Anti-War Novels and Movies

In honor of Memorial Day I thought I would give a short list of films and books that deal with the subject of war.  I am picking things that are not only showing the absurdity of war, but are also thematically and morally complex.  There will be no mindless flag waving here.  The best way to support our troops is to not send them into harms way unless it is absolutely necessary. 

  1. Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes – Matterhorn is one of the best books about Vietnam, and the best work of fiction that I have ever read on the subject.  In the book Matterhorn is a hill that the soldiers are defending in the beginning.  They give it up to pursue another mission only having to absurdly take it back at the end of the book. The first half of the book is more about the terrible conditions the troops had to endure in the Vietnamese jungle while the second half focuses on the truly horrific reality of battle.  This book is an absolute masterpiece.  A depressing read, but also a very engaging one. 
  2. Dispatches by Michael Herr – This is another Vietnam book, however this is a work of nonfiction.  This is also another masterpiece.  This book influenced the movie Apocalypse Now and Michael Herr also worked on that screenplay.  There are things in this book that could only be described as batshit insane. 
  3. The Thin Red Line – This is a movie directed by Terrence Malick.  It takes place in the Pacific theater in World War II.  It is a very contemplative film that uses the beauty of the nature as a backdrop to the corruptive influence of war and man.  Man is in the Garden of Eden and he is destroying it. 
  4. Why We Fight – This is a film directed by Eugene Jareki.  This movie is about the military-industrial complex and how they play a role in sending us to war since World War II.  It begins with Eisenhower’s famous farewell address and leads up to our invasion of Iraq.  Absolutely essential in understanding why we should be vigilant as citizens in doing our homework before our leaders take us to war. 
  5. The Bothers by Stephen Kinzer – This is a book that talks about John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles.  They were Secretary of State and head of the CIA under Eisenhower, respectively.  Before they held these positions they were corporate lawyers.  There have been times when this country has meddled in the affairs of other countries on behalf of corporate interests.  They also started us down the path to our modern day interventionist policy. 
  6. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut was actually in Dresden when we fire bombed it during World War II.  The book follows a soldier named Billy Pilgrim who also is present at this event.  This is a satirical novel that, with Vonnegut’s usual intelligence and dark humor, shows war to be the absurdity that it is.  Although this is a work of fiction that uses elements of science fiction, many of the events that take place in the book were things that Vonnegut witnessed. 
  7. Starship Troopers – This is a film directed by Paul Verhoeven.  This is the one entry that is on the lighter side and some might say it is not serious enough.  It can be viewed as just a science fiction action movie.  However, there are many satirical elements to this movie, especially the commercials in the movie that that mimic real life propaganda.  Though action takes center stage this movie is a critique of fascism.  The young and beautiful are sent off into the meat grinder by the older members of society.  You don’t need to know anything about history to be entertained, but you do need to know a little to get the subversive elements that Verhoeven puts in.  By the end of the movie one of the main protagonists is wearing something that pretty closely resembles a Nazi uniform.
  8. Apocalypse Now – I thought about not including this on the list because it is so obvious, however it may be my favorite war movie. It parallels Joseph Conrad’s novel down river into the Heart of Darkness.  I prefer the four hour long director’s cut.  This movie is extremely dark but there are also moments of dark humor as well.  This movie shows war’s corrupting influence on man and paints war as nothing short of pure insanity.  One example is to watch how the character of Lance, a young all-American surfer boy, becomes a spaced out drug casualty by the end. 
  9. Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – This is another novel about Vietnam.  Denis Johnson is a very gifted poetic writer.  Tree of Smoke is an expansive novel packed with many ideas.  One that I keep returning to is that in the wake of World War II, a “good war”, America believed itself on the right side of history and therefore allowed us to wage more wars still believing we were doing the right thing. 
  10. Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides – This entry is the only entry that is not a war book or movie.  It is an account of Martin Luther King and James Earl Ray.  The book is also largely about the manhunt for James Earl Ray after he killed MLK.  The reason why I chose this is it shows the power of King’s nonviolence and contrasts it to James Earl Ray’s pathetic character who uses violence to achieve his aims. 

These are just a few of the many entries I could have picked.  I believe all of these are worthwhile for one reason or another. 

Also take a listen to Billy Paul’s stunningly beautiful song Peace Holy Peace:

Propaganda at the Movies

I’m a little late on this debate, but I was watching Bill Maher last night and he briefly mentioned how Zero Dark Thirty was nothing but a piece of government propaganda.  Here is an article that talks about how the CIA manipulated the screenplay for this film:

I love Bill Maher, and feel that his show is one of the only places where you see actual real debate that isn’t just spin from talking heads.  I haven’t seen the movie in awhile though, but I don’t remember thinking the movie was as clearly pro-torture as some people said it was, though I don’t doubt the CIA’s involvement.  I would like to see it again after reading the above, and several other stories.

In the book The Brothers that I just read, again about John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles, there is a section where the CIA helps rewrite the screenplay for the book version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.  They want to make the book completely anti-Soviet, whereas in the book both sides of animals are corrupt.  Apparently Orwell’s widow was absolutely horrified.

I’ve also talked about in the past how the military has gotten to a place in the movie industry where the film industry is basically self censoring themselves.  They do this by withholding military equipment for films if they don’t approve of a films message.  To find the equipment without the military’s help is incredibly expensive.  If the military approves of a script to the point where they see it as promoting their values, they will give filmmakers a discount on renting the equipment that they need.  There was a program that went on for awhile where these kinds of arrangements were made more explicit, but after so many years the filmmakers caught on, and the overt program was no longer needed.  I read about this in the book Reclaiming Parkland.

No one expects films to be a literal telling of the truth.  In order to tell a gripping story it is often not only important, but necessary to do things like combine real people into one character, move events around for dramatic effect, etc.  However, when a film is changed to benefit those that are actually in power, it becomes propaganda as much as art.  When you go out to see the next film based on real life events, especially if it concerns the military, you need to question if the film has aims other than to inform and entertain.

The Fruits of Racism, Colonialism, and Segregation

I have been thinking lately about the word conciousness in terms of an emerging conciousness coming about because of an issue.  Two big influences on my thinking lately have been Stephen Kinzer’s book The Brothers and the band Public Enemy. 

Public Enemy is a rap group that often talks about problems facing the black community.  The book The Brothers deals largely with US policy during the Cold War as directed by John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles. 

During the Cold War a lot of third world countries were emerging from the shackles of colonialism.  Many of the resources in these countries were owned by foreign powers and only marginally helped the local economies.  Many of these new countries wanted to nationalize the industries concerning these resources so that their own people could benefit.  Instead of realizing these were nationalistic movements that wanted prosperity after years of hardship, we viewed them as puppets of Moscow.  Because of this we often intervened in these countries and subverted their democracies.  Sometimes we even inspired or directly took a role in violence.  In the case of places like the Congo and Iran we actually helped overthrow their governments, helping to install leaders that were brutally oppressive. 

Meanwhile in this country, in current years after the election of Obama, we like to view ourselves as post-racial.  However, listening to PE I am reminded by the daily indignities that black people still face in this country.  Even if we are not talking about larger issues, there are things that would drive anyone crazy.  Imagine someone crossing the street because of the color of your skin.  Imagine being watched in a store and thought of as a theif, again just because of the color of your skin. 

Last year I was in east Texas and there was a girl who was slightly less drunk than her male friends.  I asked her jokingly if she was the designated driver.  She said, in a way that was full of shame, “If you are the right color, you can get away with anything in this town.”

Over the years, in this country and outside of it, there has simply been a very real effort both explicitly and implicitly to subvert people of color from rising above their station.  Slavery, segregation, and colonialism have shaped the world we live in.  Well on one hand I believe that people do need to be responsible for their own actions, we must also acknowledge the effects that these forms of institutionalized brutality have played upon our world. 

Life in general is not fair.  That is something everyone has to deal with.  However, in understanding the history of our country’s actions both at home and abroad concerning people of color, we can hopefully learn empathy and understanding for different kinds of people.  None of us get to choose the conditions we are born into in life.  There is a hope though that we can help each other get through this life, whatever it is. 

Arrogance in a Former Secretary of State

I have mentioned several times that I am reading the book The Brothers, a book about former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen Dulles, who headed the CIA.  These brothers not only ratcheted up the Cold War, but created problems for America that we are still dealing with.  I know I have talked a lot about this book, but it is something every American should read.  Foster Dulles helped the military gain power in Pakistan.  The following passage, where Foster is interviewed by Walter Lippman, would be comical, if the ending wasn’t so tragic.  You cant make this stuff up!  Remember this is an interview with a sitting Secretary of State during the Eisenhower Administration:

“Look Walter,” Dulles told him, “I’ve got to get some real fighting men into the south of Asia.  The only Asians who can really fight are the Pakistanis.  That’s why we need them in the alliance.  We could never get along without the Gurkhas.”

“But Foster,” Lippman replied, “the Gurkhas aren’t Pakistanis.”

“Well, they may not be Pakistanis, but they’re Moslems.”

“No, I’m afraid they’re not Moslems, either.  They’re Hindus.”

“No matter!” Foster replied, and launched into a half-hour lecture about the dangers of Communism in Asia.

George W. Bush and John Bolten’s spiritual father has been found. 

Manipulation of the Press by the CIA

I mentioned yesterday that I am reading The Bothers by Stephen Kinzer. This is a book about Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, the head of the CIA, Allen Dulles.  If anyone wondered what role the government has played in shaping public opinion, look no further than how the Dulles brothers influenced the press during their lifetime.  I understand that this took place in the mid 20th century, but one only needs to remember Judith Miller and others during the Iraq War, or look at the CIA’s manipulation of events surrounding torture today. The following is a passage from The Brothers (Henry Luce was the owner of Time and Life magazines):  

Their old friend Henry Luce put each of the brothers on the cover of Time during their first year in office.  Allen was pictured with his ubiquitous pipe, smoke curling up toward a black-cloaked figure carrying a dagger, above the title “In an Ancient Game, New Techniques and a New Team.”  Foster followed a couple of months later.  Wrinkled and sullen, staring out from beneath a black homburg in front of a globe encircled with red, white, and blue banners, he looked worthy of what Time described as his mission: “To Unite Principle and the Facts of Life.”  

Luce’s friendship was only one of the many assets that helped Foster and Allen project their views into the American press.  Foster built a dense network of media contacts, and once Allen became director of central intelligence he went even further.  Allen established discreet contact with owners, publishers, and editors of influential daily newspapers, magazines, and broadcast networks.  Among his regular collaborators were William Paley of CBS, Arthur Hays Sulzberger of the New York Times, Alfred Friendly of the Washington Post, and James Copley of Copley News Service.  Through them, and through the journalists who were veterans of the Office of War Information, the U.S. government’s official propaganda arm during World War II, he regularly planted stories about foreign countries and their leaders.  By one account he could “pick up the phone and edit a breaking story, make sure an irritating foreign corespondent was yanked from the field, or hire the services of men such as Time’s Berlin bureau chief and Newsweek’s man in Tokyo.”  The columnist Allen Drury called him “a man of notoriously thin skin who is not above trying to get the jobs of newspapermen who criticize his agency.”

Years later it became clear that Allen’s efforts to influence the American press were not casual or episodic, but part of a multifaceted project called Operation Mockingbird.  Through it he funneled information, some of it classified, to journalists disposed to promote the CIA worldview, among them James Reston of the New York Times, Benjamin Bradlee of Newsweek, and the influential columnists Joseph and Stewart Aslop.  Operatives also planted stories in smaller news outlets and arranged for them to be amplified through networks controlled by friendly media barons.  Frank Wisner, who helped oversee Mockingbird, called it the CIA’s “mighty Wurlitzer.”  

The Brothers that Created Modern America

For any of you interested in American history, and understanding how we got to where we are now, I cannot recommend the book The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War enough.  It was written by Stephen Kinzer, who is the national cultural national cultural correspondent for the New York Times.  This book is incredibly fascinating and very well written. 

John Foster Dulles was Secretary of State under President Eisenhower and Allen Dulles was the head of the CIA.  Both worked for the corporate law firm Sullivan & Crowell.  Their father was a minister.  They brought together the interests of big business, interventionist foreign policy, and especially in the case of John Foster Dulles, missionary religious beliefs, in a way that had never been done before. 

Their grandfather, who was also Secretary of State, was the first Secretary of State to help overthrow a foreign country.  He helped bring about an end to the reign of the monarchy in Hawaii.  They grew up in the realm of the exclusively white patriarchal ruling elite.  Both brothers went back in forth in their careers between representing large corporations and representing our government. Both believed that the US had a role in shaping the world.  Often their policy beliefs were in line with what the interests were for large corporations. 

I am only partially through the book at this point, and I want to read more before I say too much.  However, if you want to understand how the modern world was created in the world after World War II, I already know that this book is essential reading. 

I was a History Major for most of my college career before finally graduating in American Studies.  The wider you cast your net when learning history, the more time and people you cover, the harder it can be to understand the specifics of what was happening and why.  That is why a class concerning the history of the Civil War is so much more interesting than a broad American History class.  You are able to get down into the nitty gritty of things.  By focusing on the Dulles brothers, who were fundamental in shaping US policy, this book makes understanding this period of history easy to those that might not be well versed in it.  However, this book is full of revelations even for those of you that might have read different texts concerning this time period.  If you are interested in our history, or troubled by the current US, I can already say that this is essential reading.