Monday, 22 January 2018

Not a Review of "The Post"

Pic courtesy
The following is not, gentle reader, a review of the movie, but of the history. As Mark Twain is alleged to have said - “History doesn't repeat itself but it often rhymes”.

The history we’re living now, with a vulgarian in the White House, has a discordant metre, but it does rhyme. It rhymes with the period 1914 – 1950.

Unfortunately, what we’re seeing in 2018 resonates strongly with the experience of that chunk of the last century.  

The twentieth century saw, sequentially; industrial scale militarism, a global recession, fascism feeding the rise of nationalism (or more correctly, nativism), and two major conflicts which pretty much destroyed Europe and by the end of it, much of Asia.

It saw genocide, mass destruction, the demise of ancient power blocs, and the birth of new ones. I refer (inter alia) to the fall of the Third Reich, the Ottoman and British Empires, the birth of the UN, and the establishment of the state of Israel.

Each of these episodes fed inexorably into the next. A kind of desperate momentum took over, which began with the assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo, and finished with the Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

That’s a bit black – I hear you say. But observe the rise of nationalism in Europe and the USA, the re-emergence of racist ideology pretty much everywhere. Add a recent experience of market failure (the GFC) to the mix, and the pattern is clear. The appearance of Berlusconi, Farage, Trump and Wilders, could be seen as reincarnations of Mussolini, Mosley, William Dudley Pelley and Mussert. There's a symmetry.

My parents lived the first few stanzas of the poem, and I have lived the last.

I write in retrospective anger, gentle reader.

What infuriates me is the fact that the movie describes a situation in which a democratically elected government hid the truth from its people, inflicting enormous suffering on its own country, and on a country in a different continent, whilst at the same time being completely aware that the whole enterprise was doomed to failure.

And that the reason for this was substantially to uphold the reputation of the USA.
From the Pentagon Papers (rationalising the continuation of the US involvement) –
"70% – To avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat; 20% – To keep [South Vietnam] (and the adjacent) territory from Chinese hands; 10% – To permit the people [of South Vietnam] to enjoy a better, freer way of life1.

The movie opens with scenes of an ambush during the height of the war in Vietnam. As a cinematic technique, I assume it was used to focus the attention of the audience on the human cost of the conflict.

I’m not sure it was entirely successful with all of the audience, but it worked for me.

It reminded me of what I had seen and experienced in 1970.

It reminded me of Graham Kavanagh, aged 22, who died of heat exhaustion on 21st April, 1970, after we walked 15 clics down a rocky creek bed overnight in stifling heat carrying 40kgs of kit. Insertion into an AO by this method was unheard of, but it worked, because we struck an occupied bunker system on the next day. Unfortunately this secure insertion killed Kavanagh, a Nasho – a Cabinetmaker from Edwardstown. He died just before the medevac chopper arrived.

It reminded me of Bobby Hughes, aged 19 from Goulburn, who was killed by RPG fire when 4 platoon tried unsuccessfully to assault this same bunker system on 22nd April.

It reminded me of the 60,000 Australians—ground troops, air-force and naval personnel—who served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1972. Of these, 521 died as a result of the war and over 3,000 were wounded.

It reminded me of Paul Ham’s account in Vietnam, the Australian War

The personal cost of the war, in terms of personal grief and moral degradation, is immeasurable. In our helplessness, we surrender to statistics. 520 Australian soldiers dead and 3000 wounded. 58193 Americans dead and about 300000 wounded. 220356 South Vietnamese troops dead or missing in action, and 1.17 million wounded. 660000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops dead, with the possibility that a third were civilians mistaken for enemy troops or deemed legitimate targets2.”

So, on that level, for this cinema patron, the Vietnam sequence did the trick.

Forgetting the history, the rest of the movie worked for me. The performances were complete, the cinematography slick, and the narrative pace, especially towards the end, compelling. Perhaps it was a little slow in gathering momentum.

I carry with me the memory of many good men, who were used so shamefully by the government of the day to help the USA bolster its reputation. 

I also carry the apprehension that the stanza of history I’d just seen represented on the screen has every opportunity of rhyming with something tragically current.
I hope I’m wrong…..

  1. A memo from the Defense Department under the Johnson Administration listing the reasons for American persistence, even though both the administration and the military knew that the war was unwinnable.
  2. Paul Ham, Vietnam, the Australian War, Harper Collins, 2007, p 663

Hugh White - Without America

Hugh White is always provocative, and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to criticising current defence policy. In 1995, he was appo...