Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Finding Common Ground

Cross-posted from Sibling Rivalry
By Scott Grimsley

Honoring Our Dead With Taking Chance

As anyone who knows him can attest, my brother Mark loves movies.  His DVD collection is, to say the least, extensive, and he is actually a true scholar of films.  He has published numerous movie reviews about World War Two movies that I have really enjoyed for their insights and examination of deeper themes contained in the films.  Interestingly he is also passionate about films concerning Jesus, and has taught several studies privately on the subject.
I read his blog entry this morning and saw his comments on the movie Taking Chance.  I had never seen the movie and was intrigued by its premise and how he had used it to instruct his daughter Chloe on the meaning of Memorial Day.  (Chloe, by the way, is adopting her father's appreciation for classic film: on one visit she wanted me to watch Singing In the Rain with her as opposed to the more conventional Disney or Pixar offerings my kids grew up with). Fortunately I had access to Taking Chance on one of my internet subscription services, and so I watched it.

Image result for taking chance

The film is incredibly moving and really had no message except it told the tale of how the body of a fallen soldier was treated with respect and dignity throughout his journey from the combat zone to burial in his Wyoming hometown.  I admit I cried like a baby watching it.  I was reminded of the famous quote attributed to Joseph Stalin "the death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic".  Sometimes, unless we know the deceased personally, we fail to acknowledge the real human impact of war, and that is another valuable reminder of the film.  I understood the conflict experienced by Kevin Bacon's character as well, about whether his service as a staff officer working basically a military job on civilian work schedule allowed him to claim the title of a "real" Marine compared to the obvious sacrifice of those who are actually fighting.  I am a Desert Storm era veteran who did not go to Desert Storm.  I spent that time assisting in refresher training of reservists recalled to active duty to backfill units in Germany, but still was the beneficiary of the outpouring of public affection for the military during that conflict, and sometimes felt like an impostor.
However the point I want to make is about the diversity of backgrounds of the people honoring Chance Phelps, the fallen Marine, and his escort officer, LTC Michael Strobl.  Throughout the film, spontaneous gestures of respect take place, ranging from the complimentary upgrade of the outbound flight to first class Strobl receives at the airline ticket counter, to the stewardess who wordlessly hands Strobl a crucifix on the plane, to a baggage handler getting bedding for Strobl to sleep on so he can stay with Phelps' body during an overnight layover, to finally an impromptu funeral procession that forms as Phelps' body is driven 5 hours from the airport to his home.  This is where I see hope for us as a nation.  There are points that divide us, sure, but there are also those where all of us as Americans can agree.  Honoring those who have died in the defense of our freedom is definitely one.

So, thanks to my brother, I feel I celebrated Memorial Day with a proper attitude of respect and remembrance.  Despite the gulf of what often seems to divide us, and our very real differences, there is common ground.  This is what we can build on.

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Impact of "Taking Chance"

Today is Memorial Day. Two years ago I took my daughter Chloe to a Memorial Day parade and tried to give her some idea of what it was about, but as she was just 2 1/2 years old I naturally had limited success. So last evening we sat down together and watched "Taking Chance." It's a 2009 HBO film based on the true story of Marine Lt Col Michael Strobel's experience escorting the remains of Lance Corporal Chance Phelps from Dover Air Force Base to his parents' home in rural Wyoming.  Here's the trailer:

I'd seen the film before, enough to know that it was perfectly suitable for a 4 1/2 year old to watch. It contains no violence and (with one brief exception) no profanity. Chloe asked a number of questions, and periodically we'd pause the DVD while I answered them. One of them had to do with the term "service"; as in "Thank you for your service." Chloe had previously encountered the term only in the context of food service, so I had to explain the larger meaning of "service," what it means "to serve," and so on. Particularly what it means to serve in the military and, by extension, to serve one's country.

Whenever I get a little choked up about something, Chloe interprets it as sadness, and has continued to do so despite my efforts to explain that such shows of emotion often do not signify sadness.  Several times during the film she turned to me and said, "Don't be sad."

The movie had an impact on someone made of sterner stuff than myself.  Early in the Obama administration, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates conducted a review of the Defense Department's policy of barring media access to the military mortuary facility at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.  The media cried foul, with some charging that the policy was a politically-motivated effort to hide the human cost of war from the American public.  But the military services and a number of groups representing the families of fallen soldiers considered it almost sacrilegious to allow cameras to film the flag-draped coffins returning from overseas.  Gates ultimately decided to modify the policy so as to allow press coverage as long as a grieving family did not object.

In his memoirs, Gates wrote:
In the case of my decision on Dover, an HBO movie, Taking Chance, released in February [2009], had an important impact.  The story follows a Marine lieutenant colonel (played by Kevin Bacon) as he escorts the remains of Marine Lance Corporal Chance Phelps from Dover to his hometown in Wyoming, ordinary Americans making gestures of respect all along the way.  After seeing the film, I was resolved that we should publicly honor as many of our fallen warriors as possible, beginning at Dover.  -- Duty:  Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York, 2014), 307. 

(For more information on the film, see the  "Taking Chance" web site on HBO.)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Enduring the Unendurable: Japan's Longest Day

Reprinted with permission of World War II magazine

At noon on August 15, 1945, millions across Japan craned their ears to radios, listening in amazement to their emperor’s voice, reproduced on a 78-rpm phonograph record. Hirohito gravely read an imperial edict announcing that his government had acceded to the Allies’ demand that the Japanese military surrender unconditionally. In and of itself, this was a stunning moment. Most commoners had never heard an emperor speak. Hirohito delivered his remarks in a classical form of Japanese difficult for most of his countrymen to follow. He never used the words “defeat” or “surrender,” so many listeners did not grasp the meaning of his address. As previously authorized, an announcer afterward drove home the god-king’s stunning point. For the first time in its 2,500-year history, Japan had met defeat.

Twenty-two years later Toho Studio—which had won fans among American moviegoers with its Godzilla franchise—released Japan’s Longest Day, an account of the 24 hours that led to Hirohito’s radio broadcast. Directed by Kihachi Okamoto, a veteran of the Pacific War whose 40 films include many with World War II themes, Japan’s Longest Day—like The Longest Day, its 1962 Hollywood namesake—featured an all-star cast memorably led by Toshiro Mifune, Japan’s John Wayne. The film, closely based on fact, became Japan’s second highest grossing film of 1967, inspiring Toho to make other movies about the Japanese military during the Second World War. Japan’s Longest Day, little known in the United States, was almost unobtainable until 2006, when Wilmington, North Carolina, video distributor AnimEigo (animeigo.com) released an excellent DVD transfer.

The title refers to the gripping sequence of events between noon August 14, when Hirohito importuned his cabinet to end the war, and noon August 15, when Gyokuon-hōsō, “the Jewel Voice Broadcast,” signified the end of the Japanese empire.

In a 21-minute documentary-style open, Okamoto portrays the cabinet struggling to answer Potsdam Declaration demands for unconditional surrender, with the only alternative “prompt and utter destruction.” The cabinet splits. A pro-peace faction centers on Prime Minister Baron Kantaro Suzuki (Chishu Ryu). The diehards’ strongest voice is Japan’s war minister, General Korechika Anami (Mifune).  Reluctant at best to accept surrender, Anami argues that the Potsdam Declaration does not offer adequate assurance that the Allies will permit the emperor to the keep the throne,    The Cabinet, he insists, must force the Allies to be clear on this point. “Because if that is not the case,” the general tells the Cabinet, fist on the hilt of his long sword, “we must fight to the last man.”

Unable to decide even with Hiroshima and Nagasaki in radioactive cinders and the Soviets invading Manchuria, the cabinet finally meets with the emperor to seek resolution.  Suzuki and Anami each make their cases. As Hirohito (Hakuo Matsumoto) rises to respond, Okamoto superimposes a clock, then the film’s title. The documentary structure falls away and Japan’s Longest Day plays out as a drama inter-cutting the cabinet and emperor in their final deliberations, the push to record and broadcast the surrender edict, and hardcore militarists plotting to keep the speech from reaching the Japanese people.

“It is impossible to continue to prosecute this war,” Hirohito tells the cabinet, voice halting as he tries to control his emotions. “No matter what happens to me . . . my people . . . save my people.  I can no longer endure letting them suffer any longer.” Kihachi photographs this scene carefully, not revealing Hirohito’s face. Besides showing deference to the emperor, still on the throne at the time of the film’s release, this framing focuses our attention on Anami’s reaction to his sacred leader’s declaration. When the rest of the cabinet is bursting into tears, the dry-eyed Anami, who knows of the would-be coup, wears an expression of austere resignation. His heart is with the hard-core militarists, but to join the resistance would be to defy his emperor, and he is too much the man of tradition to do so.

Over the next two hours, characters race one another and time. The cabinet wrangles over the language of the edict the emperor will sign and record for broadcast. A cadre of staff-level officers deduces what is underway and plots a coup d’état. Commanders at two key air bases, Atsugi and Kodama, vow to fight on by sending kamikazes against an American fleet off the coast. Anami, after sternly instructing his staff to obey the emperor’s will, goes into foreboding seclusion.

Okamoto’s juxtapositions can be startling. Civilians, including many schoolchildren, throng an airfield to sing an anthem of support for pilots preparing to fly to their deaths. The song continues as the perspective cuts to officials placing the finished edict before the emperor, who signs it. The recording session takes place; the emperor’s men hide the disk at the Imperial Household Agency. The plotters invoke the impending kamikaze attacks as they plead with General Takeshi Mori (Shogo Shimada), commander of the Imperial Guard Division, to join their coup. Rebuffed, the conspirators murder Mori, forge orders in his name, and transmit them to the empire’s remaining forces. Imperial Guard detachments surround the palace and ransack the royal household looking for Hirohito’s surrender recording.

The coup begins to fall apart. The guardsmen cannot find the record. The forged orders’ origins come to light. General Shizuichi Tanaka (Kenjiro Ishiyama), commander of the Eastern District Army, arrives at the palace to stop the plot for good. In counterpoint, Anami, alone but for two young subordinates, resolutely prepares to commit seppuku—self-disembowelment. He tells his companions, who are there to witness his suicide, that they must help to rebuild Japan. “Each and every Japanese must stand by their station, live on, and work earnestly,” Anami urges the pair. “In no other way can the nation be rebuilt.”

Anami kills himself. Separately, so do the plotters, whose bodies are on screen as we hear the announcer’s voice introducing the emperor’s recording. Japan’s Longest Day ends not with an outright rejection of militarism—70 years on, Japan has yet to come to terms with what its aggression wrought—but with the suggestion that for a new Japan to rise the old Japan had to die.

Monday, May 23, 2016

War is Rude: Mrs. Miniver

Reprinted with permission of World War II Magazine

Mrs. Miniver tells the story of life in the U.K. 1939-1941 experienced, as the opening crawl explains, by an “average English middle class family”—which just happens to be able to afford servants and a spacious residence whose lawn extends to a dock on the Thames River. Shot in Hollywood starting on November 11, 1941, and released in June 1942, the MGM film became that year’s highest grossing picture and garnered six Academy awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Best Actress (Greer Garson in the title role), and Best Supporting Actress (Teresa Wright). Its appeal has endured; the American Film Institute ranks the film 40th on its list of “America’s most inspiring movies.”
Based on Jan Struther’s 1940 bestseller Mrs. Miniver, a compendium of anecdotal British newspaper columns, the movie has only tenuous ties to the book, whose arc barely reaches the war’s outbreak. Working with six screenwriters, director Wyler extended Struther’s timeline to incorporate Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain.

At the outset, Kay Miniver (Garson), husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon), and eldest son Vin (Richard Ney) are—as that crawl puts it—among England’s “happy, careless people . . . in that happy, easy-going England that was so soon to be fighting desperately for her way of life and for life itself.” Even when war breaks out the Minivers’ comfortable lives change little, though Vin does become an RAF fighter pilot. Reality intrudes only when Clem sails his motorboat to join a  flotilla that—offscreen—rescues the British army from Dunkirk.
While Clem is busy across the Channel, a downed German pilot (Helmut Dantine) finds his way into the Miniver home. The screenwriters, responding to Americans’ increasing admiration for England, reworked this sequence several times. In a draft predating Pearl Harbor, Clem is present; the German, wounded and frightened, yields to Kay’s entreaty to give himself up and get medical attention. But in a post-December 7 version, Clem is absent, the German has a pistol, and Kay clearly in peril. And the finished film portrays the flyer as a fanatic. He holds Kay at gunpoint, demanding food he wolfs down like a wild animal before fainting from blood loss. Barely rattled, she takes away the pistol and phones the police. When the pilot revives, too weak to be dangerous, Kay sympathetically tends him. He’ll soon be “wonderfully looked after in a hospital,” she says. “The war won’t last forever.”
Mrs. Miniver’s trademark benevolence enrages the German. “We will bomb your cities,” he storms. “Rotterdam we destroy in two hours. Thirty thousand in two hours. And we will do the same here!” This is unspeakably rude (as well as inaccurate, since the Rotterdam bombings claimed only 884 people) and Mrs. Miniver slaps the brute. No sooner have the bobbies collected their prisoner than Clem chugs up to the Miniver dock. His Dunkirk circuit has battered his boat. Nonetheless he behaves much as a man just back from a particularly grueling business trip. Clem greets his family, falls asleep, and upon waking ten hours later asks if news of the Dunkirk evacuation is in the papers. It is, Kay says.
“Thank heavens,” Clem replies. “I shan’t have to tell you about it.” And he doesn’t.
Neither does Mrs. Miniver mention her adventure, until the household cook interrupts to announce that she has no ham for Mr. Miniver’s breakfast, explaining to Mrs. Miniver: “You gave it all to that German pilot.”  Not a problem, Mrs. Miniver replies; Mr. Miniver likes bacon, too. Naturally Clem asks what German pilot, and in a playful scene Kay treats the episode in an elaborately coy manner that is utterly typical of the film. 

Come what may, the Minivers’ lives remain idyllic. Yes, there are air raids, but the family hunkers in its Anderson shelter and Clem talks about how much he likes Alice in Wonderland. Vin weds the lovely Carol Beldon (Teresa Wright), adding another Mrs. Miniver to the household—and not incidentally a status dimension to the film. Carol’s grandmother is Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty), a local aristocrat who frequently sniffs about the “middle classes” in a successful bid by the filmmakers to make the unpretentious but well-to-do Minivers more sympathetic to egalitarian American moviegoers. In the same vein, the film generally conveys that in wartime England class distinctions do not matter. Even Lady Beldon unbends; at the annual village floral competition—which by tradition she always wins—the grand dame permits a kindly stationmaster’s entry, dubbed the “Mrs. Miniver rose,” to claim first prize.

Tragedy invades only near the conclusion. Just hours after the floral show an air raid claims several villagers, including the stationmaster and Vin’s new bride, Carol. At a memorial service in a heavily damaged church, the Vicar (Henry Wilcoxon) delivers a powerful sermon. In the October 1941 shooting script, his homily was the 91st Psalm, which presents the Almighty as a refuge and a fortress. But after Pearl Harbor, a stirring peroration was inserted just after the scripture passage, composed by Wyler and Wilcoxon just hours before the scene was filmed. In it, the Vicar laments the dead innocents, declaring that theirs is a war in which everyone must share the burden of freedom’s struggle against tyranny. “This is the people’s war,” he concludes. “It is our war. We are the fighters. Fight it, then! Fight it with all that is in us!  And may God defend the right.” The camera holds on Mr. and Mrs. Miniver, resolute and dry-eyed, as the congregation sings “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” It then pans upward toward a gaping hole in the church roof.  The camera then dollies toward it, enlarging the hole so that the audience gets the full effect when a squadron of Spitfires passes overhead, flying toward the foe.

The film works because strong performances—especially Garson’s—redeem preposterous characters, and the Vicar’s concluding oration has enduring power. However, Mrs. Miniver presents war more as a case of dreadful manners than as something truly fearful: a sanitized way to promote American solidarity with Britain without hinting at how horrible that “people’s war” would be.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

American Iliad: The Sword of General Lee

Millions of American love the Civil War. Last summer I began work on “American Iliad,” a new regular column in The Civil War Monitor that examines one of the major reasons that they do. Some episodes from the conflict are so compelling that readers know them by heart. These episodes transcend mere history because human beings are story-telling creatures who make sense of the world through stories. They have an out-sized importance because they reveal what we want to believe, not just about the nature of the war, but also about the nature of life. Just as the ancient Greeks conveyed profound truths about the human condition through myth, so too does our national myth, the American Iliad. Each column explores a classic story from this myth and discusses the reason it continues to exert such a powerful grip on our imagination.

Here's the inaugural column, published in The Civil War Monitor 6/3 (Fall 2015):28-29, 72. Republished with permission.

Coined by the popular historian Otto Eisenschiml in 1947, the term “American Iliad” brilliantly captures the essence of so many Americans’ passion for the Civil War. A man once told me, in complete seriousness, that the story of the war was his religion. And while a conflict that killed over 2 percent of our country’s population may not be the best thing to construct an entire worldview around, it is probably not the worst thing, either. Abraham Lincoln’s magnanimity, Ulysses S. Grant’s perseverance in the face of all obstacles, and Robert E. Lee’s grace in defeat all provide strong life lessons. Although it is plainly exceptional to regard the Civil War a religion, it is obvious that the Civil War routinely functions as a national myth, a way to understand ourselves as Americans. And like the classic mythologies of old, it contains timeless wisdom of what it means to be a human being. Homer’s Iliad tells us much about war, but it also tells us much about life. The American Iliad does the same thing.

Foundational to the American Iliad is the conviction that the conflict was not a struggle between darkness and light, freedom and tyranny, but rather between two sides, equally gallant, committed to different but morally equivalent visions of the American republic, and therefore caught up in a tragedy larger than themselves, “a war of brothers.”

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels, arguably one of the most influential modern re-tellings of this Iliad, Michael Shaara has Confederate general James Longstreet muse, “The war had come as a nightmare in which you chose your nightmare side.” Robert E. Lee provides the most prominent example of a soldier forced to make this choice. With the exception of Lincoln, Lee is perhaps the foremost protagonist in the American Iliad’s pantheon. In mythic terms he is the ideal man, the perfect warrior, the flawless gentleman—“the Christlike Lee,” as historian Kenneth Stampp once put it. On the eve of the war he is a full colonel, so obviously gifted that Lincoln offers him command of the armies that must extinguish the rebellion should war break out. Lee declines. Despite a lifetime’s service to the United States—and despite telling his siblings that “I recognize no necessity for this [rebellion]”—he feels honor-bound to resign from the U.S. Army when Virginia, his homeland, secedes. “Save in defense of my native State,” he says, “I have no desire ever again to draw my sword.” But of course he must defend his native state. Thus it is the protection of hearth and home, not the abstract principle of states’ rights and certainly not the preservation of slavery, which governs his decision. “I did only what my duty demanded,” he would write in 1868. “I could have taken no other course without dishonor. And if it all were to be done over again, I should act in precisely the same manner.”  Historian Alan Nolan once questioned whether Lee’s fateful choice to draw his sword against the United States was as ethical as the great captain maintained. But the American Iliad is emphatic that it was indeed Lee’s only path.

Lee’s decision provides the opening of the American Iliad, for, like Homer’s Iliad, this Iliad begins with the war underway. It is the first iconic episode, by which I mean an episode that Civil War buffs know by heart. A typical buff can take you step by step through the three days of Gettysburg but generally knows far less detail about the origins of the conflict.  Instead they have rather vague ideas that the South left the Union in defense of states’ rights against a government that embodied centralized political power, or that the war pitted the agrarian South against the industrial North; or even that it was a cultural clash between a supposedly Celtic South against a supposedly Anglo North. These explanations are nearly always asserted, not argued. They function simply to push the sordid political details (particularly the defense of slavery) out of the picture and just get on with the almost purely military story, for the American Iliad is all about generals, soldiers, and battles. The war, in mythic terms, is not “a continuation of politics,” to use the famous definition of war espoused by the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. It’s not a continuation of anything. It’s just there.

And thus Lee is helplessly in the grip of something that resembles a natural disaster more than a human-created event. The war forces upon him a choice that is no choice at all, for his honor and integrity require that he serve the Confederacy. And in mythic imagination, Lee’s decision symbolizes the honor and integrity of every one of the 800,000 southern men who take up arms not from any political ideology, but rather because they must protect their families, their neighbors, their homeland.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Los Hombres Armados Redux

Almost three years ago I wrote a post on my encounter with a man who had grown up during the civil war in El Salvador (1979-1992).  I entitled it Los Hombres Armados.  I could be content just to provide you with the link, but the post is important enough to this one that I'm not taking the chance that you won't follow the link.  Here's Los Hombres Armados, reprinted in full:

There’s a neighborhood bar not far from where I live.  I drop by often enough that the bartenders know me and automatically get me my beer of choice.  It’s a friendly place and easy to make conversation.

Back in mid-December the coverage of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was almost wall-to-wall.  One evening it was silently unfolding on one of the bar’s muted televisions. I noticed a Hispanic man watching the images, his eyes wet with tears.  A short time later we began talking and I found out why.

The man–I’ll call him Fernando–was thirty-eight years old and had grown up in El Salvador during its long civil war (1979-1992).  The conflict was between the right-wing government, with its death squads, and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMNLF), an umbrella term for several left-wing guerrilla groups.  Fernando’s parents were afraid of both sides.  For them it was simply a matter of los hombres armados:  the men with guns.

When Fernando was a little boy, he told me, his parents would sometimes take him from their house and spend the night hiding in the woods, with a hand cupped over Fernando’s mouth to keep him from crying out. We think of school shootings and civil wars as worlds apart.  But for Fernando, the former was irresistibly reminiscent of the latter.

I have since talked to Fernando on several other occasions.  We never speak of the civil war but it plainly haunts him.  At some point–I have never asked how–he acquired an M-16, perhaps because he eventually joined one side or the other.  Although he left the weapon behind him in El Salvador, he once told me he has never felt comfortable without it, and he alternates between having thoughts of violence and thoughts of running away.  He becomes tearful easily and indeed, never seems far away from weeping.  Although his case is undiagnosed, he almost certainly suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

As a military historian, I have never quite known what to make of Fernando’s equation of the Sandy Hook murders with his own childhood.  But it is the same equation that others make who have to live with the threat or reality of mass killing.  For military veterans present at the recent Boston Marathon Bombing, the scene resembled the aftermath of an IED blast.  People residing in neighborhoods wracked with gang violence must know the same fear that Fernando’s parents did.  Fernando is a reminder, I suppose, that although we define the boundaries of our field as centrally concerned with political violence, the lived experience of people caught up in violence is essentially the same.

Last evening I had another encounter at that same neighborhood bar.  I was having a conversation with Steve, a dj who's worked at this bar--the Crazee Mule Saloon, whose patrons call it simply the Mule--for as long as I've been going to the Mule, which is at this point is going on four years now.

In addition to his job as a dj, Steve is a very serious conservative political commentator.  You'll find his Twitter feed, called Oracle of Ohio, here.    It, in turn, will lead you to Steve's blog, The Future of the Republic.  You have to examine the blog pretty closely to discern that Steve publishes it, but you can do it, hence my decision to use his real first name rather than a pseudonym.

Steve describes himself thus:  "writer/political scientist, capitalist business owner, Reagan republican.
Publisher, The Future of the Republic American."  His Twitter feed and blog form a good example of the dominant form of political discourse in America today--and for that matter the past decade and beyond.  That is to say, it's intensely partisan and demonizes the political Left.

I've no intention of picking on Steve or his form of political engagement.  We have contrasting views on practically everything, but Steve represents the substantial segment of Americans who are politically engaged, which is what the Founders wanted, expected, and believed the republic required if their political experiment would succeed.  And needless to add, there are plenty of Left-leaning Twitter feeds and blogs just like it.