Sunday, July 27, 2008

War Stories

If it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press, and I guess it's also as good a time as any to post a few war-related things I've had in the hopper for a minute.

1. Tonight HBO will air the third episode of David Simon and Ed Burns' mini-series Generation Kill. Simon and Burns created The Wire, and bring the same deeply nuanced and darkly humorous approach to this portrayal of an embedded reporter's observations during the initial invasion of Iraq. Through its unbiased, Wire-like gray area approach, the series reminds us that the troops themselves, despite whatever political affiliations they personally hold, are there to do a job, and it's interesting to see what that involves on a day to day basis. It seems to me it would be impossible to watch the show and think that the war has been anything but a total waste of life, effort, time and money.

2. Generation Kill is also a well-designed package—from the seemingly endless, haunting radio chatter that hangs over the end credits, to the logo, which makes uniquely smart use of this distressed typeface, evoking destruction, death metal, targeting, sand, maybe even a bit of religious/crusade overtone—and if you really read into it, does the middle cross look a little like an iconic image from Abu Ghraib? I don't know, that might be a little overreaching, who knows.

3. The other night, discussing McCain's outlook on the war, Keith Olbermann used the phrase "Iraq as old guy's second chance in Vietnam." For whatever reason, it reminded me of Hearts and Minds, one of the best films I've ever seen and the winner of 1974's Academy Award for best documentary. I saw the director, Peter Davis, speak at the Brooklyn Academy of Music when Hearts and Minds got its DVD release, and he was talking about how the production company had a policy of giving each film they did a one-million dollar budget. That was sufficient enough to produce the company's feature films, including Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and The Last Picture Show—but it was a truly outlandish, smokable amount of money for a documentary. Davis took it and went to Vietnam and around the world shooting footage and interviews totaling more than 300 hours. What was distilled into the final cut is absolutely mind-blowing, riveting, eyes-glued-to-the-screen, forget-where-you-are greatness. It is also heartbreaking, and it is required viewing as a compare and contrast exercise with our current conflict—and the conflict the Bush administration is currently manufacturing with Iran.

Some of the most poignant moments to me are the interviews with Daniel Ellsberg. They prompted me to read his memoir a few years ago, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, which I cannot recommend highly enough, both as a history of the events of that era, and as a window into the thinking of a true patriot and a courageous and brilliant thinker. Ellsberg started working in the Pentagon as an adviser to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on the exact day the Tonkin Gulf Incident occurred—and seven years later his views had changed significantly enough that he leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, which arguably precipitated the end of the war. There are few people better equipped to analyze that period of time in our history.

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