the responsibility for which fell on individual shoulders. The difference that makes this distinction had less to do with actions than understandings.
…and in this case that was all the difference in the world.
Perhaps the logic of warfare is too remote for the majority of us in modern America, but there is one respect in which the notion of collective responsibility is absolutely a part of our every day lives, the business of corporations. As some would describe it, the very point of forming a corporation is to re-allocate responsibility for the actions associated with a business concern. Once a source of great controversy, the existence of these collective entities in American business (and that of the world at large) is easily accepted as an accomplished fact.
It is just the way the world works, so common wisdom would have it. We accept that we will not get to talk to the bastard (or bastards) at Bank of America, Wells Fargo, or any other major bank who decided they could reorder your checks from the biggest to the smallest in the event of an overdraft and charge extra fees in the process. We accept that the poor agent who answers our call will be the one to hear whatever we have to say about such an outrage. We accept that CEOs in charge of failing corporations may travel freely on to the next chapter in their bright shining futures, leaving countless lives ruined in their wake. And we accept that (with rare exceptions) lives lost or immiserated by corporations will never result in punishment of those specifically responsible for polluting this river or putting that firebomb of a vehicle on the market.
Of course, there are circumstances in which charges of criminal fraud or negligence may occur, but this would seem to be the rare exception (except perhaps in Island where they actually have the balls to hold white collar criminals accountable for wrecking a national economy) Under normal circumstances, these giant entities screw customers and maim communities with impunity, and there is little one can do about it. The most one might hope to see in the way of justice from such practices will financial compensation from a corporate entity, the loss shared out through its stock-holders. Those directly responsible for terrible decisions will in most cases never see any significant retribution for the harm they cause to others.
…and the more I think about it, the more this one starts to feel like another poke in the eye.
If collective responsibility is the sticking point in accepting the justice of a clan-based feud system, it is not because collective responsibility escapes us, or perhaps it is because it escapes us when we actually use such an approach in our own lives. The real question is just why do we allow for collective responsibility in warfare and corporate business activities while insisting on individual responsibility for ‘crimes’? I and my students didn’t follow this question, because of course that wasn’t the task at hand, but it’s the sort of thing I hope will hang in their minds long after they have hit send on their final papers. If it’s done right, a good anthropology course should leave students with more than a collection of facts about other people in other times and places, it should also leave them with a new sense of the communities in which they themselves live.
The cognitive poke in the eye is on the house.
Three Cherokee are from here. The image of Sequoyah is from the Smithsonian Institution. The image of Kit Carson is from the Kit Carson Museum. Ganado Mucho comes from Navajo People.org. Adam and Eve hiding from God comes from an old engraving by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. I got it from istockphoto. Manuelito comes from a class at ASU. The gavel is from Sara Marberry’s Blog. The Bank Cartoon comes origonally from an entry of Punch Magazine published in 1917, but I got it from Wikipedia.