Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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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