Once we are through with the 1619 project perhaps, we could move on to the Vietnam War Project.
While we are at it and are stressing over our fighting a proxy war with Russia and fearing the possibility of a nuclear confrontation let us remember that we (the USA) are the only country in history to drop an atomic bomb on another country. And it was we who let the nuclear genie out of the bottle in the first place. One can only hope that we don’t inherit the wind.
And let us not forget we fire-bombed Tokyo, another civilian target, nearly burning that city to the ground. Robert Macnamara, the Secretary of Defense at that time, is quoted as saying that if we had lost the war he would surely have been tried as a war criminal.
This is not to say that we should not condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its merciless targeting of civilians, but as the saying goes, let he who is without sin cast the first stone. There is a reason we are not signatories to the International Criminal Court.
We can do better and we are doing better I think, but let us not forget from whence we came for he who forgets the lessons of history is forever bound to repeat them. Rather, let us be a beacon of hope to those who love freedom and a keeper of the eternal flame of remembrance for those who have fought and died in war.
So, I’ve read my first book of 2022: George Orwell’s, Coming up for Air, and boy, was it a ride! One has to look beyond Orwell’s most famous books, 1984 and Animal Farm, and get into the weeds with some of his lesser-known works to find the real Orwell. This book has been described as an account of a man trying to recapture the lost innocence of his childhood. My main takeaway is that the more things change the more they stay the same. But it is more complicated than that of course. It is more like: you can never go home again.
George Bowling is being smothered in a middle-class existence, mired in a loveless marriage on the eve of WWII. He takes a week off and travels to his hometown in Lower Binfield, only to discover that it is no longer there. It has been completely engulfed by urban sprawl.
I love the first line of the novel, “The idea really came to me the day I got I got my new false teeth.” The idea to travel back to his childhood home of Lower Binfield, that is.
George Bowling was the product of shop keepers who struggled to keep their business alive as he describes in this passage: “It’s a fact that very few shopkeepers in those days actually ended in the workhouse. With any luck, you died with a few pounds still your own. It was a race between death and bankruptcy, and, thank God, death got Father first, and mother too.”
He details the banal middle-class existence as only Orwell can, interweaving some heavy commentary on the horrors of war and the disgusting nature of human beings they can sometime exhibit as this example of a discussion of the Boer War between two of George Bowling’s relatives readily shows: “…surely he couldn’t think it right for these here Boers to throw babies in the air and catch them on their bayonets, even if they were only, nigger babies?” “Uncle Ezekiel just laughed in his face. Father had it all wrong! It wasn’t the Boers who threw the babies in the air, it was the British soldiers!”
In this book, Orwell refers to several wars, The Boer War, WWI, and the pending WWII. More on war: “It was unspeakably meaningless, that time in 1918. Here I was sitting beside the stove in an army hut …when a few hundred miles away in France the guns were roaring and droves of wretched children, wetting their bags with fright, were being driven into the machine gun barrage like you’d shoot small coke into a furnace. …It was a lunatic’s dream….if the war didn’t kill you, it was bound to start you thinking.”
There was a scene in Lower Binfield, when Geroge went back to visit, where an RAF bomber making a practice run accidentally drops a bomb on the village killing three people. Thinking it was the Germans and expecting a second bomb to drop Orwell describes the following surreal scene: “And then I saw an extraordinary sight. At the other end of the market-place the High Street rises a little. And down this little hill, a herd of pigs was galloping, a sort of huge flood of pig-faces. The next moment, of course, I saw what it was. It wasn’t pigs at all, it was only the schoolchildren in their gas masks.”
George Bowling’s visit to Lower Binfield taught him one thing: “It’s all going to happen. All the things you’ve got in the back of your mind, the things you’re terrified of, the things that you tell yourself are just a nightmare or only happen in foreign countries. The bombs, the food-queues, the rubber truncheons, the barbed wire, the coloured shirts, the slogans, the enormous faces, the machine-guns squirting out of bedroom windows. It’s all going to happen. I know it -at any rate – I knew it then. There’s no escape. Fight against it if you like, or look the other way and pretend not to notice, or grab your spanner and rush out to do a bit of face-smashing along with the others. But there’s no way out. It’s just something that’s got to happen.”
Lest you think it was all doom and gloom, not so. There was quite a lot of humor injected into the novel. Dark humor. This novel, is, after all, satire.
La Grande Illusion, directed by Jean Renoir, is a must-see film for anyone who is a serious film lover. It is considered to be Renoir’s masterpiece and has made many critic’s lists of best films ever made, including mine.
The film is about a group of French prisoners of war in two German camps during World War I. There are officers in the group that includes an aristocrat, a wealthy Jewish banker, a music hall actor and a mechanic. Pretty much a cross section of French society.
These officers make several escape attempts. Their last attempt to tunnel out is interrupted when they are transferred out to another camp before they can complete the tunnel. They are sent to a fortress called Winterborn from which no one has ever escaped. This camp is run by a German aristocrat named Captain von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim).
The French aristocrat de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) forms a bond with Captain Rauffenstein but sacrifices his life in order to help his fellow officers, working-class Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and the wealthy Jewish banker Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) finally escape. These class distinctions are essential to the story and are part of the overall theme of the illusion of class barriers which artificially separate men in society. The themes of race and ethnicity are also explored. The men are rescued by a German widow, Elsa (Dita Parlo), and eventually make it across the border to Switzerland.
Two other famous movies were directly influenced by La Grande Illusion: The Great Escape and Casablanca. The digging of the tunnel in The Great Escape is performed in the same way as in La Grande Illusion including the way the prisoners hide the dirt from the tunnel in their pants and shake it out on the ground during their exercises period. The singing of the “Marseilles” to enrage the Germans in Casablanca can also be found in La Grande Illusion.
La Grande Illusion is an anti-war film in which the main thesis is the futility of war. It relies heavily on ideas from the book The Great Illusion by Norman Angell published in 1909. Angell argued that the cost of war was so great that no one would risk starting a war because the result would be disastrous. Of course, this proved to be illusory.
The title of the movie seems to have multiple layers of meaning. The futility of war, the artificial boundaries between men in class distinctions and even the artificial and invisible borders between countries. In the last scene of the movie as Maréchal and Rosenthal make their escape into Switzerland across a snowy mountainside a German patrol spots the men and fires shots at them. The order is given to stop shooting as the prisoners are over the border into Switzerland. The camera pans down the mountain side to the two men. Marechal asks, “Are you sure we are in Switzerland, it’s so alike?” Rosenthal, who has a map, says, “Of course. You can’t see frontiers. They were invented by men. Nature doesn’t care.”
This is a movie that has definitely stood the test of time in every way.
When I moved back to Kentucky a few years ago I got into the car business for a while to make some quick easy money. I did this for a few years with a little time off to do some teaching in the Jefferson County School System.
One day while I was at the car lot a customer came in and said he wanted to take a look at that Land Rover we had on our lot. I said sure and proceeded to show it to him. During the course of our conversation I noticed a medallion hanging around his neck from a gold chain. I recognized the symbols on the medallion and I asked the man, “Say, were you ever a Philadelphia Police Officer?” “Why, yes,” he answered, “But I retired from the force to move down here.”
“Oh, I see. Well, I lived in Philly for 18 years and I recognized the medallion. What made you decide to move to Kentucky?”
“The cost of living is much cheaper here,” he answered. Which is true. “And I got a job teaching kids with learning disabilities here in Louisville. It’s an easy $50,000 a year. You should give it a try.”
“I just might,” I answered. Little did he know he was the inspiration for my short lived career as a teacher.
As we got to know each other a little better during the demonstration process he let me know that he also did a couple of tours in Iraq.
“Wow!” I said. “Let me ask you, I just have to know, what was more dangerous, Philly or Iraq?”
Without an instant’s hesitation he said Philly. I smiled because I was pretty sure I knew the answer to the question. I thanked him for his service. I didn’t sell him the car, but I got a good story out of the deal.
I have seen the film and I think it is quite good, but my reaction is complicated by the fact that I have a visceral dislike for the whole concept of sniper fire. Shooting people from a distance who never knew what hit them seems a little unseemly to me. I don’t like it. Put that together with the fact that the real life Chris Kyle was a racist and a bigot and would basically shoot any Iraqi, man, woman, or child, gives me even more pause. I am reminded of Wounded Knee and the slaughter of innocents who were also referred to as savages. Kyle is also a proven liar. Jessie Ventura has just won a lawsuit against his estate for a story about him in his book that was completely fabricated. You have to wonder what else is Kyle lying about. Not to mention the fact that we should not have been in Iraq in the first place. It was not a just nor a good war. But this story transcends the life of the real Chris Kyle and brings to our attention the plight of the American soldier returning from multiple deployments and the psychological trauma inflicted upon these tortured souls. Attention must be paid!