Chris and I watched an interesting television series on Netflix. Not bad; not great. In odd way I liked the low production values. It made the story real. Or should I say believable? It was called Unbelievable. It is the story of a number of women–some young, some old–all raped in their own bed by a brutal intruder. It tells the story of the investigations by 2 outstanding police officers and 2 less than outstanding. It concentrates in particular on one of the victims a very young girl Marie who is not believed and raises the very interesting question of why it is that sexual assault victims are often not believed, unlike most other victims of crime. Why is that? As well, why does the victim have to relive the experience over and over again? Do other victims of other crimes face the same problems? As a result is it surprising that most victims of sexual assault choose not to report the crimes? What does this tell us about our society? Interesting questions. Worth seeing.
One of the most interesting parts of the television series Our Boys, created by a Palestinian and Israeli team, was the judgement of the court. It was read by an elderly Justice with stern cadences of belief in its truth. Yet, “the truth” was not endorsed by either side.
The judge noted that the days in Jerusalem after the kidnapping of the 3 Israeli boys had been tense. People gathered in frenzied crowds yelling “Death to Arabs.” 3 Jewish boys took this literally. They were good boys from fine families. They were deeply religious. The judge did not say it, but I will, they were “Our boys.” Though so was the young Palestinian victim and the 3 Jewish boys that had been kidnapped.
As the judge did say, “This was the shaft through which the 3 plunged into the dark tunnel of hatred and racism from which they emerged that night, yet the troubling thought persists from what well did the 3 drink such quantities of hatred and racism that blinded them so terribly that bashing and suffocating the head, and burning a human being created in God’s image, seemed to make sense? What did the defendants learn and internalize at the various stages of their education and upbringing that enabled the unbearable lightness with which they took the life of a young Arab boy?” These are profound thoughts. But there is little evidence anyone paid attention. They were too consumed by hatred. Not long afterwards the country was plunged into war—again.
At the end of the film we do not see justice. We do not see revenge? We don’t see the majesty of the law. Guilt is not important. The sentence is not significant. The mathematics of crime and punishment is false. All we see is a mother’s pain. Her son is dead and he was killed horribly. Nothing else matters. The mother’s pain is real and it endures. Nothing else endures. Nothing at all.
I saw an amazing television series this year. It is powerful, disturbing, difficult to watch, and profoundly important. It is called Our Boys and is the fruit of an astonishing collaboration between Israeli writers, and Israeli and Palestinian co-directors. That brings a unique perspective that enriches this film. It is a perspective that is very difficult to find in the Middle East, where typically vicious certainties destroy each other. That perspective is different from any other I have ever seen. I urge you to watch.
First I will give a caveat. Most of the film contains English Subtitles. I don’t usually enjoy watching films with subtitles as I find them very distracting, but in this 10 series of shows the effort is well worth it. The series is based on a true series of events in Israel and Palestine in 2014 that led to a war in Gaza.
The series is based on 2 horrible real events. The first was the kidnapping of 3 Jewish boys whose plight ignited Israel, first in hopes and prayers for their survival, then when those hopes were dashed, and the bodies of the boys were found, and then came the thirst for the nectar of the Middle East—revenge . after that revenge followed as inevitably as pee rolls down porcelain.
That of course called for more revenge. That’s how things work in the Middle East. Soon a 16-year old Palestinian boy was beat up and then gasoline was poured down his throat and he was burned alive. It was a horrifying murder that mercifully was not depicted in the series. Could good Jews have retaliated so gruesomely? The Israelis did not want to believe it. As one Jew tells the Simon the Jewish detective, “That’s part of the problem; that you think a Jew is incapable of cruelty to an enemy.”
The series included an actual recording of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making a speech at the funeral for the 3 boys. He boldly declared at the funeral, “A deep moral abyss separates us from our enemies. They sanctify death, while we sanctify compassion.” Is that true? Or a comfortable illusion? As Emily Nussbaum in her New Yorker review of the series aptly put it: “At its heart, this is a show about the brutal economics of empathy in a time of war: who gets it, who deserves it, who is denied it.”
A Rabbi was convinced that to fight the Palestinians they must retaliate in kin. After all they will do anything: blow up children, babies, and buses filled with innocent people, .The Rabbi said, if one side is crazy the other side must be irrational too. “It’s like mathematics. If one side is irrational and the other side not, strength does not matter. If the Jew operates irrationally and the Arab doe not, the Jew has power. If it’s the other way around the Jew loses. That is why 1 burned Arab boy is mathematically very good for the Jews.” The Middle East is transfused with exactly such mathematical fanaticism.
An Israelis detective, Simon, was charged with responsibility to solve these crimes as soon as possible. The detective was relentless and brilliant, but his tenacity was not always appreciated by his fellow Israelis. Some of them did not want him to carry his torch to the back of the cave, particularly where religious and political zealots reside. The light is not always flattering.
The film focused on various groups from both sides in Palestinian and Israeli territory where citizens turn to fury soaked in religion that led to ugly and violent protest. In both cities, religious and political hatreds were fuelled by dehumanizing rhetoric that has horrible effects on young minds sadly open to toxic influence. As Simon said, “You start arresting people for spewing hate and pretty soon half the country is in jail.”
The killers prayed to their god to send them a victim and praised God when he did. The young boy was a “gift from God.” After all if the young boy is not killed he will turn into a terrorist. Better to kill him first. In the mathematical logic of tit for tat it does not matter that the victim is innocent.
Unlike most American films which employ the simplicity of good versus evil, this series embraces complexity and eschews simple answers. Everyone should see this series available now on HBO. It is worth the effort.
Ken Burns has produced some magnificent television documentaries for Public Broadcasting in the US. Burns likes the traditional Latin motto of the United States E pluribus unum, which means “Out of many, one.” I like it too. It appears on the Great Seal of the United Sates. Arthur Schlesinger complained that the United States suffered from too much pluralism and not enough one. It was adopted in 1782 but since then another motto has been more popular: “In God we Trust.” I don’t like that one quite as much. In 1956 Congress adopted it as the official motto of the country. What ever happened to separation of church and state?
Ken Burns said that too often we think we connected and we are actually disconnected from each other. There are no more town greens. PBS is part of the commons. It is part of the public square. Burns says it is one place where we can have rational discourse in difficult times when the tapestry of the commons is frayed. Times like these. I think that is a pretty good motto.
A few years ago a good friend of mine shocked me. I asked him what books he had read recently. He said, “none.” I was astonished. How could that be? He was about the most well read guy I knew, yet he said he did not read much anymore. Instead he was watching television. I was thunderstruck. What a pitiful waste of time I thought.
He explained that this was the golden age of television and he was spending a lot of time watching television. I thought this was absurd. After all I was brought up on the value of books and the idea that most television was crap–dreck. There was very little good about anything on television, I thought.
At the time, when I did watch TV I mainly watched the network shows or sports. ‘What shows should I watch,’ asked. He pointed me in the direction of some television shows I had hardly heard of before. Shows like, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. They were on weird channels I rarely watched. I resolved to give them a try.
I started with The Wire. This is a television show about black youth in Baltimore and their foes, the police and district attorneys. The series spanned 5 seasons. I found it very difficult to watch. I had trouble understanding what the youth were saying. Their slang was nearly impenetrable. After less than half a season I gave up on the show. I thought my friend who recommended it was nuts. Some time later, maybe a year later, I came back to that show and tried harder “to get it.” What was this show about? At first I could not grasp it.
After awhile I thought I started getting an understanding of what was going on. At least I thought I did. Then I realized that this was an extremely interesting series with some amazing writing and gritty acting. This was a police show unlike any other. Ultimately, I concluded this was the best television I had ever seen.
I also liked Mad Men, though not as much. The creators I thought were geniuses. I fell in love with Breaking Bad. The development of characters in the series and quirky stories and unlikely cinematography was outstanding. I was hooked. I started to love television. I found it hard to believe that this had happened.
I did not give up on books. Thank goodness. I don’t really think my friend had given up either. Yet I realized some of the best writing, and most creative minds were at work in television. Since then I have come to appreciate many other fantastic television shows. Most of these were not shown on the standard networks with their formulaic approaches, but I could find them. I could find them and be amazed. This is the golden age of television.
There has been an interesting phenomenon that has occurred in the last 10 years or so—the golden age of television. This happened while we never expected it. We were looking elsewhere and a miracle occurred. John Lennon was right about that. Often television is now better than the movies. Wonders don’t quit coming.
There have been a series of outstanding television shows, particularly series. Series give film makers the time to do it right. Haste makes waste. That is part of the problem with the cinema. Television sets that right.
Some of the dramatic series that I believe were outstanding include the following: Breaking Bad, Mad Men, True Detective(Season 1 only), The Killing, and above all The Wire. There were no doubt others that I missed. I only saw some of them. Now there is one I can add to that short list—Seven Seconds. Like The Killing, 7 Seconds was produced by Veena Cabreros-Sud.She was born in Canada, if that matters.
The series follows what happens after an accident. It was not a murder of a young black man by a cop. It was an accident. A young police officer got a call that his wife was going to the hospital to give birth to a son. Earlier his wife had delivered a still born child. The police officer was getting the message as he drove his car. He was rushing to the hospital. He was distracted and he drove into something. He did not even see what he hit. It turned out to be a young black boy on a bike. The bike was the type used by a black gang. The boy had a criminal record for taking drugs. The boy might have been a gang member. The truth as always was murky. Isn’t it always murky?
4 white police officers in a prestige drug crime squad quickly decide to do nothing. They assist the young police officer in avoiding responsibility. They also do nothing to help the poor boy lying in the ditch. They leave the scene of the accident. They don’t want to be caught. The young boy is lying on the ground in winter in a park. The real story is what happens following that.
It is often said that the police don’t tolerate a charge against one of them. Any prosecutor who launches such a charge will find that the police won’t in the future cooperate with any investigations led by that prosecutor.
One dogged police officer starts investigating the case with a surly lack of enthusiasm. As another cynical police officer told her, “Remember the dead don’t need any answers.” True, but the family of the dead want answers. The public wants answers. And they are entitled to them. Against his own better judgement the cynical police officer comes to pursue the case with vigor, particularly after a young junkie witness is killed by the police.
Yet, the lawyer who represents the police officer says to the press, “What we are witnessing is nothing less than a witch hunt against the Jersey City Police Department. One we are accustomed to seeing in Baltimore, Chicago, and New York. The list goes on. Every police officer in America is at risk of the becoming the next scapegoat for the racial ills of our society, and political correctness run amok. It’s a sham. It’s a sham. Thank you. ” The police association hired her as hired gun to say exactly that. This is their party line.
The question of course is whether or not she is right. Many believe exactly that. Police are important. We need them. They play a vital role in keeping life safe. At the same time while some of them are scapegoats, some of them are perpetrators. Yes, the truth is murky.
When the police association lawyer meets the 4 police officers, for whom she clearly has nothing but contempt, notwithstanding her grand statements, she tells them they must stick together. She tells them, “Alone you’re just an idiot with his hands caught down his pants. Together, you’re cops. Together they have to put the entire police department on trial. And no one ever convicts the entire police force.” Good legal advice; bad moral advice. Lawyers only get paid for legal advice. Then she adds, “Welcome to the criminal justice system gentlemen. No one gives a fuck about the truth.”
Since Aristotle we have known that every tragedy has a hero with a flaw. Here everyonehas a flaw. Each character has a flaw. Each character also has some good. No one is entirely good or entirely bad. Each character is complex. Each character resists stereotypes. This is what makes the series interesting. Each character is worth looking at. Each earns some empathy from us.
The most interesting character in the series is the young black female prosecutor. She is a drunk. She lacks confidence. She is not a shining star. She gets into an ugly bar room encounter with some police officers and shows a very ugly side of her own character. She presumes she is better than them, entirely without justification. Someone calls her “a fucking idiot with a badge.” Yet she is the tragic hero. She is all that the family of the young deceased boy have to bring justice for their dead boy.
The prosecutor appears to be a pretty weak instrument for justice. Yet somehow she at least brings the victim to life so the jury she him. She also asks us to see the officer for what he was in his 7 seconds after he realized he had killed a young boy. Maybe the officer knew he was black. Maybe not. Truth is murky. She also brought the victim to life. At least the mother and father saw that she made a real person of an impersonal victim—carelessly labelled a black boy with a criminal record, obviously having received what he deserved. She brought him to life for one shining moment.
I don’t want to give the ending away. I want you to watch the series to get that. Let me just say that it is far from clear that justice is served. We also learn that revenge is never sweet. We do learn that justice is blind. Is that a good thing? Justice is complicated. Justice is murky. So is injustice.
Before they went to Vietnam, none of the American soldiers had been taught very much about the people they were fighting or the people they thought they were serving. American troops called the Vietnamese gooks–words first used by US Marines about the people of Haiti and Nicaragua during the American occupation of those countries. It hardly shows respect. They also applied the word to the North Koreans during that conflict. They had called the Japanese “slopes.” The Australians called the Chinese “dinks.” Those words were used in basic training. They said the Americans would be fightin gooks. “Vietnamese might be people, but gooks are close to being animals.” Soldiers referred to older Vietnamese women as “Mamasans” a term used to describe women who ran whore-houses in occupied Japan. It was dehumanization again.
The North Vietnamese called G.I.s “invaders.” That is exactly what they were. They also called them “imperialists” which I believe they were, and Giăc Mŷ which meant “American bandits.”
By the summer of 1967 Americans were fighting in every part of Vietnam. Fighting was very intense in 1 Corp in the north. The Marines bore the brunt of the fighting there. 98% of the 2&1/2 million people who lived there lived within the narrow rice-growing river valleys along the South China Sea.
John Musgrave of the Marines was serving there. His company was heavily shelled by artillery hidden away in the Demilitarized Zone (‘DMZ’). They called that “the Dead Marine Zone.” His outfit was so heavily hit that it was referred to as “the walking dead.” Musgrave said that when he went to war “he wanted to be a part of the varsity”. He wanted to fight the North Vietnamese Army (‘NVA”). He said if he lived to be 62 some day he did not want to look in the mirror and see someone who had not given his all for what he believed in. He did not want someone else to do “the harder part.” He had pride. Some days when he was being heavily shelled he thought he was nuts, but he did it anyway. He thought it was his duty.
Musgrave said that every contact with the NVA was an ambush. They would contact the Americans unless they outnumbered them and “we were fighting in their yard.” Of course, I would ask him, why did you stay in your yard? They knew the ground; we didn’t. But that wasn’t all. “They were just really good.” Obviously he respected them. Why wouldn’t he?
All soldiers had weaknesses. According to Le Van Cho of the North Vietnamese his side had a big one. They smoked American cigarettes and left a trail that they could easily follow. The NVA also seemed to carry seemingly indestructible AK–47 weapons. The Americans used newly minted M-16s that for a time had a fatal flaw–they needed constant cleaning. They also often jammed in the middle of firing. Or as John Musgrave said, “Their rifles worked; ours didn’t. The M-16 was a piece of shit. You can’t throw your bullets at the enemy and have them be effective. And that rifle malfunctioned on us repeatedly.” I always thought American had superior weapons. I never realized that. I wondered, were the guns supplied by crony capitalists?
The Americans also had another “defect,” though in this case I am not sure that is the right word. As NVA member Ho Huu Lan pointed out, “When one of their soldiers was wounded or killed, and another ran up to retrieve the body, we were able to shoot them too.”
Though Musgrave obviously respected the soldiers, he said, “My hatred for them was pure. I hated them so much. And I was so scared of them. Boy I was terrified of them. And the scareder I got, the more I hated them.” Fear and hatred are indeed twins. In fact they are Siamese Twins.
Ho Huu Lan said, sympathy and hatred were interwoven, but on the battlefield hatred was dominant. The Americans were determined to kill us. We had to kill them too.
That’s what war is like. You have to fight the other even when you respect them.
A decisive battle in the Vietnam War occurred on January 2, 1963. This was the Battle of Ấp Bắc and it had important consequences for the Southern forces (‘ARVN’) and their American backers. After that the ARVN 4th Mechanized Rifle Squadron was deployed to rescue the South Vietnamese soldiers that were trapped with US aircrews (more advisors of course). The commander of the Southern forces was reluctant to try the heavier equipment the Americans had supplied and it made little difference. Instead the northern National Liberation Front (‘NLF’) a coalition of northern forces led by the Communists, stood its ground and killed more than a dozen South Vietnamese M113 crew members. Even when the ARVN 8th airborne Battalion was dropped down they also got pinned down. Finally under cover of darkness the Việt Cộng withdrew from battle, having won their first major victory of the war. More importantly, they had learned that the South Vietnamese forces were far from invincible, even with substantial American support. They learned that the South Vietnamese were reluctant to attack.
Oddly, the Americans treated this battle as a victory. However John Paul Vann who had been there to observe the battle, told reporters Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam the truth. He told them that the ARVN forces would not listen or obey orders to attack. According to Vann, it was a debacle not a victory at all. The reporters and Americans were being lied to. As Vann said, “It was a miserable performance. The ARVN won’t listen, they make the same mistakes over and over again.”
Amazingly, American General Paul Harkin declared victory. He said that Việt Cộng objectives had been thwarted and suffered heavier losses than the ARVN. Halberstam and Sheehan, much to his dismay, reported that the battle was a defeat. The Pacific Commander denied it and instead urged reports to get ‘back on the team,” suggesting that reporters should be cheerleaders for the team rather than objective truth tellers. I guess he wanted fake news.
John Musgrave one of the American soldiers Burns and Novick relied on heavily to tell the story of the Vietnam War quickly lost his innocence in that war. Like most soldiers he joined when he was young. When he left the Marines he was no longer young—at least he was no longer naïve. As he said, “We were probably the last generation of American kids that thought our government would never lie to us.”
The soldiers had learned, even if the American public had not, that war news is often fake news. Many Americans made the decision to support the war in Vietnam and enlisted or encouraged their children to enlist, on the basis of fake news. That is not something to be proud of. Actually that is pretty disgusting when you think about it.
Is there any moral difference between deliberately bombing civilian residential neighborhoods and aiming for nearby military targets and missing, with the result that civilian neighborhoods are bombed instead? In my opinion the difference is as slim as cigarette paper. Zig Zag at that. If warriors are reckless about civilian casualties, if they just don’t care, they are every bit as guilty as those who deliberately bomb them.
I will give a prosaic example. Let us say that a seller of a house who lies about the condition of a house to the buyer, says that the house does not contain dangerous mould when he or she knows there is mould. That is considered fraud and the seller is liable for fraud. If the seller innocently says the house does not contain mould, because he honestly believes that, and it does contain mould, the seller is usually not liable. The seller is not liable for the misstatement if the seller believed the statement was true, but the buyer is entitled to rescind the deal if the buyer chooses to do that. But if the seller does not know if the house contains dangerous mould, but still says anyway to the buyer that there is none, then the seller is reckless about he truth of the statement and is treated exactly as if he or she knew the truth and lied. In such a case the seller is considered fraudulent because the seller did not did not care about whether the statement was true or not. The reckless seller is considered as fraudulent as if the seller deliberately lied. I think it is the same with bombing. If soldiers just don’t care if civilians are hurt by bombs or not, they should be treated just as if they deliberately targeted civilians. The actions are morally equivalent.
This has happened more than once in the Syrian war by both sides. The Americans did it and so did the Syrians. I do not accept the argument, used by President Assad in Syria and implicitly endorsed by some members of the United States forces that they could do ‘whatever it takes’ to win. Their position is that at all costs, they must win.” That is the attitude that leads to the reckless endangerment of civilian lives. That is the attitude, whether demonstrated by Americans or Syrians that is morally repugnant. There must be limits to a just war. “At all costs” is not good enough. Just because one is engaged in war does not entitle one to do anything at all to win.
I think many countries have forgotten this. I think the Americans and North Vietnamese both forgot this in the Vietnam War. That stained both sides to the conflict. As is so often the case, it is rare when one side is all right and the other all wrong. Of course, both sides always forget this, thinking truth and beauty is on their side and moral turpitude on the other.
In January 1964 South Vietnamese General Nguyen Khanh, with U.S. encouragement and support completed another coup. Johnson told McNamara to show that he had U.S. support. Johnson told his advisors, “no more of this coup shit,” but Khanh lacked support too. Other generals continued to jockey for power thinking he had no legitimacy.
Things were far from stable, no matter what Johnson said. Johnson turned a blind eye to calls from the Buddhists for a genuinely representative government they thought they would get when Diem was overthrown. There were 8 different governments between January 1964 and June 1965. “All of the leaders were so close to the Americans they were seen as puppets.” One of Johnson’s aids suggested that the national symbol of South Vietnam should be a turnstile.
What continually amazes is the extent to which politicians in America tied themselves to the most dubious of political leaders in far off lands. Often those leaders were incompetent, corrupt or both. Yet the careers and legacies of American political leaders were irrevocably connected to those leaders and once committed those Americans felt they could never sever that connection.
Why were they not able to say, “You know we were wrong. We thought we had people to work with in Vietnam. That proved not to be the case so I am calling our soldiers home. We would like to work with the people of Vietnam to keep out the communists if that is what they really want, but we can’t carry the load alone especially when the local leaders are not worth supporting with American lives? We would love to help but just can’t do it.”
After such statements where American leaders came clean to the American public, would Americans not accept the decision of their own leaders and say to thanks for not wasting any more lives of our young soldiers? Instead political leaders like Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon all committed themselves to supporting Vietnamese leaders no matter how clearly it was evident that nothing good would come of it.
This is particularly important today for American political leaders seem to have learned nothing from past disastrous experiences. They continue to support autocratic and corrupt leaders in places like Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Somalia, Burma, the Philippines, Chile, Panama, El Salvador, Guatemala, and so on and so on. The list is damn near endless. Such a policy seems absolutely suicidal and has proved disastrous over and over again, yet American political leaders keep doing.
I am reminded of what one American leader said about Antonio Somoza a vicious and corrupt former leader of Nicaragua who said, “he is a son-of-a – bitch, but he is our son-of-a – bitch.” Why do American political leaders think they always have to support a son-of-a – bitch no matter what? Why not just abandon them at the outset or at the very least give up on them when it becomes clear what they are? They don’t really need son-of-a – bitches on their side. There is usually (always?) a better way, no matter what the masters of real politick believe.
Of course with the backbiting in Saigon, the countryside lost confidence in their leaders and the war sputtered, while lives were lost. More and more lives were lost. That is what always happened. Politicians squabbled. America supported them . And young lives were lost. For what purpose? I have no idea. None.