Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 9, 2010

Howard Zinn and the myth of the “People’s War”

Filed under: antiwar,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 6:47 pm

Despite serving as a bombardier, or perhaps because of it, Zinn opposed the idea that WWII was a “People’s War”

In the days following Howard Zinn’s passing, there was some discussion on the Marxism list trying to put him into an ideological context. One subscriber wrote:

I don’t want to start a … flame war over the dubious merits of “A People’s History.” Howard Zinn had an enormously influential career and is beloved by the American left. His “Voices of a People’s History” is of great merit as a collection of source material which will enrich the study of American history. He was, in many ways, the Charles Beard of this era which is fitting considering how of his work replicates Beard’s approach.

This led another subscriber, a professional historian, to respond:

Classing Zinn as a “Beardsian” seems not to understand these central differences related to race. This isn’t some triviality like misunderstanding Whig foreign policy. There is the racial conquest of the continent foundational to the civilization, and the entire racial enslavement of Africans. Related, too, are the issues of Jeffersonian, sectionalism and the agrarian particularism for which Beard had great affinities and Zinn regarded with due skepticism.  In this regard, the “Marxist” writers of the 1930s and 1940s were far more “Beardsian” than Zinn. Indeed, these are some of the central issues that distinguished the body of New Left scholarship from the old line dogmas of those writers connected with the CP.

This discussion led me to thinking about Zinn’s approach to WWII in chapter sixteen of “People’s History of the United States”, titled appropriately enough “A People’s War?” (The entire book can be read online here.) Written in 1980, the book adopts a “revisionist” perspective that was associated with a number of younger New Left historians such as Gar Alperovitz whose 1965 book “Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam” revealed U.S. war aims as setting the stage for the Cold War.

Along with many other “revisionists”, Alperovitz studied history at the University of Wisconsin under William Appleman Williams who was a seminal figure of the New Left. Williams was born in 1920 and could be seen as a contemporary of Zinn. His 1959 “The Tragedy of American Diplomacy” was a highly influential work, arguing that the U.S. had imperial ambitions from the days of Thomas Jefferson.

Charles Beard is widely recognized as having an influence on Williams and those who followed in his footsteps. Best described as an “economic determinist”, Beard is known for a kind of class analysis of the American constitution. But he is most controversial for his refusal to toe the line on WWII. As a member in good standing of the Progressivist current in American politics, he was immune to the pressures that allowed CP historians to get on FDR’s bandwagon.

While Beard might not have deployed the analytical tools of “The 18th Brumaire” in his writings on WWII, he was much more in line with Marxist principles in refusing to treat WWII as a “people’s war”. Unlike the “revisionists”, the Stalinist Daily Worker celebrated the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On August 8th, 1945, the paper’s military analyst wrote “We are lucky to have found The Thing and are able to speed the war against the Japanese before the enemy can devise countermeasures. Thank god for that.” He added: “So let us not greet our atomic device with a shudder, but with the elation and admiration which the genius of man deserves.”

The Stalinist fools had little inkling that Truman only bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to “teach the Russians a lesson” as Gar Alperovitz reported.

The term “New Left” was largely coined in order to distinguish the 1960s radicals from the political dry rot that the Communist Party had bequeathed. To some extent, it was also a rejection of the dogmatism of all Marxist groups but whatever the movement lacked theoretically it made up for politically by breaking with the social patriotism of the CP.

It was to Howard Zinn’s everlasting credit that he identified with this outlook, even though he never attacked the CP specifically for its WWII treachery. To generations of young people, he demonstrated that WWII was an imperialist war even if it coincided with anti-imperialist struggles and the necessary defense of the USSR. For the veterans of the New Left who had absorbed his analysis, they were in a much stronger position to resist new efforts to “fight fascism”, especially in Yugoslavia and Iraq—two arenas that people like Christopher Hitchens have specifically likened to the efforts to defeat Hitlerism.

Although I had been thoroughly inoculated against the “People’s War” garbage during my training in Trotskyist politics, I found Zinn’s chapter on WWII essential in writing an article on Zimmerwald and Imperialist “Humanitarian” Interventions in 1992 prompted by a British Stalinist’s support for NATO intervention on the original Marxism mailing list. Parenthetically, I should mention that Britain did not appear to have the kind of political cleansing that the New Left historians carried out here. Lacking the equivalent of a Gar Alperovitz or a Howard Zinn, they seem far more susceptible to the sort of “People’s War” malarkey that typifies the Socialist Unity blog that in the interest of transparency should probably be renamed Stalinist Unity.

Here are excerpts from that article that rely heavily on Beard and Zinn:

Washington’s anti-fascism was the result of a recent “conversion”. American businesses sent oil to Italy in huge quantities after Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935. Mussolini used the oil to keep the war against the African colony. When the fascists rose up in Spain in 1936, Roosevelt declared his neutrality while the fascist powers gave complete aid to the Francoists. This ensured the victory of fascism in Spain.

What brought the United States into the war was not a determination to rid the world of fascism, but a response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was only when Japan threatened US economic interests in the Pacific that Washington entered the war. There is a transcript of statement made to the War Cabinet by Henry Stimson in November, 1941 that confirms this interpretation. Charles Beard cites it in his “President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War 1941.”

One problem troubled us very much. If you know that your enemy is going to strike you, it is not usually wise to wait until he gets the jump on you by taking the initiative. In spite of the risk involved, however, in letting the Japanese fire the first shot, we realized that in order to have the full support of the American people it was desirable to make sure that the Japanese be the ones to do this so there should remain no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who were the aggressors. We discussed at this meeting the basis on which this country’s position could be most clearly explained to our own people and to the world, in case we had to go into the fight quickly because of some sudden move on the part of the Japanese. We discussed the possibility of a statement summarizing all the steps of aggression that the Japanese had already taken, the encirclement of our interests in the Philippines which was resulting and the threat to our vital supplies of rubber from Malay. I reminded the president that on Aug. 19 [1941] he had warned the Japanese Ambassador that if the steps which the Japanese were then taking continued across the border into Thailand, he would regard it as a matter affecting our safety, and suggested that he might point out that the moves the Japanese were now apparently on the point of making would be in fact a violation of a warning that had already been given.

Beard belonged to the earlier Progressive school of history and politics. Other members were John Dewey the philosopher and cultural historian Vernon Parrington. The Progressives predated the intellectual milieu of both the CP and the New Deal–granted they are somewhat identical–and were much less likely to believe WWII war propaganda. These were people of Eugene V. Debs’ generation and likely to take the “people’s war” rhetoric with a grain of salt.

Beard was a scholar of tremendous integrity, but his outspoken opposition to World War Two caused him to become a rather isolated figure in the world of cold-war liberalism. Younger liberal historians considered him an odd duck and perhaps a little disturbed. Thomas Kennedy, in his “Charles A. Beard and American Foreign Policy”, entertained critical speculations that Beard was surely deaf and possibly senile when he went on the attack against WWII. He cites a critic who views Beard’s attacks on Roosevelt as “superstitions that occupied Beard in his senility.”

Of course, Beard was completely sane and clear-headed. It was the muddle-headed New Deal liberals and their CP chums who had lost control of their sanity. A new generation of “revisionist” historians came along in the 1960’s and put their support behind Beard’s interpretation.

Did the United States intervention as an ally of the USSR against the Nazis prove that it was fighting a “people’s war” as opposed to a war based on the need for power and profit? One can question the purity of the motives in the war with Japan, but how can anybody gainsay the crusade for democracy in Europe?

To begin with, Washington showed no intention of extending democracy to the colonies of its European allies. Diplomat Sumner Welles assured the French that they could hold on to their colonies. He said, “This Government, mindful of its traditional friendship for France, has deeply sympathized with the desire of the French people to maintain their territories and preserve them intact.”

Lurking beneath the surface of altruistic government propaganda of the sort uttered by Henry Wallace was the occasional honest assessment. Secretary of State Cordell Hull said “Leadership toward a new system of international relationships in trade and other economic affairs will devolve very largely upon the United States because of our great economic strength. We should assume this leadership, and the responsibility that goes with it, primarily for reasons of national self- interest.” The poet Archibald MacLeish, at that time an Assistant Secretary of State, predicted the outcome of an allied victory. He declared, “As things are now going, the peace we will make, the peace we seem to be making, will be a peace of oil, a peace of gold, a peace of shipping, a peace, in brief…without moral purpose or human interest.”

Did WWII rescue European Jewry to some extent? Supporters of imperialist intervention in Bosnia tend to make analogies with this presumed mission of WWII, but Roosevelt had no interest in saving the lives of Jews. I need not go over this sad tale in detail. You should read “While 6 Million Died”, by NY Times reporter Arthur D. Morse, which details the indifference at best, and anti-Semitic hatred at worst, that existed in the US State Department. The President refused to take decisive action against the Nazis and caused the deaths of many thousands of Jews.

Despite the no-strike pledge of Communist Party, the class-struggle continued at home with mounting fury. During the war, there were 14,000 strikes, involving 6,770,00 workers, more than in any period in American history. A million miners, steelworkers, auto and transportation workers went on strike in 1944. In Lowell, Massachusetts, there were as many strikes in 1943 and 1944 as there were in 1937. It was a “people’s war” in the eyes of CPers and their liberal allies. Despite this, textile workers there resented the fact that the bosses’ profits grew by 600% during the war while their wages only went up by 36%.

(I gathered much of the information above from chapter 16, “A People’s War?”, in Howard Zinn’s indispensable “People’s History of the United State 1942-Present”. A new edition of this classic has just appeared and I urge people to make time for careful study of this work. Howard Zinn was a bombardier on a B17 and flew in many missions during WWII. His disgust with allied bombing of Dresden and Hiroshima turned him into a pacifist.)

January 5, 2010

The American Way

Filed under: antiwar,repression — louisproyect @ 10:30 pm

Guest post by Richard Greener

posted originally on http://papadablogger.blogspot.com

The Next Big Thing in the War On Terror and airport security is the full-body scanner. You’ve heard about it. This is the machine that will expose everyone – you, me, everybody who passes through it – as if we were naked. You may think that’s a good idea. A highly trained security expert would be able to spot hidden explosives and other such terrorist dangers. Who will examine and interpret our full-body scans? Who will look at our exposed bodies with an eye to making the American People safer? You know who. Our nakedness will be seen by and interpreted by at least one and perhaps a whole group of minimum wage TSA employees. Real security experts, right? If you have been in an airport lately you know exactly who I’m talking about. Do you think those new full-body scans will make you feel more comfortable flying? More secure? Safer? Sure they will.

Did you know that President Obama’s Dept. of Homeland Security has already purchased more than $50 million worth of these new airport machines, and that they have ordered another $25 million more, which are yet to come? You didn’t hear about Congress approving this? That’s because they never did. They took the money right out of the Stimulus Package. Exactly what you thought that program was meant for wasn’t it?

Guess who the most vocal supporter of this new technology is. How about Michael Chertoff, the former head of The Dept. of Homeland Security under George W. Bush. That fact, I’m sure, makes you feel better, doesn’t it? Chertoff is a security expert. He knows what works and what doesn’t. Right? He has your safety and your interest as his personal goal, doesn’t he? Why else would he be on every television show he can find talking up the need for these full-body scanners at every airport in America and all around the world? Chertoff wouldn’t have a personal, private agenda, a special interest here – would he?

Well, maybe. It’s called The American Way.

Michael Chertoff served his country – and now his country is damn well going to serve him. Isn’t that The American Way? Sure it is. Chertoff is now part of the “private sector.” Ever hear of The Chertoff Group? Here is what they have to say about themselves. These are their words. This is how Michael Chertoff is selling his services today.

Read carefully.

“For deals in the security industry, Chertoff Group offers unparalleled subject matter expertise and contacts to give you the competitive advantage.”

“We have overseen billions of dollars of technology development and acquisition for the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the National Security Agency, and the CIA. We have keen insight into which new technologies are likely to transform the landscape, and our experience allows us to predict which ones may be headed for obsolescence.”

“We have proven success, not only in the domestic U.S. market; members of our team have years of experience in completing international transactions, as well.”

“The security and risk management market is large, growing and resilient, even in this economic downturn. Despite its potential value of over $200 billion per year, the market is highly fragmented. Together, these realities provide many opportunities to leverage economies of scale and enhance returns through operational improvements.”

“The Chertoff Group partners with compatible private equity firms across the investment spectrum, by providing our sector knowledge to help monitor and manage target companies during periods of transition. Regardless of our role, we are committed experts at aligning interests and maximizing value for our clients.”

Impressive, isn’t it? So, exactly who are The Chertoff Group?

Michael Chertoff is a Co-Founder and Managing Principal of The Chertoff Group. No surprise there. As they say, it’s his name on the door. Who are some of his partners and colleagues? Take a look.

Charles E. Allen: Formerly at The Dept. of Homeland Security along with Chertoff and before that, 40 years at CIA – the Central Intelligence Agency.

Larry Castro: 44 years at the NSA – the National Security Agency.

Jay M. Cohen: Former Chief of Naval Research at the Dept. of the Navy under George W. Bush.

Michael Hayden: General US Army. Former Director of NSA and former Director of the CIA under George W. Bush.

Nathaniel T. G. Fogg: Top executive at FEMA under George W. Bush.

Paul Schneider: Senior Acquisitions Executive at the National Security Agency under George W. Bush.

Chad Sweet: Former Chief of Staff at The Dept. of Homeland Security under George W. Bush. Previously, a top executive at both Morgan Stanley and Goldman-Sachs.

Imagine having your “interests aligned” and your “values maximized” by such a group.

Now, take a wild guess. Who do you think represents the company that manufactures and sells the full-body scanner? Did you say, The Chertoff Group?

It’s called The American Way.

December 23, 2009

Iraq war veteran speaks out

Filed under: antiwar — louisproyect @ 9:05 pm

December 22, 2009

Ralph Nader: From W. to Obama, a Seamless Transition on the War

Filed under: antiwar — louisproyect @ 7:03 pm

November 27, 2009

Michael Berube’s war on the left

Filed under: antiwar,cruise missile left — louisproyect @ 6:28 pm

Michael Berube

Skimming through Michael Berube’s newly published Eustonesque manifesto “The Left at War“, I stumbled across a reference to yours truly in chapter one. The good professor grouped me with 9/11 truthers and Bob Avakian, as people not worth his while to attack. The book, you see, was going after bigger game, like Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman and other enemies of humane, liberal values. It appears that I didn’t rate, because I was just an Internet phenomenon:

Likewise, if I wanted to engage with the divagations [a fancy word for ramblings] of the radical left online, I would include figures like Louis Proyect, a Columbia University computer programmer whose name is well known to far-left listservs and blogs, and who is capable of writing things like, “To the credit of the late Slobodan Milosevic and to Saddam Hussein, who now is on trial for his life in another kangaroo court, they never bowed down. In life and in death, these imperfect men will always remind us of the need to resist the injustice perpetrated by states acting out of perfect evil. “

The words were my conclusion to an article in Swans titled The Demonization And Death Of Slobodan Milosevic that I certainly stand by.  In keeping with this put-down and subsequent railings against Chomsky, Edward Herman and Diana Johnstone, you will not find any substance to Berube’s complaint, which usually takes the form of a sputtering “how dare they!” Since so much of the book is a diatribe against positions the left took on Yugoslavia, one would hope that the good professor might have taken the trouble to explain how critics of NATO’s war were wrong either on the facts or logic. But such matters do not interest him. He is much more at home in the ethereal realm of morality and global governance pirouetting with the angels.

I once posed the question to Berube on his blog as to what scholarly literature he had read on Yugoslavia. It drew a blank. His main interest is not in history, economics, or anything remotely related to a class analysis. He is a cultural studies professor by trade and heavily invested in theory, not the mundane world of facts and data. So much so that the book is largely devoted to praising Stuart Hall as the answer to all the wicked leftists who disagree with him on Yugoslavia. Yes, I know the connection is tenuous at best but I will do my best to explain how the good professor thinks, an onerous task I must admit.

I am not sure when I first stumbled across Berube’s writings, but my first response to him was in an article titled “Noam Chomsky and his Critics“, written on August 15, 2002. It was at a time when Chomsky was a lightning rod for the Eric Altermans and Christopher Hitchens of the world. They were outraged that he was not ready to jump on George W. Bush’s bandwagon, having the temerity to characterize American foreign policy as criminally brutal. In those days, people like Todd Gitlin were writing articles about the need to fly the American flag so you can imagine how angry he made the cruise missile left.

This is how I summed up Berube in that article:

For some on the postmodernist left, Chomsky has also become objectionable. Michael Berube, a commentator on the arts and society, feels that “the Chomskian left has consigned itself to the dustbin of history.” In accounting for the split between the “Chomskian left” and “the Hitchens left,” Berube surmises that “the simple fact that bombs were dropping” might have something to do with it. He writes:

For U.S. leftists schooled in the lessons of Cambodia, Libya, and the School of the Americas, all U.S. bombing actions are suspect: they are announced by cadaverous white guys with bad hair, they are covered by seven cable channels competing with one another for the catchiest “New War” slogan and Emmy awards for creative flag display, and they invariably kill civilians, the poor, the wretched, the disabled. Surely, there is much to hate about any bombing campaign.

Dispensing with the relativism and playful irony that characterizes the postmodernist left, Berube reminds his readers that war is a serious business:

Yet who would deny that a nation, once attacked, has the right to respond with military force, and who seriously believes that anyone could undertake any “nation-building” enterprise in Afghanistan without driving the Taliban from power first?

While most of Berube’s book is a sustained if rather flaccid attack on what he calls the “Manichean left”, he does try to distinguish himself from Hitchens, George Packer, Kenan Makiya, Paul Berman and other supporters of the war in Iraq. Berube is aggravated that they couldn’t figure out the difference between Serbia and Afghanistan on one hand and Iraq on the other. It was okay, if not essential, to bomb the former countries into submission while only using economic sanctions and flyovers against the latter.

You can read chapter 3 of Berube’s book, titled “Iraq: the Hard Road to Debacle”, in its entirety on Scribd.com.  It is replete with Berube’s trademark casuistry. He supported the war in Afghanistan but only if it was restricted to an assault on the al-Qaeda’s base in Tora Bora but not if would become what it actually became, an 8-year humanitarian disaster for the Afghan people. By analogy, he describes WWII as a good war, even if it involved bad decisions such as the bombing of Dresden. He wants to distinguish himself from the Pentagon generals even if they are the only conceivable agency to rid the world of evils such as al-Qaeda and Slobodan Milosevic. Perhaps the world would be better off if the military was run by cultural studies professors like Berube, but then again his role is not to actually kill people but to dream up sophisticated rationales for such acts.

In the section of chapter 3 titled “The Balkanized Left”, Berube cites Ian Williams in favor of NATO intervention without showing the slightest evidence that he has considered arguments and facts to the contrary. For example, Williams asserts that the U.S. was “dragged unwillingly” into the war by Europeans.

David Gibbs, the author of “First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia” sees things differently:

Deliberate Force was technically a multinational NATO campaign, but it was conceived and conducted largely by the United States.  Shortly before the strikes were launched, US officials met with their European counterparts and, in essence, demanded their support.  According to Chollet, who interviewed many key figures: “The Americans would go to explain what they were doing, not ask for permission.  The message would be ‘part invitation, part ultimatum.'”  Though European leaders resented this US diktat, they reluctantly went along with the plan.  After the Srebrenica massacre, the Europeans were under pressure to take action, and they did not wish to appear obstructionist.  NATO member states thus supported Operation Deliberate Force.

Now this is the only way to develop an analysis of Yugoslavia, namely through a painstaking examination of scholarly material. Gibbs, a political science professor at the U. of Arizona, has a bibliography that includes hundreds of articles and dozens of books. This is how serious policy analysts do their work. Berube, a flyweight when it comes to Balkans scholarship, is content to cite Williams, a journalist whose last book was on rum.

After favoring his reader with heavy doses of Ian Williams, Berube follows up with additional swatches lifted from a hostile review of Chomsky’s “The New Military Humanism” by Adrian Hastings, a Catholic theologian and long-time advocate of war on the dastardly Serbs.

One imagines that if Berube was charged with the assignment to write his own critique of Chomsky, Herman or Diana Johnstone without relying on such massive quote-mongering, his poor head might explode.

After he has exhausted all the quotes on Yugoslavia he can muster, Berube turns his attention to Iraq, a war that he opposed but with far less fervor than his opposition to the movement that emerged against it. He spends 12 pages in chapter 3 fulminating against the Workers World Party and the ANSWER coalition in a section titled “Dirty Fucking Hippies”. His prose takes on an almost hallucinatory quality as he pulls out all the stops: “ultraleftist thugs”, “neo-Stalinist sectarian group”, “support of Kim Jong-Il” and all the rest of the epithets that you might have read in the Washington Post or other newspapers catering to the anti-Communist prejudices of its inside-the-beltway readers.

Berube is spitting mad that the ANSWER coalition made so much headway, at least in the early days, when everybody knows that his own ideas and that of other liberal professors like Michael Walzer and Todd Gitlin are just so much smarter. You’ll never find someone like Michael Berube finding a kind word to say about North Korea, to be sure.

But you will never find someone like Michael Berube actually doing the dirty work that is required to get tens or hundreds of thousands of people to demonstrate in Washington. In a way, he reminds me of a virgin writing a sex advice column. He has all sorts of ideas what a good position might be, but has never gotten around to actually trying it out.

He would not have time in his busy schedule to roll up his sleeves and organize like-minded people to build a coalition conforming to his own ideals. If you read his blog, you will learn that when he is not writing articles on cultural theory or redbaiting the left, he is playing hockey or the drums. In other words, he is not actually sufficiently motivated to put his crappy politics into action, the way that a serious political person might. Fundamentally, we are dealing with a dilettante who enjoys shitting on people whose views he disagrees with. Like Walter Mitty, he must have fantasies about leading people into a more just world but like most liberal intellectuals he does not bother since the Democratic Party does all the work that is necessary to rout the Taliban and al-Qaeda. After all, the Obama administration that Berube genuflects to has all the guns and money it needs to kill Afghans. Why would they require any kind of volunteer activism from a college professor who has better things to do with his spare time?

November 10, 2009

The Good Soldier

Filed under: antiwar,Film — louisproyect @ 5:18 pm

With the massacre at Fort Hood and reports that President Obama is about to approve the sending of 40,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, “The Good Soldier” arrives at movie theaters in the nick of time. What is needed desperately right now is a shot in the arm for the antiwar movement and this deeply moving documentary about the conversion of five soldiers to the cause of peace supplies it in spades.

It opens tomorrow at the Village East Theater in NYC tomorrow and elsewhere around the country soon thereafter. Check http://www.thegoodsoldier.com/ for screening information.

Covering some of the same territory as the 2006 “The Ground Truth”, including one of its principals—the remarkable Marine Staff Sergeant Jimmy Massey, “The Good Soldier” is distinguished by its ability to evoke the often painful stories out of the five veterans to maximum effect. While not quite dealing with the same subject matter of Ford Maddox Ford’s 1915 novel with which it shares its title, this documentary directed by the wife and husband Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys could have begun with the same words that open Ford’s novel: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” Unlike the Ford novel, however, this story ends happily as the five soldiers unburden themselves from their guilt and join the antiwar movement as an act of salvation both for them and for humanity.

The veterans come from different generations and conflicts. With the exception of the Korean War, every slaughter starting with WWII is represented.

Two of the soldiers are white North Carolinians and when we first see them on camera, they appear the most unlikely antiwarriors possible. Chief Warrant Officer Perry Parks, who bears a spooky resemblance to Lee Harvey Oswald, flew helicopters in Vietnam. Accompanied by stock footage from the war, he talks about killing civilians from his helicopter gunship. During his second tour of duty, he decides that the antiwar movement was in the right and changes course completely. He becomes a hippie and roams around the country. Paradoxically, he reenlists only because he needs the money training soldiers how to fly helicopters. Today he is very involved in a small Pentecostal church in Rockingham, North Carolina where he tries to convince fellow parishioners to oppose the war in Iraq. Listening to him describe his newfound pacifist beliefs in a deep drawl makes you feel that anything is possible.

Staff Sergeant Jimmy Massey is cut from the same cloth as Parks. He tells us that he was born in a trailer park and became a gung-ho Marine, working as a recruiter for a number of years. In the 2003 invasion, he had a mental breakdown in the field and fought for and won an honorable discharge. He was represented by Gary Myers, one of the lawyers in the My Lai trials. We see Massey as he goes from one antiwar rally to another. In perhaps the most inspiring moment in the entire film, we see him on his own picketing a Marine recruitment station with a sign denouncing the war. This activism, ironically enough, was spurred by the traumas of being a “good soldier”. Now he is a “good soldier” fighting for peace. He explains:

We were on the outskirts of the Baghdad stadium, and there was an incident with a red Kia. They didn’t stop at the checkpoint, so we lit them up. I’m pulling the trigger as fast as I can, three victims were expiring rapidly… There was one man sobbing, ‘Why did you kill my brother? We’re not terrorists!’ I just wanted to close my ears each time he said it. It was being permanently burned into my brain. I lost it. The night before that – that was the last night I got a good night’s sleep.

The corpsman came over and dumped the bodies by the side of the road. I wish I could take that day back. I’d give anything. My CO (commanding officer) asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘It was a bad day; we killed a lot of innocent civilians.‘ He replied, ‘No, today has been a good day.’ I thought to myself, buddy boy, you’re in a world of shit now.

Imagine, being married for eleven years and it’s your anniversary and your spouse rolls over and says Happy Anniversary, but there’s something I have to confess to you. I have never loved you. Everything has been a lie. I just used you and by the way, the kids aren’t even yours either. That’s how I felt – betrayed by the Marine Corps.

This is the second movie co-directed by Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys. Their first, made in 1997, was “Riding the Rails”,  a superlative study of teenage hoboes during the Great Depression now available from Netflix.

Their work reminds me once again that the strength of the progressive movement in the United States should not be calculated simply on the basis of how many people belong to nominally left organizations. The dedication of talented directors like Lovell and Uys to put their time and energy into projects like this that might not have any immediate prospects of making them rich is proof that the sea change that began in the 1960s is still with us. It has impacted the GI’s who have become peace advocates, the documentary film makers who are inspired to tell their stories, and hopefully the millions of Americans who will rededicate themselves to fighting an escalation in Afghanistan. As the directors state in the press notes:

The simple revelations of their soldiers’ hearts, the wetness of their eyes, the emotion of the music that says what they cannot, the pauses and quietness, even the absence of narration pull at the psyche and whisper, “Does it really have to be this way?”

It does not really have to be this way, as long as we fight to prevent it.

October 9, 2009

Civilian control of the military

Filed under: Afghanistan,antiwar — louisproyect @ 1:10 am

On October first, General Stanley McChrystal, the commanding officer in Afghanistan, made a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London that implicitly repudiated Vice President Biden’s proposals for refocusing the war as one against Al Qaeda in Pakistan rather than the Taliban in Afghanistan.  In his speech, the General dismissed the claim that Afghanistan “is a graveyard of empires” as “untrue”. Given the deteriorating situation that more than anything else has prompted Biden’s “dovish” stance, one wonders if McChrystal is whistling in the graveyard.

If you read the speech, you will not find much in the way of Fox-TV rhetoric. Indeed, the main thrust against Biden took place in the Q&A when the General was asked whether he favored a strategy in Afghanistan of killing top insurgent leaders with unmanned drones and missiles that was associated with the peace-loving VP. He replied, “The short, glib answer is no. You have to navigate from where you are, not from where you wish you were. … A strategy that does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a short-sighted strategy.”

In the days following the speech, the civilian wing of the imperialist war machine asserted itself as the London Telegraph reported:

According to sources close to the administration, Gen McChrystal shocked and angered presidential advisers with the bluntness of a speech given in London last week.

The next day he was summoned to an awkward 25-minute face-to-face meeting on board Air Force One on the tarmac in Copenhagen, where the president had arrived to tout Chicago’s unsuccessful Olympic bid.

In an apparent rebuke to the commander, Robert Gates, the Defence Secretary, said: “It is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations, civilians and military alike, provide our best advice to the president, candidly but privately.”

When asked on CNN about the commander’s public lobbying for more troops, Gen Jim Jones, national security adviser, said:

“Ideally, it’s better for military advice to come up through the chain of command.”

The liberal punditocracy jumped into the fray as well, including Eugene Robinson, the Washington Post columnist and indefatigable Obama apologist who concluded that civilian control of the military had to be upheld even at the cost of dead Muslims:

For the record, this would be my position even if McChrystal were arguing for an immediate pullout — or even if George W. Bush, rather than Obama, were the president whose authority was being undermined. In October 2006, when the chief of staff of the British army said publicly that Britain should pull out of Iraq because the presence of foreign troops was fueling the insurgency — a view I wholeheartedly shared — I argued that he ought to be fired. I wrote that I didn’t like “active-duty generals dabbling in politics, even if I agree with them.” If military officers want to devise and implement geopolitical strategy, they should leave their jobs and run for office.

One of the chief theorists of civilian control in the academy, in fact, was someone who devoted most of the past decade demonizing Muslims and Arabs. I speak of Samuel Huntington, best known for his “clash of civilization” thesis that amounts to Ann Coulter for the carriage trade. Huntington wrote “The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations” in 1957, as a reaction to General MacArthur’s defiance of civilian control during the Korean War.

Speaking in the name of the entire ruling class, the Washington Post allowed Yale Law School professor Bruce Ackerman to make the parallels with MacArthur in an October 5th op-ed piece:

Generals shouldn’t need to be told that it is wrong to lecture their presidents in public. Perhaps McChrystal was misled by the precedent set by Gen. David Petraeus, who strongly supported President Bush’s military surge in Iraq in 2007. Though Petraeus publicly endorsed the surge, this happened only after Bush made his decision. Petraeus was backing up his commander in chief, not trying to preempt him.

Nevertheless, precedents have the habit of adding up. Unless McChrystal publicly recognizes that he has crossed the line, future generals will become even more aggressive in their efforts to browbeat presidents.

We have no need for a repeat of the showdown between President Harry Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur over Korea. Truman faced down his general the last time around, but it was a bruising experience.

The parallels with MacArthur are indeed striking. He was to the Korean War as McChrystal is to the one in Afghanistan. In 1950, Truman began making public statements about the need to escalate the war, specifically to invite the defeated Chinese dictator Chiang Kai-shek to enter the fray and to strike inside the Chinese mainland if necessary. After MacArthur had sent an expeditionary force into the north that was threatening to cross over into China, Mao felt it necessary to intervene on behalf of the North.

Truman decided to fire MacArthur in after he wrote a letter to Republican Representative Joe Martin in April 1951 disagreeing with Truman. Ironically, the letter was rather mild in comparison to the General’s past bluster-filled statements. But it did end on the same note as McChrystal’s speech, namely that there is no substitute for victory:

It seems strangely difficult for some to realize that here in Asia is where the Communist conspirators have elected to make their play for global conquest, and that we have joined the issue thus raised on the battlefield; that here we fight Europe’s war with arms while the diplomatic there still fight it with words; that if we lose the war to communism in Asia the fall of Europe is inevitable, win it and Europe most probably would avoid war and yet preserve freedom. As you pointed out, we must win. There is no substitute for victory.

The parallels between 1951 and 2009 are intriguing. Like today, the country was polarized during the Korean War between a Republican Party moving so far to the right that even the Trotskyists had begun to consider Joe McCarthy as a would-be Hitler. MacArthur was the darling of the Republican Party that was all revved up for a total confrontation with the Soviet Union, including the use of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the Democrats were more “reasonable” by comparison, favoring a “containment” strategy and the use of UN troops in peacekeeping missions. In the early 1950s, when cable TV and the Internet did not exist, the primary medium for the ultraright was the myriad of tabloids, especially in metropolitan centers like New York, which provided a bully pulpit for the Glenn Becks of their day, like Westbrook Pegler.

The other parallel is a divided nation, an inheritance of colonialism. The Korean War was precipitated by imperialism’s insistence on keeping the nation divided, just as the war in Afghanistan is largely a product of Pashtun nationalism cross-fertilized by political Islam and peasant resistance to landlordism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Will Obama have the guts to end the war in Afghanistan, the only strategy that in fact is in the long-term interests of American capitalism? In the last few days, there has been jubilation in the ranks of his supporters for appearing to resist McChrystal’s call for an additional 40,000 troops and a refocusing of the war into Pakistan in accord with Biden’s recommendations.

Yesterday the NY Times reported that the President was leaning in Biden’s direction:

President Obama’s national security team is moving to reframe its war strategy by emphasizing the campaign against Al Qaeda in Pakistan while arguing that the Taliban in Afghanistan do not pose a direct threat to the United States, officials said Wednesday.

But in his standard triangulation mode learned from Bill Clinton, Obama appeared ready to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan to placate the Pentagon Hawks and the Republican Party, as the NY Times reported in rather convoluted prose in tune with the convoluted fence-straddling behavior of the centrist President:

As Mr. Obama met with advisers for three hours to discuss Pakistan, the White House said he had not decided whether to approve a proposed troop buildup in Afghanistan. But the shift in thinking, outlined by senior administration officials on Wednesday, suggests that the president has been presented with an approach that would not require all of the additional troops that his commanding general in the region has requested.

In other words, only 10,000 or so young Americans will be sent to possible death or permanent injury rather than the full complement of 40,000 demanded by McChrystal. Apparently this “dovish” maneuver might be enough to assuage Code Pink leader Medea Benjamin who has become persuaded of the need to continue the occupation of Afghanistan in a kindler and gentler fashion.

One doubts that 10,000 or 40,000 more troops will do much to counteract a growing sense among the men and women stationed there that this is not a war worth dying for, as the Times of London reported today:

American soldiers serving in Afghanistan are depressed and deeply disillusioned, according to the chaplains of two US battalions that have spent nine months on the front line in the war against the Taleban.

Many feel that they are risking their lives — and that colleagues have died — for a futile mission and an Afghan population that does nothing to help them, the chaplains told The Times in their makeshift chapel on this fortress-like base in a dusty, brown valley southwest of Kabul.

“The many soldiers who come to see us have a sense of futility and anger about being here. They are really in a state of depression and despair and just want to get back to their families,” said Captain Jeff Masengale, of the 10th Mountain Division’s 2-87 Infantry Battalion.

“They feel they are risking their lives for progress that’s hard to discern,” said Captain Sam Rico, of the Division’s 4-25 Field Artillery Battalion. “They are tired, strained, confused and just want to get through.” The chaplains said that they were speaking out because the men could not.

Reflecting the new tilt toward bringing peace, stability and the American way to Pakistan, the United States has conditioned aid to the impoverished country on the basis of it living up to our standards. The NY Times reported today that the Pakistani Generals resent certain conditions, including one that is under discussion here:

The chief of the Pakistani Army, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, was so offended by stipulations in the American legislation that he complained to the American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, when the two men met in Islamabad on Tuesday, according to a senior Pakistani military officer.

The legislation passed by Congress last week gives Pakistan $1.5 billion over the next year for the Zardari government to build roads, schools and other infrastructure, a gesture intended to shore up the weak civilian government and turn around the widespread antipathy toward the United States among Pakistanis.

Instead, the aid package has served to widen the distrust between the military and the civilian government, even though the new aid comes in addition to America’s aid to the Pakistani military, which had totaled more than $10 billion since 2001.

The section of the legislation that has outraged the army says the secretary of state must report to Congress every six months on whether the government is exercising “effective civilian control over the military.”

Who knows? Maybe the Pakistanis can consult with McChrystal on ways to circumvent this particular section since he has proven rather indifferent to such matters in his own bailiwick.

September 10, 2009

Winston Churchill nostalgia?

Filed under: antiwar,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 6:21 pm

In recent weeks, the high-profile Socialist Unity blog in Britain (ranked 420,070 by Alexa; by comparison Lenin’s Tomb is number 363,494 in traffic) has featured articles that attempt to salvage the reputation of Winston Churchill within the context of commemorating the WWII “people’s antifascist coalition”.

My first reaction to this effort has been disgust but on a deeper level I have to wonder what would explain this retrograde development. To an extent, it might be a kind of knee-jerk reaction against the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. Since Socialist Unity has a deep animus toward these comrades, one wonders if they are simply putting a plus where their chief bogeyman puts a minus. If Alex Callinicos vilifies Churchill, then why not find nice things to say about the British imperialist warlord?

It should be stressed that the valentines to WWII and Churchill have been written by Andy Newman, who is responsible for most of the original content on Socialist Unity—for better or for worse. I have been told that Newman was a member of the SWP for a brief time (along with possibly half of the people living in Britain) so maybe we are just dealing with the case of the embittered ex-member. I for one have trouble understanding this as a political-psychological reaction. As an ex-member of the dreadful American SWP and one of its harshest critics, I am less inclined to take a position 180 degrees opposed to their own as a matter of principle. For example, if the Militant newspaper denounces the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, you won’t find me supporting it. And so on.

Andy Newman

But I think the more likely explanation for this softness on Churchill has more to do with the peculiarities of the British culture and historical memory than anything else. Although I can only state this as a kind of speculation, it would seem that Britain never went through the “revisionist” debunking of WWII that the USA did.

With the rise of the New Left in the USA, American foreign policy was subjected to a penetrating review based on new sources of information such as State Department memorandums, etc.. Since Vietnam was being prosecuted by LBJ, a veteran New Dealer, there was a tendency for WWII to be scrutinized in a way that had not taken place since progressive historian Charles Beard’s day. Although he was a bit older than some of the other “revisionists”, Howard Zinn delivered what amounts to knockout blow to the “good war” pretensions of WWII in “People’s History of the USA”.

Zinn, who developed a hatred for the war while serving as a bombardier, would probably be disgusted by the advertisements for WWII t-shirts that can be found in the post titled “Popular Front Against Fascism” and which celebrate mass killing gangs as if they were soccer teams.  One t-shirt, a snappy looking gray model with an American air force emblem, is described this way: “The roundel on this shirt is from the Pacific and features the colours and markings of a US Navy Vought F4U-1D Corsair, 152 Squadron VF-84 aboard USS Bunker Hill (CV-17), February 1945.” This led one commenter to observe:

One of those shirts celebrates something quite specific: the US Navy’s F4U Courier. I tried to explain the history of this aircraft, and why I think it’s inappropriate to use such imagery on your shirt. It wasn’t a tool in the fight against fascism, it was a tool of US imperialism during the War in the Pacific. And later, in the war against the people of the Korean peninsula, where it was used to pioneer the use of napalm–later “perfected” in Vietnam.

I just think you should be a little bit sensitive about the imagery you use, especially if the proceeds from the shirts go to good movement causes. I really believe that celebrating the Corsair is one step away from putting the Enola Gay on a shirt. After all, wasn’t the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki part of the “People’s War Against Fascism”, too?

I could not help but think that the low profile kept by Britain during the Vietnam war might have reduced the irritant factor that led young American historians to examine past wars ruthlessly, as Karl Marx would have put it.

I also wondered if the continuing prestige of the British CP historian’s group might have also played a role. Except for Herbert Aptheker, there were no American historians who had the prestige and influence of an Eric Hobsbawm and company.  Although none of these historians were blind followers of the CP, they were unlikely to challenge nostrums about the “good war”. In some sense this was understandable because the USSR’s war with Nazi Germany was progressive. But trying to find anything good to say about Winston Churchill would seem a hopeless task, although Andy Newman does get an “e” for effort.

In a post titled Sir Winston Churchill and the Anti-Fascist War, Newman describes a virtual social democrat.

… Churchill played a perhaps indispensible role in the defeat of Hitler; and his coalition government oversaw a deep radicalisation of British society, that Churchill did nothing to arrest. As he himself explained his principle was that he would support any measure that was bone fide necessary to win the war: this included an unprecedented degree of government planning and regulation of the economy. The Tory Lord Woolton explained: “We arrived at a position in which, in time of war, the practices that would be normal under a socialist state seemed to be the only practical safeguards for the country”.

When I brought up the topic of 6 to 8 million Bengalis dying because of British wartime policies that caused a famine, I was treated like a skunk at a garden party by Newman and his supporters, including Paul Fauvet, a signer of the Euston Manifesto who wrote: “Louis Proyect’s tactic is to change the subject. He doesn’t want to talk about Churchill’s role in World War II, so he talks about the Bengal famine instead.” Meanwhile, Newman also chastised me for “prioritising the entirely secondary issue of India…”

It should be understood that Paul Fauvet’s intervention was in line with the general approach of the “decent left” which is to regard WWII as a kind of authorization in advance for imperialist war ever since 1945. That is why it has been so essential for every rotten imperialist war in the past 20 years or so to be recast as a new WWII against a new Hitler, at one point Slobodan Milosevic and at another point Saddam Hussein.

As one might expect, Christopher Hitchens has been one of the fiercest opponents of the “revisionists” on WWII, since their vindication would effectively rob him of the moral justification he needed to support the war in Iraq. In a Newsweek article titled “A War Worth Fighting“, Hitchens argues:

Is there any one shared principle or assumption on which our political consensus rests, any value judgment on which we are all essentially agreed? Apart from abstractions such as a general belief in democracy, one would probably get the widest measure of agreement for the proposition that the second world war was a “good war” and one well worth fighting. And if we possess one indelible image of political immorality and cowardice, it is surely the dismal tap-tap-tap of Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella as he turned from signing the Czechs away to Adolf Hitler at Munich. He hoped by this humiliation to avert war, but he was fated to bring his countrymen war on top of humiliation. To the conventional wisdom add the titanic figure of Winston Churchill as the emblem of oratorical defiance and the Horatius who, until American power could be mobilized and deployed, alone barred the bridge to the forces of unalloyed evil. When those forces lay finally defeated, their ghastly handiwork was uncovered to a world that mistakenly thought it had already “supped full of horrors.” The stark evidence of the Final Solution has ever since been enough to dispel most doubts about, say, the wisdom or morality of carpet-bombing German cities.

Oddly enough, this item could have appeared on either “Harry’s Place” or the Socialist Unity blog—a problem for the left in no uncertain terms.

While it is unfortunately behind a subscriber’s firewall, there was an article by Ernest Mandel in the May/June 1986 New Left Review titled “The Role of the Individual in History: The Case of World War Two” that is far more interested in the relationship of class forces than in Churchill’s personal or psychological dispositions. He writes:

The case of Churchill affords another sort of corroboration for Plekhanov’s view of the relationship between decisive personalities and the requirements of class rule. Traditional historiography, whether admiring or critical of Churchill’s previous historical roles, has been almost unanimous in lauding his move into 10 Downing Street, at the head of a coalition government including the Labour Party, as a major turning point in the war. Churchill undoubtedly embodied the unshaken resolve of the British ruling class and of the broad majority of the British people not to capitulate to Germany under any circumstance. But by romanticizing his personal attributes, rather than starting from an analysis of the activities of larger social forces, most bourgeois historians fail the test of comparative example. For the central question is not what accidents of biography made Churchill as an individual more decisive than Chamberlain (or, similarly, distinguished de Gaulle from Pétain), but why Churchill was able to rally a majority of his class and people around himself while de Gaulle remained an isolated figure in France in June 1940.

Of course the fact that the French armed forces had just suffered a humiliating defeat, while the British were able to evacuate most of their defeated army to their island fortress, made a difference. But then again in 1940 most knowledgeable observers—including the American ambassador, Jospeh Kennedy—considered Britain’s position as fundamentally hopeless. Meanwhile France, while broken in the Ardennes, still possessed an undefeated fleet (the second largest in Europe), a large army in North Africa—stronger than what the British had at their disposal—a significant air reserve, and an intact colonial empire. It was, thus, by no means clear that the British had the certain means to resist invasion, or, conversely, that the French were utterly defeated or without options for continued national resistance.

In fact the real difference between the British and French situations was less their military predicaments than the predispositions of their ruling classes. The French bourgeoisie had become increasingly defeatist for sound, materialist reasons. It had shown itself economically and militarily incompetent to guarantee the Versailles system in the face of Germany’s aggressive expansion and rearmament. Even more to the point, it was primarily obsessed with containing its own working class, which had become a higher political priority than the attempt to defeat German competition. The British bourgeoisie, on the other hand, was neither demoralized nor defeatist. It had already beaten its own labour movement, first economically in 1926, then politically in 1931–35. At the same time its world position (even if rapidly being overtaken by the United States) was still stronger than Germany’s, although Hitler’s hegemony over Europe clearly endangered the British Empire. Moreover, the British elite were convinced that eventual support from the United States, together with the raw material and manpower resources of the Empire, made continued war against Germany a realistic strategy.

The moment was dramatic and full of dangers, but the future seemed largely guaranteed, provided Britain could weather the immediate crisis. ‘If we hold out for three months, we shall be facing victory in three years,’ Churchill correctly prophesied in a secret speech to the House of Commons. And Churchill was the almost ideal choice to stiffen British resolve until the Americans entered the war. That is why, after having been considered for years a maverick and has-been figure, a voice crying in the wilderness, he could be suddenly resurrected as the deus ex machina of his class. By an abrupt turn of events, and of social needs, the wilderness had been filled with millions of people.

Perhaps my antipathy toward Winston Churchill has been ratcheted up a few degrees by recent readings in Nicholson Baker’s “Human Smoke”, a most controversial book written in the “revisionist” spirit of Howard Zinn. While Baker is a novelist by trade, this book is nonfiction assault on the bogus reputation of the “good war” with Winston Churchill and FDR getting the brunt of his well-researched darts. I want to particularly call attention to this vignette on Churchill:

Winston Churchill was readying his book Great Contemporaries for the press. It was August 1937. In it was his article on Hitler, written a few years earlier. “Those who have met Herr Hitler face to face in public business or on social terms,” he said, “have found a highly competent, cool, well-informed functionary with an agreeable manner, a disarming smile, and few have been unaffected by a subtle personal magnetism.” Despite the arming of Germany and the hounding of the Jews, “we may yet live to see Hitler a gentler figure in a happier age,” Churchill wrote. He was doubtful, though.

Churchill also included a short piece on Leon Trotsky, king in exile of international bolshevism. Trotsky was a usurper and tyrant, Churchill said. He was a cancer bacillus, he was a “skin of malice,” washed up on the shores of Mexico. Trotsky possessed, said Churchill,

the organizing command of a Carnot, the cold detached intelligence of a Machiavelli, the mob oratory of a Cleon, the ferocity of Jack the Ripper, the toughness of Titus Oates.

And in the end what was Trotsky? Who was he? “He was a Jew,” wrote Churchill with finality. “He was still a Jew. Nothing could get over that.” He called his article “Leon Trotsky, Alias Bronstein.”


Andy Newman apparently considered himself slandered by me. You can read his complaint here.

Since his commenting software refused to allow my entire reply to be posted (hmmm), I am posting here:

God, what a blizzard of words over a supposed “slander”. I don’t know anything about Newman’s past membership in the SWP except what Richard Seymour told me. I surmised that he was only in the group briefly because he seems to have retained nothing he learned there. A sieve would have absorbed more of the abc’s of Marxism.

With respect to the awful Eustonites, I don’t consider Paul Fauvet, who was a respectable radical journalist in a previous lifetime, to be a “supporter” of Socialist Unity politics in general. His cranky presence here should disabuse anybody of that notion. It should have been clear that he was a supporter of Newman’s position on WWII and that is all. I apologize for allowing such a confusion to take place.

Getting back to the real problem, there is still that regrettable blind spot about Empire. After angrily claiming that I quoted him out of context on India, he attempts to put his views into the real context:

Well yes, when discussing the course of the second world war, the Indian theatre was secondary. I have consulted several respected history books of the period, and the general histories rarely mention India at all. Angus Calder’s, “The People’s War” a standard history of the Home Front only mentions India once in the whole 750 pages.

Where the hell does Andy think the Bengali grain went? To throw at weddings? The god-damned grain went to British troops. The Bengali people were sacrificed in order to keep the soldiers fed. If this is “secondary” to the war, then Andy deserves an F in geopolitics.

Basically, the myth of a “people’s war against fascism” cannot be sustained when the “good guys” caused the death of more Indians in pursuit of war aims than the number of Jews killed by Hitler. Churchill and Hitler were both enemies of the working class. The British working class enjoyed a greater degree of democratic rights and welfare state provisions because its ruling class had a huge empire. The Second World War was a clash largely because of conflicting imperial goals. To bracket out the imperial question as “secondary” is Eurocentric.

Finally, Andy should stop squealing like professional wrestler who has been fouled by an opponent. When Andy accused me of colluding with Sinophobes who raise the “yellow peril”, a real slander, I handled it with aplomb since it was so obviously bullshit. I wonder if his long-winded squeal reflects an tacit understanding that my words hit their mark. Slanders tend to fall off the victim like spittle but the truth has a way of sticking to the bone.


Martin Wisse comments on the debate: http://cloggie.org/wissewords2/2009/09/12/dudefight-or-what-do-the-bengalis-matter/

September 2, 2009

American Casino; The Most Dangerous Man in America

Filed under: antiwar,Film,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 8:01 pm

This month has been a very good one for leftist documentaries. Joining “The Cove” and “Crude” are two  films at the Film Forum, a prime location for bold independent fare. The first is “American Casino”, which opens today. Directed by Andrew Cockburn (Alexander’s brother) and his wife Leslie, this amounts to a film version of Matt Taibbi’s hard-hitting Rolling Stone article on the subprime meltdown but without the gonzo flourishes. This will be followed by “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers” that opens on the 16th. Both movies are outstanding.

For those who ever been mystified by what the terms collateralized debt obligation or credit default swaps mean (including me most of the time), “The American Casino” will bring you up to speed. Calling upon industry experts like Professor Michael Greenberger, who was the Director of Trading and Markets at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission under Clinton, we find out that they are nothing more than crap games, hence the movie’s title. In one scene Greenberger sits at a computer terminal clinically dissecting a securitized mortgage courtesy as if it were a poorly executed counterfeit thousand dollar bill.

We also meet a former big shot at Bear Stearns, who is seen only in shadow. As a designer of the Byzantine financial products that brought his own company and the rest of Wall Street into the toilet, he must be taken at his word when he described the investments as “fourth dimensional”, adding that “the banks did not really care” whether subprime loans could be paid off. Given his rueful tone, you get the feeling that you are listening to somebody who ran a child prostitution ring.

After meeting the crooks who ran the gambling casino, we meet their victims. The Cockburns introduce us to three homeowners in Baltimore, where a virtual conspiracy by major banks like Wells Fargo lured the unsuspecting African-American to take out loans that they had no chance of repaying. We meet Denzel Mitchell, a social studies teacher with a special interest in human rights, packing up his books and his children’s toys after his house has been foreclosed. In his case, as is the case of all the other interviewees, we are dealing with a swindle. Unscrupulous mortgage brokers and bankers lied to people with good credit ratings in order to harvest fat fees. One woman, a therapist, shows up at her mortgage broker’s office with a check for most of the latest month’s payment but is refused.

One can only wonder if the election of an African-American president has helped to keep the lid on the housing crisis. Unlike the early 1930s, there have been far fewer angry protests at the doorsteps of people being evicted. Although the movie focuses exclusively on Bush’s role, attention must be paid to the failure of the new administration in keeping people in their homes. Even Jesse Jackson, who has never met a Democratic President he didn’t like, is starting to grumble. After seeing a new surge of foreclosures and a continued tilt toward the big banks rather than working class homeowners, he decided to lead a prayer vigil at the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta. Unfortunately, it did not occur to him to mount a militant mass demonstration. That would be so 1960s.

Speaking of the 1960s, “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers” is the one to see if you are interested in the period. I have been trying to persuade myself to see Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock” but not doing a very good job of it since my nostalgia preferences tend toward sticking a thumb in the eye of the national security state rather than LSD.

This movie belongs on the same shelf as “An Unreasonable Man” and “You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train” that celebrate the life and activism of Ralph Nader and Howard Zinn respectively. It is no accident that Zinn is one of the primary interviewees in the Ellsberg documentary since they have such strong affinities and actually were co-conspirators in the raucous Mayday Demonstrations of 1971. Seeing the enthusiasm and youthful demeanor of Ellsberg, now 78, and the 87 year old Zinn, you can only be left with the conclusion that radical politics is the best way to live long and prosper.

I suppose that most people know what made Ellsberg appear as the “most dangerous man in America”, in Henry Kissinger’s words, but it is worth mentioning that he “stole” a top-secret report on the Vietnam War that had been drafted by the Rand Corporation on request from the Pentagon in order to inform them what was really going on in the rebellious nation. As is so often the case, such truths were not to be squandered on the American people who might have gotten even more worked up than they were after learning that the Pentagon Papers implicitly described an imperialist adventure with no redeeming social or political or economic value. Indeed, Ellsberg, the Rand employee charged with the responsibility of overseeing the project, after realizing that this would be the effect, decided to make them available to the public.

Ellsberg did not wake up one morning in 1969 and decide to pull this off. He had been slowly evolving toward that position and was finally convinced of its necessity after seeing the failure of government officials to bring peace despite the campaign rhetoric. In other words, he was like many Democrats who hoped that Obama would finally pull U.S. troops out of Iraq and hoped further that he would stay out of Afghanistan, despite campaign statements to the contrary (this was less a case of hope than faith.)

Before Ellsberg had become a cautious dove believing that Nixon might deliver the goods, he was a gung-ho former Marine who led combat missions in Vietnam while not having official military status. In other words, he was not that different from the Blackwater contractors.

But mounting human suffering on both sides (obviously worse for the Vietnamese) finally persuaded him that drastic action was necessary. His girl friend Patricia Marx, a committed peace activist and soon to be his wife, helped him make that decision in a way that approximates Aristophanes’s “Lysistrata”. In other words, no peace activism, no sex.

After Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers to the N.Y. Times, the FBI sought his arrest. After eluding them for a while, he was arrested and charged with “theft” of government property. Other charges were added, including conspiracy. If convicted, he faced a sentence of up to 115 years. When Nixon offered the judge presiding over the trial the directorship of the FBI as a bribe, the judge declared a mistrial. Nixon was not done with his skullduggery, however. He convened a group of operatives to be led by a character named Howard Hunt, a former CIA agent and third-rate novelist, to bust into the offices of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to find damaging information on the peace activist. This is the same gang that would break into the Democratic Party’s offices at the Watergate Hotel, thus leading to Nixon’s resignation and the end of the Vietnam War 9 months later. So it would not be that much of an exaggeration to say that Ellsberg’s courageous and principal stance played a major role in ending the Vietnam War.

As I pondered over that question as the movie was winding down, a light bulb went on over my head. The truth is that Ellsberg never would have taken such radical steps if there had not been massive antiwar demonstrations for the preceding three years. Those demonstrations, derided by SDS ultraleftists as being safe and predictable, were just the kind of thing that could persuade a fence-setting Ellsberg to go over to our side. Or to persuade GI’s that they would be supported if they decided to organize antiwar meetings on base.

Furthermore, the failure of a new Daniel Ellsberg to step forward with a new version of the Pentagon Papers geared to Iraq and Afghanistan can only be understood as the failure of our movement to keep the pressure on Washington with massive and sustained protests. Perhaps the willingness of Barack Obama to commit our country to a new Vietnam in Afghanistan is just what we need to shake our movement out of our doldrums. In any case, go see this excellent documentary to get an idea of how powerful dissent can be in times of war in the America of 1969.

June 3, 2009

North Korean movies

Filed under: antiwar,Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm

This is a clip from a 1991 North Korean movie titled “The Girls in my Home Town”. It is not included in the four films discussed below, but it is the only North Korean movie that can be seen on the Internet—or more accurately, an excerpt of that movie. It will give you a flavor of the combination of sentimentality and overheated rhetoric that can be found, however,  in practically all North Korean movies. A review of the movie can be read at http://www.socialistfilms.org/2007/12/girls-in-my-hometown-dprk-1991.html


When I received an invitation from the Korea Society in New York to attend a 4-part screening of North Korean films, I jumped at the opportunity for multiple reasons. To begin with, I am a huge fan of Korean movies, admittedly those that come from the south exclusively. As a relic of the cold war, North Korean movies–like Cuban cigars–are hard to come by. I assumed that they would be much different than the deeply ironic, sophisticated and urbane South Korean movies that I had become devoted to, but was curious to see whether the national culture that had been developing for millennia could still be detected in the dogmatically Marxist north.

While many of the finest South Korean movies are unavailable on home video, you can rent “Save the Green Planet” from Netflix, which summarizes the movie thusly:

Believing that aliens in human form are systematically destroying the planet and all humankind, Byung-gu sets out to capture an alien leader and force him to confess. Because all the aliens look like humans, Byung-gu makes an educated guess and kidnaps the head of a chemical company.

Now, how can you resist such a movie!

I also wondered if North Korean movies would give me insights into one of the two remaining socialist countries in the world, giving the word socialist its broadest interpretation of course. As a long time supporter of the Cuban revolution, my attitude toward North Korea was probably like most leftists. We did not want to see North Korea victimized by economic sanctions or military attack, but there was little to identify with in a society that was bound together by an odd combination of 1930s style Stalinism and centuries old Confucian beliefs.

To understand North Korea would be more imperative than ever given current events. Just as the film series began, an underground nuclear device was detonated in the north and once again the threat level escalated, including the possibility that freighters would be intercepted on the high seas if they were deemed to be carrying nuclear material.

In a move that seemed calculated to deepen the perception of North Korea as a family dynasty, it was reported today that Kim Jong-il had designated Kim Jong-un, his youngest son, as his successor. Although comparisons with Raul Castro taking over from his brother Fidel might be raised by pundits hostile to socialism across the board, one can at least acknowledge that Raul Castro was a central leader of the armed struggle that toppled Batista. But why would the 23 year old grandson of North Korea’s version of Fidel Castro become head of state unless, of course, North Korea was governed as a kind of immense extended family in which blood ties mattered more than talent?

Events in South Korea also reflected the impact of the north. On May 26, former president Roh Moo-Hyun committed suicide Saturday by leaping to his death from a hill behind his house. Roh was the first South Korean leader to cross the demilitarized zone and meet with Kim Jong-il and believed in the tension-easing “sunshine policy” of his predecessor, Kim Dae-Jung. He killed himself after being implicated in a bribery scandal. Street protests by his supporters blame the ruling conservative party for hounding him to the point of no return.

For a summary of the four North Korean movies, go to the Korea Society website. Unfortunately, my own brief takes on the films below cannot be accompanied by a Youtube clip for obvious reasons. But after seeing these four most interesting movies, it did occur to me that North Korea could do itself a big favor by simply making them available on the Internet. Despite their obvious propaganda purpose, they are all distinguished by a charm that would go a long way in breaking down stereotypes about the “rogue state”.

1. Traces of Life (1989)

This is the story of Ji Jun, the widow of a sailor who swims out to an American warship with a mine in his hands and destroys it Kamikaze fashion during the Korean War. The sailor is a true believer in the revolution, while his wife cares more about what goes on in the household. In a change of heart, she decides to return to his farming village and work with the other beneficiaries of land reform to produce food for the revolution. The movie climaxes with her being awarded for presiding over a bumper crop.

Obviously, this movie owes a lot to the Stalinist “people’s hero” movies of the 30s and 40s but it is redeemed by surprising admissions that a collective farm is no paradise. When a disabled sailor is rejected as a member, he reacts bitterly and drowns his sorrow in alcohol. The ties between Ji Jun and her two children are also fairly complex, given the propaganda parameters. They feel that she has not given proper respect to her dead husband, but in the end family and nation are reconciled.

2. The Tale of Chun Hyang (1980)

This is a socialist retelling of a Korean folktale set in the feudal era about a woman from the lower classes who marries a member of the gentry despite her mother’s warning that aristocrats will always betray the poor. At the end of part one of this 148 minute epic, the mother appears to have been vindicated since the husband moves with his parents to Seoul leaving her behind.

Part two of the movie finds the heroine in the clutches of the local magistrate who is bent on turning her into his concubine. Meanwhile, he is oppressing the local peasants by stealing their grain and acting for just like the landowners who made life miserable for the Korean peasant in real life before the revolution. The husband, now a secret royal commissioner, returns in the nick of time to lead a peasant revolt and rescue his wife.

The movie makes liberal use of song, even to the point of approximating an opera. In its synthesis of ancient themes about love and faith and modern ones about the class struggle, it is essentially North Korean.

3. Wolmi Island(1982)

When I was growing up in the 1950s, there seemed to be a Korean War movie about once a month. I still remember “Bridges at Toko-Ri” that resulted in a nomination for best director by the Director’s Guild in 1956. (The director, Mark Robson, was also involved with the liberal McCarthyite “Trial” made two years later.)

Given the flag-waving character of these productions, the perfect antidote is “Wolmi Island”, based on a battle that took place in 1950 which the movie represents as a heroic effort by a small garrison of sailors near Inchon to hold off an American fleet as the bulk of the North Korean army organized an orderly retreat to the North.

I found the battle scenes far less interesting than the interaction between the various characters, including a young female recruit who sacrifices her life in order to restore a communications line that will allow the North Korean guns to resume counter-attack. In all the scenes she appears in, she manages to upstage the male actors.

4. The Flower Girl (1972)

This was my favorite. Set during the Japanese occupation during the 1930s, it tells the story of an impoverished family consisting of a widow and her two daughters that relies on the meager income of the older daughter’s flower sales on the street. The other daughter was blinded by a vicious landlord when she was a tot. There is also an older brother languishing in a Japanese prison. The Japanese rely heavily on the wealthy landowners and their cops to keep the peasants and poor urban dwellers in line.

The most moving part of “The Flower Girl” is her trek to visit her brother in prison. Upon arriving there, she is told that he has died. As it turns out, he has actually escaped from prison and joined the guerrillas. The film ends with a rousing attack on the landlords and the reunion of brother and sisters. All in all, the movie reminded me very much of “Sansho the Bailiff”, a Japanese movie from the 1950s about the cruelty of landlords and the separation of a brother and sister.


Along with a number of other North Korean movies, “The Flower Girl” is analyzed by U.C. Santa Barbara professor Suk-Young Kim in a lecture titled “Kim Jong-il and North Korean Films” that can be seen online at http://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=4103. (But not in Firefox. You have to use IE or Safari). Kim also gave a talk at the Korea Society on the opening night of the mini-festival that is not online, however. I cannot recommend her lecture highly enough since it is both illuminating for its insights into the role of North Korean movies and the video clips she discusses in the course of the lecture. You will see a longish excerpt from “The Flower Girl” as well as one from a remarkable Robin Hood/socialist type movie drawn from Korean legend that includes Hong-Kong type martial arts.

In framing her approach to North Korean movies, Kim explains why Kim Jong-il was so keen to promote the medium:

Now, why was film so important for Kim Jong-il, in addition to all the reasons that I laid out here? We tend to think that Kim Jong-il is a leader who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, which is true because he was the biological son of the founding father of North Korea, Kim Il-sung. But we have to think that North Korea is the first hereditary socialist country, where power to rule was passed down from father to the biological son. And before this was officialized, we did not know who the next leader of North Korea would be. I mean, it was certain that Kim Il-sung would handpick somebody before he passed away, but it wasn’t sure if it was going to be his son or somebody else in his political retinue.

So in a way, Kim Jong-il had to really work his way through — he had to use whatever talent he had to really pave the road to power. And he was — he is known to be an extremely talented artistic person by all accounts, and he tapped into his artistic talent to really prove his filial piety for his father, Kim Il-sung. And this is an extremely interesting fact if we consider how North Korea is still observing traditional Confucian values of patriarchy, and in this light, the nation itself is seen as an extended family structure. So to respect and preserve the authorial power of the patriarchal national leader was extremely important.

And another factor that plays into this rationale is that Kim Il-sung, the founding father of North Korea, lived long enough to have witnessed de-Stalinization campaign in the Soviet Union, and whatever happened to the Maoist legacy after the Culture Revolution. So he was extremely keen on preserving his legacy after death, and in this sense Kim Jong-il effectively used film to really create this mythical aura about his father and perpetuate his legacy by creating these everlasting images.

Whatever one thinks about North Korean society, surely it makes sense to reduce the tensions between the U.S. and the beleaguered state. In going through Bruce Cumings’s essay “Decoupled from History: North Korea in the ‘Axis of Evil’” that appeared in the 2004 “Inventing the Axis of Evil: The Truth about North Korea, Iran, and Syria”, you are struck by how the potential for war has always been heightened by U.S. refusal to accept a non-capitalist system on its own terms. Given the hostilities that have existed since 1945, the defensiveness of the North Koreans begins to seem normal. As someone once put it, even the paranoid have enemies.

Most leftists probably have the same impression that I do, namely that the U.S. intervened on behalf of the south after war with the north began. Cumings makes a convincing case that the conflict dates back much earlier, when the U.S. decided to back the landlords and corrupt officials who had collaborated with the Japanese during the 30s and 40s–in other words, the same villains who made life miserable for the poor in “The Flower Girl”. Considering the brazen disrespect shown for Korean independence, it is no wonder that the propaganda movies of the 1980s exhibited such passion. Despite being propaganda, they were rooted in the lived experience of the nation.

In 1945 the U.S. occupied southern Korea and set up a three-year military government that was directed from the Yongsan military base in Seoul that the Japanese built in 1894. James R. Hodge, the American commander, took over the executive mansion known as “the blue house” that the Japanese governor-general had occupied.

Hodge then decided to build up a bureaucracy using the same discredited civil servants who had been trained for military government in Japan, a complete slap in the face to Koreans who had fought on the side of the allies in helping to liberate East Asia from Japanese rule.

During Japanese occupation, a powerful leftwing movement had developed in the south that was completely independent of Kim Il-Sung. This mattered little to the U.S. which considered all grass roots movements together as pawns of the Kremlin. Merrell Benninghoff, chief political advisor to Hodge, reported:

Southern Korea can best be described as a powder keg ready to explode at the application of a spark.

There is great disappointment that immediate independence and sweeping out of the Japanese did not eventuate.

[Those] Koreans as have achieved high rank under the Japanese are considered pro-Japanese and are hated almost as much as their masters.

All groups seem to have the common ideas of seizing Japanese property, ejecting the Japanese from Korea, and achieving immediate independence.

Korea is completely ripe for agitators.

The most encouraging single factor in the political situation is the presence in Seoul of several hundred conservatives among the older and better educated Koreans. Although many of them have served with the Japanese, that stigma ought eventually to disappear.

William Langdon, another State Department hack, appeared to agree with the North Korean propaganda film’s assessment of the old regime but put a plus where the Communists put a minus:

The old native regime internally was feudal and corrupt but the record shows that it was the best disposed toward foreign interests of the three Far Eastern nations, protecting foreign lives and property and franchises. I am sure that we may count on at least as much a native government evolved as above…

South Koreans rose up against the quisling government without any assistance from the North and were brutally repressed throughout 1946 to 1948.

Eventually, an anti-Communist government stabilized in the south and the two parts of the country found themselves on a collision course. The George W. Bush’s of the day who advocated preemptive war saw the Korean War as an opportunity to roll back the revolution in both the north and in China, Korea’s main ally. Carpet bombing of the north, as well as other punishing measures, left two million dead half of whom were civilians. With a population in the north of just under 10 million at the time, this was the equivalent of 60 million dead Americans. Considering the response of the U.S. to the loss of just 3000 of its citizens on 9/11, the North Koreans appear almost Gandhian by comparison.

In 2000, during the final days of the Clinton administration, it appeared that a thaw between the U.S. and North Korea was developing as reported by the NY Times on October 20:.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said tonight that “important progress” had been made in her talks here with North Korea’s leader toward persuading North Korea to “restrain missile development and testing, as well as missile exports,” though any final agreement will have to await further talks.

Missile specialists from the United States and North Korea will meet next week to explore further the specific ways in which North Korea will limit its missile program, she said.

In particular, a quid pro quo of shutting down the missile program in exchange for launchings of North Korean satellites by foreign governments will be discussed further, a senior official said.

The idea was first raised in talks in July between President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and the North Korean leader.

The six hours of talks between Dr. Albright and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, were the first between such a high-level American official and a North Korean leader.

“Everyone leaves here rather struck by the breadth and depth of the discussions,” the senior official said. This was largely because the Americans heard firsthand from Mr. Kim, the only decision maker who counts in this country, “what he was prepared to do.”

The two-day visit ended on a cordial note. As a parting gift, Dr. Albright presented a basketball autographed by Michael Jordan to Mr. Kim, who turns out to be an ardent fan.

As they said their farewells in the lobby of a government guest house tonight, Dr. Albright encouraged Mr. Kim “to pick up the telephone any time,” an American official said. And Mr. Kim, — the leader of one of the few countries to deny its people Internet access but who is himself a keen Internet browser with three computers in his office — replied, “Please give me your e-mail address.”

One of Dr. Albright’s goals on this trip was to plan for a possible visit here by President Clinton, but she declined to be drawn out on whether Mr. Clinton would come. Instead, she said she would report to Mr. Clinton on the results and it was up to him to make the decision.

Another goal was to assess the North Korean leader who, in his six years in office, has remained virtually unknown as a personality or a policy maker. His father, Kim Il Sung, founded the Communist Party here and ruled the country with an iron hand until his death in 1994.

Dr. Albright said that after negotiating with Mr. Kim and socializing with him at two dinners and at the performance in honor of the 55th anniversary of the North Korean Communist Party, she found him a “very good listener, a good interlocutor.” And she added, “He strikes me as very decisive and very practical.”

Not a year later, the WTC and the Pentagon had been attacked by Islamic terrorists and a new more aggressive foreign policy based on “preemptive” warfare was implemented. Along with Iran, North Korea became a “rogue state” whose leader was depicted as a madman rather than the “very practical” official that she was ready to exchange email addresses with.

It is difficult to predict whether Obama will ratchet up tensions with North Korea given all the other foreign policy adventures he has on his plate revolving around the need to subdue the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One only hopes that the antiwar movement in the U.S. will have the internal resources to oppose war across Asia given what is at stake. While one can have all sorts of opinions on the North Korean social system, we can all agree that another Korean War would be a disaster for its people as well as for working class Americans who will bear the brunt of the fighting.

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