The man in the black pajamas, Dude: Upon the latter’s death at the age of 102, Senator John McCain remembers General Vo Nguyen Giap, architect of Dien Bien Phu and Tet. “Countries, not just their armies, win wars. Giap understood that. We didn’t. Americans tired of the dying and the killing before the Vietnamese did. It’s hard to defend the morality of the strategy. But you can’t deny its success.”
On one hand, the film makes for an interesting moral counterpoint to The Fog of War: Ellsberg’s actions put the lie to a lot of McNamara’s convenient post-hoc rationalizing therein — clearly, SecDef could’ve done more at the time to end the war in Vietnam.) On the other, Ellsberg also works as a prequel of sorts to All the President’s Men — to say nothing of a generation of seventies paranoia epics like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. But in the end, The Most Dangerous Man in America probably works best as an eloquent testament to the words of the late Howard Zinn (who appears here as an old friend of Ellsberg): “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.“
Like Man on Wire, Ellsberg starts here in media res, and at the scene of the history-making crime. Furtive eyes scan back and forth as an old-school Xerox copier whirrs in the dark, its green light illuminating maps of Southeast Asia and the ominous words “Top Secret” from below. With no zip drives or electronic files to speak of, analyst Daniel Ellsberg is forced to copy the 7000 pages of the Pentagon Papers page by painstaking page. It’ll take months (and eventually he enlists the aid of his kids.) As the Xerox churns, we get up-to-date on the ramifications of the document being processed — bombs fall from the sky over North Vietnam and Cambodia, weary troops patrol the hot, fetid jungle, and Nixon and Kissinger obsess over the leaks in their war machine (with Kissinger giving Ellsberg his moniker: “the most dangerous man in America.”)
Cut back to several years earlier, when the future leaker of the Pentagon Papers seemed quite a different man indeed. A fresh-faced young ex-Marine with a crisp, no-nonsense Kennedy era haircut, Ellsberg began his tenure in government as one of the Best and the Brightest, with an enthusiasm for his 80-hour workweek matched only by his hawkishness. As one of McNamara’s boys, Ellsberg concedes to helping massage the data to create a casus belli for the war. His first day on the job is the Gulf of Tonkin incident that wasn’t, and he spends subsequent weeks trying to dredge up some, any, horrible atrocities in the region that might involve Americans.
But, over time, the scales fall away from Ellsberg’s eyes. In part because he makes the acquaintance of a luminous lefty-leaning journalist named Patricia, who eventually becomes his fiancee…twice. (Ellsberg has a great line about a guy he meets at a peace rally who’s a Trotskyist. He asks this fellow how in Hell he ever became a Trotskyist. The answer: “The same way anybody becomes anything. I met a girl.”) And in part because, driven with an analyst’s overriding compulsion to find the right answer, he starts going to Vietnam himself to lead recon missions on the side and get a better sense of the situation on the ground. Simply put, the Ground Game is not going well.
The rest, as they say, is history. Moved to throw a shoe into the gears of the war machine he had helped nurture into existence, Ellsberg goes rogue and decides to publish the top-secret history of the war. But, even if you feel like you know the story of the Pentagon Papers pretty well, and I thought I did, there are some fresh and intriguing insights here. For example, I’m not really one for Freudianism or overthinking coincidences, but it turns out Ellsberg suffered a tragedy at the age of 15 that made him uniquely primed to play the role in history he ended up playing. (His father fell asleep at the wheel during a road trip, prompting a crash that sheared the car in two and killed Ellsberg’s mother and sister. In other words, watch the authority figures at the wheel verrry carefully.)
And then there’s the man himself, who’s an engaging presence throughout (if perhaps with a touch of monomania — I could see him being a hard guy to get along with.) If The Most Dangerous Man in America has a flaw, it’s that the movie is quite one-sided in the end — Ellsberg even narrates much of the story, and you get the sense at various points there may well be some whitewash being applied. (Ellsberg has an ex-wife, and kids, that aren’t even mentioned for the first 45 minutes or so.) Still, I’m inclined to give Ellsberg — and Ellsberg — the benefit of the doubt (and not just because the man loves his movies.) Ever since George and the cherry tree, we’ve been smoothing the edges of our patriotic tales. And, whatever his misdeeds as a man, Daniel Ellsberg, the film makes clear, is a patriot, through and through.
I use this Cornel West quote rather often, but that doesn’t make it any less true: “To understand your country, you must love it. To love it, you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as how it is, however is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America – this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes, needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it.“
Daniel Ellsberg is one of those citizens. He saw an obvious crime being perpetrated by our government across multiple presidencies, and he did his part to help put a stop to it. In many ways, the story told in The Most Dangerous Man in America seems quaint: Johnson actually asked Congress for authority to bomb Vietnam? The press wasn’t rolling over like a lapdog in the wake of obvious propagandistic lies? (In fact, the media types who show up late in Ellsberg clearly possess some of the narcisstic sense of self-entitlement that has been our undoing of late. Ellsberg the civilian sweats blood and tears to get this 7,000-page document out in public, and the press poobahs act like they’re both the knowing gatekeepers and the heroes of the story.)
But just because Ellsberg’s brand of patriotism has fallen out of fashion in the era of Judith Miller and the chattering class doesn’t make this story any less relevant. It makes it more relevant. If we’re going to keep our young republic through its third century, we need more men and women of Ellsberg’s stripe. Men and women who will buck the trend, risk the ridicule and wrath of their well-connected peers, and stand up against injustice done under our collective name when they are party to it.
Presidents will get their due on this and every subsequent Presidents Day to come. But, now and again, it’s good to honor those patriots who, through non-violent principle and sheer, dogged determination, help to keep our leaders in check when the separation of powers fails — ordinary folks like you, me, and Daniel and Patricia Elllsberg.
And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border. To abandon this area now — and to rely only on efforts against al-Qaeda from a distance — would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on al-Qaeda and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies.”
This is a bit late by now, but regardless: As you all know, President Obama made the case last week for sending 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan. At this point — and like Fred Kaplan — I’m conflicted about our continued involvement there…but I’m leaning toward withdrawal. Everything I’ve heard about the war lately has had that “Vietnam in ’66” sense to it: A corrupt government as our ally; trouble winning “hearts and minds”; The US stepping half-blindly into a conflict that’s been simmering for centuries (in Southeast Asia, it was the endless Vietnamese war against interlopers; here it’s long-simmering ethnic rivalries between the Pashtuns and everyone else.) And now, our new progressive-minded president tells us: If we just commit X more troops (where, now X=30,000), we can win, close up shop, and go home. Uh, really? I think I’ve already seen this movie a few times.
Obama’s shout-out above to basically token international support doesn’t assuage my fears. And, as far as the threat posed by Vietnam: True, Tonkin never happened, but obviously policymakers of that era were less sanguine about a Communist victory in South Vietnam than we are today — The threat of the Enemy can always gets unduly amplified in the heat of the moment. (Speaking of said Reds, it should sober us to acknowledge that all we’ve done so far in Afghanistan is basically manage to re-create the Soviet experience in the region. Iirc, that didn’t end so well.)
Al Qaeda is in Afghanistan, yes, and if we could weed them out and destroy their capacity to attack again, all the better. (And always remember: If Dubya, Rummy et al had just finished the job properly in 2002 rather than salivating over Iraq, we would be in a lot better position right now.) But Al Qaeda is also in Somalia, Tajikstan, Yemen, the Philippines, Kosovo…all over the place. We don’t have the resources to play whack-a-mole in all these nations anymore, particularly when every whack usually just works to create new moles. (You’d think we learn that the Hydra sprouts two more heads every time you cut off the wrong one.)
The biggest argument in favor of increasing our military position in Afghanistan would be the continued stability of neighboring Pakistan. (There’s Vietnam again — it’s another variation of the Domino Theory.) But, there’s a good amount of evidence to suggest that more troop increases by us will only inflame the situation and further destabilize Pakistan. In which case, I’m not sure what we’re doing over there, and what we could possibly accomplish in 18 months that we haven’t gotten done the last seven years.
In short, it seems to me like we had our shot in Afghanistan, and Dubya blew it. I could be wrong, of course. But, to my mind, now feels like a good time to recognize that fact and stop chasing good money after bad.
“I will tell you the more I just stayed awake last night thinking about this thing, the more I think of it, I don’t know what in the hell it looks to me like we’re getting into another Korea […] I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. And it’s just the biggest damned mess that I ever saw.” Also via Greenwald today and in light of Obama’s upcoming decision on Afghanistan, former LBJ aide Bill Moyers painstakingly pieces together how his old boss made the decision to escalate in Vietnam. “We will never know what would have happened if Lyndon Johnson had said no to more war. We know what happened because he said yes.“
“What do I regret? Well, I regret that in our attempt to establish some standards, we didn’t make them stick. We couldn’t find a way to pass them on to another generation.” — Walter Cronkite, 1916-2009.
“‘There are times when an abortion is necessary. I know that. When you have a black and a white,’ he told an aide, before adding, ‘Or a rape.’” Another round of newly-released Nixon tapes sheds more light on the dark and troubling imaginings of the 37th president. “‘What I really think is deep down in this country, there is a lot of anti-Semitism, and all this is going to do is stir it up,’ Nixon said…’It may be they have a death wish. You know that’s been the problem with our Jewish friends for centuries.’” Class act, this guy.
Sure, Reagan did this all the time. Still, it takes either a man whose memory is too wracked by age to be president — or an inveterate liar — to simply make up this kind of story. (See also Reagan.) Apparently, John McCain’s heartwarming tale of the Christian guard in Hanoi, which he related again over the weekend at the mutual kissing of Rick Warren’s ring, was in fact lifted from Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. (Apparently McCain, and/or his ghostwriters, are fans of the man.) Uh, Senator McCain, did you really feel you had to embellish your time in a Vietnamese prison camp? The situation should speak for itself.
For what it’s worth, McCain is blaming the controversy on “the pro-Obama Dungeons & Dragons crowd.” Well, speaking as a member of the prObama World of Warcraft crowd (really, Senator, you’re dating yourself — again), I should note that the story actually originated with the Freepers several years ago, once the mythical maverick felt the need to start peddling false wares to the nation’s conservative Christians. For shame, Senator.
Update: Forget Solzhenitsyn. According to scholars (via TPM), this tale isn’t from The Gulag Archipelago at all, but rather seems to be a right-wing fairy tale emanating from the likes of Chuck Colson and Jesse Helms.
All of which is to say that, even more than usual, my thoughts on Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder should be taken with a grain of salt — Actual results may vary. For my part, even though both Stiller and Jack Black were basically doing their usual schtick, and Steve Coogan is pretty much wasted (in more ways than one), I found Thunder to be a decently funny experience last Wednesday. It’s got a bit of the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach, and some jokes — say, Tom Cruise gyrating in a Harvey Weinstein fat suit — end up getting run into the ground through overuse, Austin Powers-style. But, that being said, I had a good time. It helped that I’m a sucker for the sort of Hollywood inside-baseball humor that Thunder endlessly trafficks in. (IMHO, that’s also the only redeemable thing about HBO’s otherwise aggravating Entourage.) And there are elements of it that just appealed to my funny bone — seeing Nick Nolte finally get all Chris Walken up on us, for example, or the funny-’cause-they’re-tired ‘Nam-era ditties (Creedence, Rolling Stone, Buffalo Springfield) interspersed throughout the flick. So, I’m not going to say it was the best film of the year or anything, but as a diverting and amusing morsel of late-summer fare, Tropic Thunder gets the job done…for me anyway.
The story, as you probably know, involves a behind-the-scenes look at an Apocalypse Now-level movie disaster deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia. After a few wry trailers (the funniest and most dead-on being Satan’s Alley, although I’d have hated to be Eddie Murphy during The Fatties 2), we’re introduced to the gang on hand. There’s fading action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller, being Stiller), drug-addled comedian Jeff Portnoy (Black, going for Farley/Belushi and ending up with Black), Aussie thespian Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr, weirdly genius), hip-hop phenom Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson, used mainly to cover Downey’s ass), and newbie Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel, late of the Apatow factory), all under the supervision of video director Damien Cockburn (Coogan). Once the film ends up a month behind schedule (three days into filming), the who’s-more-grizzled source material for this ‘Nam picture, Four-Leaf Tayback (Nolte), insists Cockburn bring his bevy of spoiled stars into “the s**t.” Well, things go wrong, of course. And, soon, stranded somewhere near the Laotian border without even a Tivo on hand, this cast of thespians — only some of whom seem to understand the trouble they’re in — must navigate and negotiate their way back to SoCal-style civilization…but not before ticking off the local drug cartel, living out the inexorable men-on-a-mission tropes, and, just possibly, making a decent 80’s-style actioner in the process.
The aspect of Tropic Thunder which *originally* was drawing the most heat is Downey, Jr.’s resurrection of one of Hollywood’s darker stains in its past, blackface. (Controversy has since moved on to the portrayal of mentally handicapped people in the film-within-the-film Simple Jack, which, to my mind, is patently absurd. Watch Forrest Gump or Rain Man again sometime and you should get the point.) At any rate, surprisingly given the poor taste involved in reviving minstrelsy in any form, I thought Downey and the writers actually pulled it off. This is mainly thanks to the incredulity of Jackson’s Alpa Chino to most of Downey’s racist tics, such as reveling in crawfish, gumbo, and the like. All in all, I’d say David Roediger should be proud: Downey and the Tropic Thunder team managed to make their blackface routine a comment about the enduring racist foibles of white people (and the supreme actorly ego of Russell Crowe-type Method men) more than anything else, and thus help to subvert black stereotypes by drawing attention to them. (Of course, one irony here, at least from Spike Lee’s perspective, is that Jackson’s “Alpa Chino/Booty Sweat” act could be construed as even more minstrel-ish than Downey’s role.) In any case, it was a high-wire tightrope act for Downey to pull off, and the fact that his performance has elicited so little controversy suggests how well he pulled it off. (In fact, the five minutes where Downey pretends to be Asian, and pretty much just chop-sockey’s it up rather embarrassingly, illustrates how badly this could’ve gone, and how much we’ve still got to work on.)
“‘The use of patriotism as a political sword or a political shield is as old as the Republic,’ Obama said. ‘Still, what is striking about today’s patriotism debate is the degree to which it remains rooted in the culture wars of the 1960s — in arguments that go back 40 years or more. In the early years of the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War, defenders of the status quo often accused anybody who questioned the wisdom of government policies of being unpatriotic.’“
From Unity (NH) to Independence (MO), Sen. Obama — pushing back against the current GOP strategy — delivers a long and eloquent speech on the issue of patriotism. [Transcript.] “His speech put the issue in a sweeping historical perspective, speaking of charges that Thomas Jefferson had sold the nation out to the French and that John Adams was in cahoots with the British. He also questioned policies enacted in the name of patriotism, from Adams’ Alien and Sedition Act, Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese Americans…’I give him credit. He is taking this very seriously,’ said presidential historian Robert Dallek.”
Another personal plug: As part of the online rollout for a new edition of Walter LaFeber’s The American Century, I recently composed four brief classroom essays on various 20th century events, as evaluated from a 21st century (re: ruthlessly presentist) perspective. In case anyone’s interested, they’ve now gone live: The Versailles Conference | The Military Industrial Complex Speech | The Tet Offensive | A Second American Century? Now, that’s edutainment.