Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 17, 2015

A history of bombing

Filed under: militarism,Syria — louisproyect @ 4:42 pm

Apparently we have reached such a stage in the degeneration of the Baathist amen corner that John Wight now writes articles justifying the use of barrel bombs:

Barrel bombs are an atrociously indiscriminate weapon, for sure, and their use rightly comes under the category of atrocity. However just as the atrocity of the allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 did not invalidate the war against European fascism then, neither does the atrocity of Syrian barrel bombs invalidate the war against its Middle East equivalent today.

This is what Malcolm X referred to once as turning the victim into the criminal.

When Assad worked out an agreement brokered by Vladimir Putin to get rid of his chemical weapons (at least those that could not be hidden away for future use), the antiwar movement—such as it was—patted itself on the shoulder for pressuring the USA and Britain from launching a Bush-style invasion of Syria as if this was ever in the cards.

Assad’s move was pretty smart seen in retrospect. It gave him a blank check starting in October 2013 to step up his aerial bombing campaign including the use of barrel bombs.

Writing for CounterPunch, Cesar Chelala, a winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award, demonstrated an ability to distinguish right from wrong that so many of our newly emerged laptop bombardiers like John Wight cannot. In an August 11, 2014 article he outlined the position that the entire left should embrace:

UN Security Council Resolution 2139 of February 22, 2014, ordered all parties to the conflict in Syria to end the discriminate use of barrel bombs and other weapons in populated areas. In spite of that, both the Syrian and the Iraqi governments continue using them against civilians. Human rights groups have characterized them as weapons of terror and illegal under international conventions.

It is of interest that Chelala has included Iraqi barrel bombing in the equation. I confess to not having kept up with this part of the depravity of the al-Maliki regime, whose membership in the “axis of resistance” apparently required savage attacks on the Sunni population that made it possible for ISIS to get a foothold.

My own position is pretty radical. I am opposed to aerial bombardment period. Reading Sven Lindqvist “A History of Bombing” that was published in 2000 shaped my thinking on this matter. I was familiar with Lindqvist through an earlier book titled “Exterminate All the Brutes” that was about how Hitler’s genocidal policies were first carried out in Africa. Lindqvist’s book makes the case against bombing from the air through an examination of the ideology that justified it as well as the murderous effects when either the bad guys or “the good guys” carried it out in places like Dresden or Hiroshima. In the excerpt below, he shows how abhorrent the idea of aerial bombing was to the military, so much so that an Italian military man who advocated it was court martialed. We have come a long way when the “anti-imperialist” left cheers on Russian bombing (as well as French and American) in a fashion that reminds me of George Jessel appearances on American television in the 1960s when he would show up in an Uncle Sam suit to “support the troops”.




The first person to step forward and openly acknowledge what the others were hiding was the Italian Giulio Douhet. He arrived as a young cadet in Torino, the capital of the Italian auto industry, and wrote his first book on the military use of motor vehicles (1902). In 1910 he published a book on the problems of the air force, and in 1912 he was appointed chief of the newly formed air squadron in Torino. The next year he and Gianni Caproni constructed the first heavy bomber, a tri-engine monster created to make bombardment from the air the dominant form of attack.

When the World War broke out, Douhet became famous for his criticism of the way the war was conducted and his impassioned pleading for the use of the heavy bomber. The generals were enraged, and Douhet was relieved of his post and court-martialed. But he was justified when the defeat of Italy in 1917 proved that his criticisms had been correct. Several years later the Ministry of War published Douhet’s most important work, ll dominio dell’aria (Dominion of the Skies, 1921). It came out in German in 1935 and in English in 1942, but long before then it had exercised decisive influence on military thought, not least in Great Britain.


Douhet’s principal argument is that war is transformed by the technical means at its disposal. Barbed wire and rapid-fire arms transformed warfare on land, the submarine transformed war at sea. The air force and poisonous gas will lead to changes just as great. The war of the future will be total war.

In the old days, civilian life could go on relatively undisturbed behind the front. International even created a legal distinction between “combatants” and “noncombatants.” We have passed this stage, Douhet argues, since air warfare makes it possible to attack the enemy lehind the fortified lines. It erases the distinction between soldiers and civilians.

Air raids can never hope to achieve the same precision as artillery fire. But neither is that necessary—targets for bombs should always be large.

In order to succeed, air raids must be carried out against very large centers of civilian population. Is this forbidden? All international agreements reached during peacetime will be swept away like withered leaves during war. So let’s forget false hopes. When you’re fighting for your life—and today that’s the only way to fight—you have the sacred right to use any able means to avoid going under. To destroy your own people for the sake of a few graphs of legalese would be madness. Air warfare offers for the first time the chance to the enemy where he’s weakest; poisonous gas can make that first blow fatal.

It has been calculated that 80 to 100 tons of poisonous gas would suffice to enclose London, Berlin, or Paris in deadly clouds of gas and destroy them with strategically placed bombs, while the gas prevents the fires from being extinguished.

‘The thought is of course harrowing,” writes Douhet. Especially terrifying is the knowledge every advantage belongs to the one who strikes first. So it will not be possible to wait for opponent to take up these so-called inhuman and illegal weapons first for you to obtain entirely unnecessary) moral right to make use of these weapons yourself. No, necessity will force every nation to use the most effective weapons available, immediately and with the greatest possible ruthlessness.


The prophets of strategic bombing were advocating war crimes. Among the states that had signed the 1907 Hague Convention, “bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, flings or buildings which are undefended, is prohibited.”

But the word “undefended” remained ambiguous, argued James Witford Garner, when he, an expert in international law, summarized the First World War in International Law and the World War (1920).

In air attacks on cities, military damages had been insignificant or nonexistent, while non-combatants had been subjected over and over again to illegal destruction of life and property. Warfare had regularly done what it claimed to avoid while failing to do what it claimed to achieve.

So new rules were necessary. Garner suggests that air attacks should be allowed “within the military zone,” while it should be forbidden “to make attacks on cities and villages far behind the lines.”



“What are the rules for this kind of cricket?” asked the newly appointed chief for India’s Northwest Province, Sir John Maffrey. The air force headquarters for India answered that international law did not apply “against savage tribes who do not conform to codes of civilized warfare.” Warning ought to be given before an attack (so that people could take cover), but on the other hand, the attack should be a surprise (since that would increase the death toll). Loss of life was, after all, what made the greatest impact on morale.

Women held little value for the Afghans, reported headquarters, but instead were considered “a piece of property somewhere between a rifle and a cow.” So killing Afghani women could not be justly compared with similar losses among European civilians.

In 1922 a RAF memorandum lists a series of available means of terror: timed bombs; phosphorus bombs; “crow’s feet,” which maimed humans and livestock; whistling arrows; crude oil used to pollute drinking water; and “liquid fire,” a forerunner to napalm. ‘There was no sign of discomfort” regarding such methods in war, writes the English historian Charles Townshend.



The pilot found the Hottentots on a little plateau about 3,000 feet above sea level. ‘There they sat, warming themselves by tiny fires for they can hardly exist at night without their fires,” said the Johannesburg newspaper the Star in a report from the Boridelzwart uprising in Southwest Africa, 1922. It was at dawn on a Sunday morning, and the plane carried a full load of bombs and ammunition. “These ‘little yellow men” were taken completely by surprise. They had often sought refuge from their enemies here—ten men could hold the mountaintop against an army. But now they were completely at the pilot’s mercy.” “Bombs were dropping from 100 feet. Machine-gun fire was opened. Many of them tumbled into the gorge . . . scores were killed. Those who could escape fled in all directions. . . . Now their flocks and herds are scattered. Heaps of carcasses are piled up in the reserve. Huts have been burned down to the ground. . . . The Hottentots, if one may judge from the admissions of prisoners, are absolutely dismayed by this new actor in native warfare. . . . The aeroplane, the natives may find, has made war an impossible thing for them.”


Several days later, the Star’s reporter places these events in a larger context. Now the story is seen as a chapter in the natural extinction of the race: The Hottentot is too devoted to his animals. Every animal he has ever owned is burned into his memory. If his herd is taken from him, he loses his will to live. Of the ten Hottentot tribes, three have already died out. The rest are in the process of disappearing. These days, when societies are formed for all kinds of threatened species, it might be time to form one in defense of the Hottentot, the Star’s reporter concludes.

South Africa continued to bomb uprisings in Southwest Africa in 1925, 1930, 1932, and so on up to 1989, when Namibia became independent.


For Theodore Savage and his neighbors out in the country, the first bombing raids on London are nothing more than a glowing spectacle against the night sky. But refugees stream in like huge swarms of “human rats.” Driven to desperation by fear and hunger, they flood the countryside. “Women, like men, asserted their beast-right to food—when sticks and knives failed them, asserted it with claws and teeth; inhuman creatures, with distended and wide, yelling mouths, went down with their fingers at each others’ throats, in each others’ flesh . .”94 In Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage (1922, revised 1928) England has been bombed back into the primitive state depicted by Hobbes, Malthus, and their successors.

Timid little Theo does not turn into a true wild beast, but he learns to hunt rabbits and root garbage like an abandoned dog, always hungry, always afraid, always on his guard th strangers and neighbors, for everyone is his enemy. When tribes gradually start to take form, it is on the basis of fear, brutality, superstition, and the hatred of strangers. A ‘anatic preaches the new gospel—salvation through ignorance.

In the end, the old, helpless Savage is the only survivor of the legendary age before the Catastrophe. For his grandchildren his name becomes a symbol of a dead civilization, so used that no one knows any longer what it was for or how it was lost.



Who is it that bombs us back to barbarism? In Anderson Graham’s The Collapse of Homo Sapiens (1923) the answer is very clear. It is Africans and Asians who, for some reason, have been able to achieve the technological expertise that up to this point has esis for the superiority of the West. Before the novel is over, we have learned that universities must take the blame for their criminal foolishness in teaching students of foreign races.

“They had even discovered a deadlier gas than ours, and explosives of such power that two or three bombs had been enough to wipe London out of existence.” And now the dark races are using this advantage to level the civilization they hate.

The bombers fly so low that you can see the dark skin of the soldiers and their foreign uniforms, you can hear their crude laughter as they drop their little bombs.

They gassed such as made a stand and hunted to death those who ran away. Such children as escaped fled in mad terror to the wastes and the woodland, where they lost the last tatters of civilisation. . . . In winter they died as the flies do because they had not the wit left to store against its rigours. . . . The tree that has taken centuries to grow can be cut down in an hour.”



There is no pretense in Douhet. He knows what it’s all about and he says it openly, shamelessly, almost with pleasure.

He was followed by a string of lesser prophets, who tried to give terror a more human face.

The good thing bout air warfare is that instead of killing people, we can destroy their economy, writes the British military theorist J.F.C. Fuller in The Reformation of War (1923).

The bombardment of bridges and railways stops the transport of food and ammunition to combatants. It then becomes unnecessary to kill them. “Thus in the extended employment of aircraft, we have the means at hand of compelling a bloodless victory.” Gas provides an even greater means of humanizing war. If deadly gas is used, soldiers will at least not have to be shot to pieces. With the use of mustard gas, men will be injured, but only rarely killed. If nerve gas is used, the men simply fall asleep and can be disarmed without even being injured. Air raids are immoral only if they cause greater harm than ground warfare. The war of the future might indeed be harder on the civilian population, but on the other hand, wars will be shorter and less bloody, predicts Fuller. Five hundred airplanes, each loaded with 500 five-kilo bombs filled with mustard gas can injure 200,000 Londoners in a half-hour, changing the city to a raging madhouse. A landslide of terror would sweep aside the government in Westminster. ‘Then will the enemy dictate his terms. . . . Thus may a war be won in forty-eight hours and losses of the winning side may be actually nil!”



In Baghdad in February of 1923, the newly arrived staff officer Lionel Charlton visited the local hospital in Diwaniya. He had expected diarrhea and broken bones, but was instead suddenly and surprisingly confronted with the results of a British air raid. The difference between a police baton and a bomb was brutally obvious. Had it been a question of war or an open rebellion, he as an officer would not have had any complaint, he writes in his memoirs, but this “indiscriminate bombing of a populace … with the liability of killing women and children, was the nearest thing to wanton slaughter.” He became more and more doubtful about the methods with which “an appearance of law and order” was maintained in Iraq. Soon a new sheik had stirred up a rebellion and had to be punished. But from 3,000 feet it was not so easy to target him specifically. When the bombs exploded without warning in the crowded bazaar, innocent and powerless subjects would be killed along with their oppressors. Was it right for an entire city to suffer for one man’s crime? And was he even a criminal himself? Perhaps the informants who had fingered him had personal reasons to go behind his back. To bomb a city on those grounds was a form of tyranny that threatened to make the British even more hated. Charlton’s superior, John Salmond, made no bones in admitting that the bombs struck at the innocent. But the established political line had to be followed. If the air force was to survive as an independent branch of service, it had to prove its efficiency and could not afford sentimentality. As expected, when the rebellious sheik was bombed, more than twenty women and children lost their lives. Charlton no longer wanted any part of it. He requested to be relieved of his post on grounds of conscience. Headquarters sent him back to England, where he was forced to retire in 1928.


January 13, 2014

Lone Survivor

Filed under: Afghanistan,Film,militarism — louisproyect @ 7:12 pm

In recent trips to my local Cineplex to catch up with Hollywoodiana, I was genuinely surprised to see what amounted to a PSA on behalf of “Lone Survivor”, a film I saw about a month ago as a DVD screener sent from a publicist in conjunction with the NYFCO awards meeting. As a sign that my fellow critics have not been debased beyond all hope, this supremely stupid militarist movie did not get nominated for a single award. Unlike “Zero Dark Thirty”, it is the sort of film that used to star Chuck Norris or Sylvester Stallone even though some of our more “sophisticated” critics see it as a kind of “war is hell” story. Unlike the typical Norris saga, the film ends ignominiously for the American troops except the “lone survivor”. Too bad he didn’t get a bullet to the head as well. It is based on an incident that occurred during the “war on terror” in Afghanistan but is so bizarrely hyperbolic in the way it depicts Navy Seals that it defies its own claims to be truthful.

Sandwiched between the opening announcements about turning off your cell phone, etc. and the previews of coming attractions, you can see a “featurette” on “Lone Survivor” that is nearly four minutes long. It has snippets from the film as well as interviews with Peter Berg, the director, and Navy Seal veteran Marcus Luttrell, whose book the film is based on. Having seen at least a hundred films in my local Cineplex, an AMC theater, over the years, I have never seen such a “short subject” before, to use the term coined for featurettes in the 1950s. It is basically a bid to muster support for the troops of the kind seen at the Super Bowl and other quasi-Nuremberg rallies of an empire in decline.

The film opens with a typical day at a military base in Afghanistan as the troops engage in roughhousing pranks and haze a new recruit—but all in good fun. Later that day, four of them (Mark Wahlberg who stars as Marcus Luttrell—the lone survivor, the aptly named Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster) take a helicopter ride to a mountaintop overlooking a Taliban-controlled village to prepare for a larger assault that will kill a rebel leader as part of Operation Red Wing in 2005.

As the four Seals survey the village from afar, a group of goat-herders from the village accidentally stumble across their encampment. This forces them to make a decision whether to kill them or to spare their lives. If they are merciful, this will obviously risk them telling the Taliban about their whereabouts, which is what happens. Not long after the herdsman return to the village, a group of fifty Taliban can be seen above them on a nearby mountaintop armed to the gills with AK-47’s and RPG’s. For about an hour, you see the four Seals standing off the Taliban as if the enemy’s bullets both had eyes and were loyal to the stars and stripes. I have not seen a more ludicrous gun fight since “Kill Bill”. If Navy Seals were this invincible, the Taliban would have been defeated long ago.

It is not just the unrepentant Marxist who has noticed the implausible nature of the battle depicted in the film. Ed Darack, the author of a book on Operation Red Wing, offers these remarks:

The only surviving member of the four-man team, Marcus Luttrell, wrote a brief (2 1/2 page) after action report. In it, he stated that he estimated that the reconnaissance and surveillance team was ambushed by 20 to 35 ACM. Twenty was the number that was initially released by CJTF-76 Public Affairs, and that is why the earliest media reports used the number twenty (in the Time magazine article, they state “…probably 5 to 1” as related to the four-man team – meaning 20). Further analysis, the results of which never made it into the press (derived from analysis of signals intelligence gleaned during the ambush and human intelligence derived in Pakistan after the ambush, and videos of the actual ambush) stated the number to be between eight and ten.

But as time progressed, the number quickly inflated from twenty. Some sources state up to 200. I’ve seen figures even higher than this. Ever since a blunt education by Marines in Afghanistan on the subject, I’ve been ever-skeptical of stated enemy numbers. While I was in Afghanistan on my first embed, the Marines taught me about “Afghan Math” – “Just divide by about ten to get the real number ” is the governing directive of “Afghan Math”–when reading enemy numbers in press reports or when the enemy tries their brand of PsyOps over two-way radios (“we have fifty men waiting to ambush you” usually means, maybe, five). I experienced this during my first tag-along with Marines in combat in Afghanistan–listening to a “Taliban commander” talking to Marines over an Icom late one night (on a ridge across the Pech River Valley from Sawtalo Sar). I couldn’t figure out why everyone was laughing. I wasn’t laughing. Turns out “they” didn’t have even five, just the guy on his Icom two-way radio. Of course, he never attacked us, other than verbally.

Marcus Lutrell’s “Lone Survivor” was ghost-written by Patrick Robinson, a British author best known for fictional works featuring heroic American and British soldiers. Typical is “Ghost Force”, a novel about Navy Seals who foil a plot by Argentinians and Siberians (!) to retake the Malvinas as an anti-imperialist plot against Exxon-Mobil. Just the sort of writer who would bring Lutrell’s overactive imagination to fruition.

If Robinson was just the right ghost-writer, Peter Berg was a director whose ideological predispositions were ideally suited for the material as well. Berg can be proud of his work. Wikipedia reports: “Its opening weekend gross made it the second largest debut for any film released in January after the 2008 film Cloverfield’s opening weekend gross of $40.1 million.” That its success is measured against “Cloverfield” should give you some indication about the dire straits of Hollywood filmmaking. “Cloverfield” was an idiotic space invasion movie whose shaky camera effects were enough to induce an epilepsy attack even if you did not suffer from the illness.

Berg’s previous film was “Battleship”, another space invasion movie that was based on a video game and that was geared to the average 15-year-old boy. It opens with 911 type attacks on skyscrapers and climaxes with a WWII vintage battleship being dusted off and used to smite the filthy alien spaceships that bear a striking resemblance to the Transformers. This, of course, is the perfect preparation for a movie like “Lone Survivor”.

On IMDB, Berg describes why he made a film like “Lone Survivor”:

I’m a patriot. I admire our military, their character, code of honor, belief systems. I lived with the SEALs, their families, went to their funerals. I went to Iraq. Did you ever see anyone killed? I did.

“Lone Survivor” was made by Universal Studios, a subsidiary of NBCUniversal that is half-owned by Comcast and half by GE, one of America’s biggest arms manufacturers. Comcast is the world’s largest media and communications corporation by revenue and includes MSNBC as one of its wholly owned subsidiaries. As a cable provider, it is a bitter enemy of net neutrality. The CEO of Comcast is Brian Roberts, an American Jew who has made major contributions to the Obama campaigns.

Every time I run into a film like “Zero Dark Thirty” or “Lone Survivor”, I am reminded of the incestuous ties between the military, big business, and the film industry including the professional critics who praise such films. They are no different from the German journalists who lauded Leni Riefenstahl.

“Lone Survivors” got an astonishingly high rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with 73 percent “Fresh” ratings. It also received an 89 percent favorable rating from Rotten Tomato users, in other words people who registered to voice their opinions but can’t post articles.

NPR’s Ella Taylor opined:

When you don’t know the terrain and you don’t know who’s for or against you, heroics are either beside the point or they extend only as far as survival and solidarity. In this regard, Berg is relentlessly unsparing — in Lone Survivor, we discover what it is like to topple downhill from rock to rock, and what it is like to reach for your gun and find that your hand is missing — but never Tarantino-sadistic.

There’s courage aplenty in Lone Survivor — the day when grunts were made to stand in for American imperialism is long gone and rightly so.

I know Taylor from her days at the Village Voice, when she was a lot more “edgy”. That she can sanctify this glorified version of a Chuck Norris film for a radio station that was originally intended to be an alternative to commercial radio speaks volumes about the dying culture we live in. No, Ms. Taylor, the day when grunts were made to stand in for American imperialism is still very much with us.

May 13, 2011

Burma Soldier; City of Life and Death

Filed under: Asia,Film,militarism — louisproyect @ 7:03 pm

Two films have come my way recently that deal in their own way with the systematic brutality of modern armies. “Burma Soldier”, an HBO Documentary that airs on Wednesday May 18, tells the story of Myo Myint who joined the Burmese army in 1979 at the age of 16 and trained as specialist clearing landmines. An attack by Burmese insurgents severely injured Myint, leaving him without a leg, an arm and most of the fingers on the hand of the remaining arm. What he lost physically was offset by a political and spiritual transformation that turned him into a pro-democracy activist. Not only is “Burma Soldier” a stirring portrait of one man’s struggle against physical and political adversity, it is an excellent introduction to the country’s history. Now playing at the Film Forum in New York, “City of Life and Death” is a fictional account of the so-called Rape of Nanking, the Japanese army’s assault on China’s capital city in 1937 based on Iris Chang’s 1997 best-seller. I can recommend it but with major qualifications.

Even before his calamitous injuries, Myint began to question the cruel and anti-democratic role of the military. To start with, the dominant Burma nationality sought to impose itself on other ethnic groups in the same fashion as the Turks over the Kurds, or the Chinese over the Tibetans. The military that had seized power in 1962 sought to forcibly assimilate the “lesser” nationalities into its own warped vision of Burmese identity in accordance with the arrogant “modernizing” vision of both British colonialism and the “socialist” powers that forgot that there is no socialism without democracy.

He saw countless acts of brutality when on duty. Women, especially from the non-Burma nationalities, were forced to work as porters and even to walk in front of the soldiers in mine-infested terrain. Insurgent captives were routinely tortured. Myint recounts one incident in which a knife was plunged through the cheeks of a man during the course of an interrogation.

As you watch “Burma Soldier”, you cannot help but be reminded of the unfolding drama in the Middle East as one self-described “socialist” or “radical” government seeks to impose itself on a restive population. It is useful to remember that the brutal and corrupt Burmese military that has as dominant a role in the national economy as is the case in China or once was the case in Turkey.

General Ne Win, who came to a power in a 1962 coup, proposed a “Burmese Way to Socialism” that blended Marxist verbiage with outright nonsense. For example, the film describes his 1988 fiscal measures, taken on the advice of an astrologer. Win devalued the currency according to a formula: any monies divisible by the number nine were now invalid. So devastating were consequences for the poor and the working class that the seeds for today’s pro-democracy movement were implanted. Sometimes it is easy to forget that the main reason the Burmese people want the right to elect their own leaders freely is because that is a way to address economic exploitation, even that which occurs in the name of socialism. As a tarnished symbol of a degraded system, General Ne Win had much in common with Libya’s Qaddafi. Win claimed that his socialist system would mix Marxism and Buddhism, while Qaddafi’s recipe included Islam instead of Buddhism. In either case, you ended up with a despotic system that sparked a wholesale revolt.

After leaving the army, Myint embarked on an intellectual journey that led him to read a wide variety of philosophical and political books. He came to the conclusion that the system had to be transformed. He became an activist and took part in demonstrations following the 1988 economic restructuring. He also started a secret library of banned books. When he was arrested at a rally, he told the judge at his trial that “I don’t believe in the military regime”. That act of defiance led to a 15 year prison sentence.

The oppressive system in Burma has led to remarkable acts of courage from individuals such as Aung San Suu Kyi who was under house arrest for about the same number of years Myint was in prison. In the 1990 general election, her party won 59% of the votes and 81% (392 of 485) of the seats in Parliament. The army decided that the people’s will meant nothing and have ruled by terror for more than the past 20 years. One can only hope that the people of Burma will finally prevail since history and the unshakeable will of people like Myo Myint are on their side.

“City of Life and Death” is an unrelenting journey through the horrors of the Japanese occupation of Nanking in 1937 that some scholars believe resulted in the deaths of as many as 300,000 civilians. Considering that these deaths occurred in the span of weeks rather than years, it has led some to consider it as one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century in terms of the time-frame.

Hewing closely to the findings of Iris Chang, Chinese director Lu Chuan tells a tale of unremitting cruelty that amounts to a holocaust for his own people. Indeed, this story included its own Oskar Schindler, one John Rabe, a German businessman (despite his Anglo-sounding name) that ran Siemen’s branch operation in Nanking, who confronted the Japanese army over its abuses and sought to protect civilians in a Safety Zone that was often disregarded by the occupiers. In one scene, they come into the Safety Zone in order to dragoon 100 Chinese women into working as sex slaves for their troops.

Rabe (John Paisley) has a Chinese male secretary named Tang (played by Fan Wei, a Chinese comedian in a decidedly non-comic role) who like his boss appeals to the dubiously better judgment of the Japanese. In a departure from conventional holocaust type narratives, John Rabe is a member of the Nazi party who uses his ties to Hitler to sway the Japanese military brass. In one of the unfortunately all-too-glaring missteps of this well-intentioned film, there is no attempt to put his humanitarian impulses into any kind of context. We can only surmise that Rabe had an emotional attachment to the Chinese people that stemmed from having living in Nanking since 1909.

As might be expected, Tang is a passive figure who follows Japanese orders in more or less the same way that the Judenrat cooperated with Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto, at least until the full horror of Japanese occupation is revealed. In one of the film’s more wrenching scenes, the soldiers hurl his 11 year old daughter through the second story window of an apartment building killing her instantly. Her offense was to try to interfere with a Japanese detachment that was rounding up Chinese women for a “comfort station”, including her mother.

Given the unrelenting procession of horrors that are depicted in this 133 minute film (Chinese captives burned alive, etc.), one might ask what might motivate an audience to remain in its seats until the bitter end, about which there is no doubt from the very beginning.

The NY Times review puts its finger on one of the film’s strengths:

“City of Life and Death” isn’t cathartic: it offers no uplifting moments, just the immodest balm of art. The horrors it represents can be almost too difficult to watch, yet you keep watching because Mr. Lu makes the case that you must. In one awful, surreal interlude, severed male heads swing from rope like ornaments, while in another, Japanese soldiers — having buried some Chinese men alive — stamp down the earth as if planting a crop.

Although I recommend this film with some reservations, I have to wonder about the strange world we are living in when the “immodest balm of art” suffices. Somehow, the visual power of Lu’s film is expected as a pay off when all else fails in terms of our conventional expectations of drama. Shot in black-and-white, it certainly grips your attention with its flair for the macabre.

But despite my admittedly close attention to the gruesome action, I found myself troubled throughout by the film’s lack of context. There is nothing at all to explain why the Japanese occupation was so barbaric. In many ways, the film reminded me of the 1997 “Welcome to Sarajevo” that depicted the Serbs in pretty much the same terms, as demonic forces that killed for the love of killing.

Iris Chang’s book set the tone for the film by adopting the same stance toward the Japanese whose culture apparently set them on the course of a Nanking holocaust in the same way that German culture prepared the extermination of the Jews. Some critics of her books take exception to that view, however. In a 1998 review that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, David M. Kennedy wrote:

Elsewhere Chang serves notice that “this book is not intended as a commentary on the Japanese character,” but then immediately plunges into an exploration of the thousand-year-deep roots of the “Japanese identity”–a bloody business, in her estimation, replete with martial competitions, samurai ethics, and the fearsome warriors’ code of bushido, the clear inference being, despite the disclaimer, that “the path to Nanking” runs through the very marrow of Japanese culture.

In my view, wartime savagery is not the reflection of any national culture but instead the result of indoctrination that young men and women receive when they are drafted or when they enlist during the kind of fervor that arose after 9/11. Military training consists mainly of getting normal people to get used to the idea of killing, a most unnatural form of behavior no matter what a sociobiologist might tell you. It is not in our culture or in our genes. It is rather in the propaganda system of the hegemonic powers and their drill instructors that are carefully selected for their ability to transform ordinary people into killers. For insights into this, I recommend Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket”.

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