Monday, May 29, 2017

Quote of the Day (Herodotus, on Wars, Fathers and Sons)

“He asked, 'Croesus, who told you to attack my land and meet me as an enemy instead of a friend?'

"The King replied, 'It was caused by your good fate and my bad fate. It was the fault of the Greek gods, who with their arrogance, encouraged me to march onto your lands. Nobody is mad enough to choose war whilst there is peace. During times of peace, the sons bury their fathers, but in war it is the fathers who send their sons to the grave.’”— Herodotus (484 B.C.-425 B.C.), The Histories, translated by A. D. Godley (1931)

I could have used a visual representation of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus with this quote, but I can think of few images more illustrative of the thousands of individual tragedies remembered on this day—than this photo of  Theodore Roosevelt and his youngest son Quentin.

Several years out of the White House, TR had pressed hard for “preparedness” in the event that America intervened in World War I on the side of Britain and France. With his hated victor in the 1912 Presidential election, Woodrow Wilson, firmly barring the door to his own leadership of a unit to fight overseas, Roosevelt looked to his sons to vindicate the family honor.

All of them distinguished themselves in the conflict, but the youngest, Quentin, only 18, was the one 
that TR privately believed might be “soft.” Perhaps to overcome that perception, Quentin, who could easily have gotten out of serving because of inadequate vision, memorized the eyechart in preparation for his physical exam. He then entered an entirely new arm of the military—the Army Air Corps—and became a daredevil pilot.

On Bastille Day 1918, Lt. Quentin Roosevelt, in a dogfight in which he saved the lives of the other men in his unit, was shot down in France by a German squadron led by Hermann Goering (later, the head of Germany's Luftwaffe in WWII). In the months after his son’s death, TR took long woods in the woods near his home, only to emerge puffy-eyed from weeping. Most observers agreed that some spark went out of the old political and military warrior after Quentin’s death. His own passing came no more than six months later.

I related more details about the tale of this terrible price exacted by war on this particular prominent American family in this prior post.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Photo of the Day: DC’s Great War Memorial

Three years ago, I came upon this local memorial to World War I by accident while walking around DC. I was in the midst that day of visiting similar tributes to our nation’s war dead in the capital—for the Vietnam, Korean and World War II conflicts.

Even though I had never heard about a similar national memorial for the Great War, I still half-expected to come across it. I never saw one—and it’s unlikely that you have, either. Although there is one in Kansas City, there is none in Washington.

Over a century ago, wars were commemorated at the local level, “rooted in place, practiced on the town square and generally modest in scale,” according to this January 2016 article by Washington Post art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott. All over the country, such a relatively modest sculpture might include a list of local boys fallen in the conflict.

Just like the wrenching conflict it recalled, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial upended all those assumptions. With that first national war memorial in place, pressure grew inexorably to commemorate “The Forgotten War,” in Korea. And, as the “Greatest Generation” began passing away in earnest, the movement to pay tribute to the heroes of World War II took on enough urgency that it was almost inevitable that a memorial for that conflict would be constructed, too.

No such demographic urgency exists for a World War I memorial; its last known veteran passed away in 2011. Nevertheless, a different kind of logic is now proving operative in this case: an educational one. With the completion of a tribute to the heroes of the Great War, the nation’s capital will have a national memorial for each 20th-century war in which a military draft required the services of a large part of America’s young.

As a result of Congressional legislation passed a few years ago, the prospective site of the memorial is Pershing Park on Pennsylvania Avenue. Though without the visibility of the National Mall, it also promises to bring the square (named, of course, for the general of all American armies in the war) a level of attention it had never achieved when it was designed in 1981 by architect M. Paul Friedberg.
In the meantime, curious Washington tourists will want to check out the DC War Memorial on the bandstand at West Potomac Park. Designed by noted architect Frederick H. Brooke with his associates Nathan C. Wyeth and Horace W. Peaslee—all veterans of the Great War—it was dedicated on Armistice Day 1931. 

The Doric structure is 47 feet high with a diameter of 44 feet—large enough to accommodate the entire U.S. Marine Band. Following 2010 restoration funding, the memorial now gleams in something close to its original, brilliant white color, with new pathways and lighting systems to make it more visitor-friendly.

If you look along the memorial’s four-feet high circular marble platform, you’ll notice the names of the 499 DC residents who died in the war. They are inscribed in alphabetical order with no distinction made to rank, race, or gender. Although that has an obvious utilitarian function in terms of locating names, it also underscores the traditional American insistence on equality—an aspiration that even governs unto death.

Quote of the Day (Dag Hammarskjold, on the ‘Right to Command’)

"Your position never gives you the right to command. It only imposes on you the duty of so living your life that others may receive your orders without being humiliated." — Dag Hammarskjold (1905-1961), United Nations Secretary General, in Markings, translated by Leif Sjoeberg and W.H. Auden (1965)

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Quote of the Day (Zbigniew Brzezinski, on History, Chaos and Conspiracy)

“History is much more the product of chaos than of conspiracy.” —Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, quoted in Hedrick Smith, “Brzezinski Says Critics Are Irked by His Accuracy,” The New York Times, January 18, 1981

As winter turned into spring in 1976, various relatives and friends mentioned to me a parishioner at my local Roman Catholic church, St. Cecilia’s of Englewood, NJ. Nobody I knew had remarked on him during his 16 prior years as a professor at Columbia University. But proximity to potential power, as foreign policy adviser to the presumptive Democratic nominee for President, now made him an object of curiosity. “That’s Brzezinski,” they whispered, pointing at a figure near the back of the church while trying not to draw undue attention to themselves in the process.

That was my remote introduction to Zbigniew Brzezinski, who died yesterday at age 89. I would learn shortly that he had raised his family (including daughter Minka, now a morning-show fixture on MSNBC) in a Victorian house only several blocks from my home. But the psychic distance from that white-collar area to my blue-collar neighborhood might as well have put him on the other side of the moon.

By the time I entered Columbia myself two years later as a freshman, my interest in him had strengthened. The campus—particularly the school newspaper that I wrote for, filled with political science majors and/or liberals—was now avidly following his adventures in Washington, where he had gone, on extended sabbatical from the university, to serve as National Security Advisor under President Jimmy Carter. Soon, that service had taken on all the aspects of an intramural mudfight, as Brzezinski’s hawkish views clashed with the more dovish perspective of another university academic now in the State Department, the Sovietologist Marshal Shulman.

In Washington, Brzezinski became more familiar than he might have liked with the notions of “conspiracy” and “chaos” that he discussed in the above quote. Right-wingers (and a few left-wingers) charged in the late Seventies and Eighties that a group that he had helped establish, the Trilateral Commission (formed, in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, of prominent academics and politicians from North America, the European Union and Japan with a strong orientation toward global economics), was a secretive cabal out to rule the world.

At the same time, Carter Administration foreign policy was increasingly regarded by large parts of the American public as being rocked by chaos. Brzezinski battled internally not just against Shulman but also against Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. By the third year of Carter’s Presidency, that internal sense of coming apart was being mirrored almost nightly on the evening news, with OPEC generating a second American oil shortage in less than a decade and American hostages being seized in Iran.

When he spoke to the New York Times Hedrick Smith, then, Brzezinski was being as defensive as he was philosophical in leaving office. He said what had annoyed his critics was how often his vision of policy had been borne out. He derided “any grand schemes regarding a new international world order,” noting that policymakers were simply liable to be “overwhelmed by events and information.”

No policymaker, even the best, gets it right all of the time, and Brzezinski didn’t either. He correctly predicted that the strain of dealing with so many different nationalities would lead the U.S.S.R. to collapse. But in his eagerness to hasten that day, he backed the ill-fate attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages and supported financing the mujahideen in Afghanistan in response to the Soviet deployment of forces there, unknowingly encouraging the forces of radical Islam that have bedeviled the U.S. in the Mideast these last two decades.(It must also be said that, long before it became universally truth even in Democratic circles, this onetime "hardliner" warned that George W. Bush's Gulf War would turn out to be a "historic, strategic and moral calamity.")

Himself the annoyed target of political paranoids, Brzezinski in 1981 couldn’t imagine a President who promoted both chaos and conspiracy. But that is what life is like in the U.S. today. The thoughtless blusterer once derided memorably by Jeb Bush as the “chaos candidate” is now the Chaos Commander in Chief, an executive who sows doubt in the efficacy and value of the government he leads by screaming about nonexistent plots (e.g., about President Obama wiretapping him).

To his credit, unlike other Cold Warriors who sought to undermine Soviet Communism only to make their peace with Vladimir Putin, Brzezinski before his death criticized both the Russian dictator and the American President who has uttered nary a word of criticism of him. He castigated the Russian President's "thuggish tactics" and "thinly camouflaged invasion" of the Ukraine in 2014, while this year scathingly dismissed Trumplomacy: The president, who said, “has not given even one serious speech about the world and foreign affairs.”

Friday, May 26, 2017

Flashback, May 1977: ‘Star Wars’ in ‘Force’-ful Opening

In a galaxy not far, far away—actually, our own—Star Wars, a tribute to sci-fi serials of decades before, premiered to low expectations from 20th-Century Fox in late May 1977. The company’s bets that summer were on The Other Side of Midnight, an adaptation of Sidney Sheldon’s steamy megaseller. Studio execs, reluctant even to bankroll the film by George Lucas, didn’t object when he insisted on retaining sequel and merchandising rights.

You know the rest of the story: how word of mouth created unheard-of lines for Star Wars; how the film, with its quasi-mythical, quasi-spiritual overtones (“May The Force be with you”), ended up grossing $775.4 million worldwide and created an equally successful franchise (eventually forcing this entry to be renamed “Star Wars IV: A New Hope”); and how its success solidified the dawning industry recognition since Jaws two years before that summer was prime time to capture the market for kids out of school.

Of course the movie upended the industry. Lucas saw himself as an independent, part of a new generation of film-school grads who strived to brand their pictures with a distinctive vision. But the Star Wars phenomenon also led to the kind of sequel-driven, stodgy filmmaking that Lucas and fellow Young Turks Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Brian DePalma were rebelling against.

The process of filming this project close to his heart (the first name of the movie’s heart, Luke Skywalker, is a shortened version of Lucas) convinced Lucas that he should concentrate for the foreseeable future on producing while leaving directing and screenwriting to others. (A wise choice, particularly in the case of the writing: After scanning his dialogue as rogue pilot-turned-hero Han Solo, Harrison Ford growled: “You can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it.”) He would also have more time to build the infrastructure and budding empire he needed that would be based on licensing rights and special effects.

Some years ago, while visiting a relative in a physical rehabilitation center, I met a friend of his roommate, a onetime Hollywood veteran. He regaled me with tales of Tinseltown in the Sixties and Seventies (e.g., Ricky Nelson and Joey Heatherton on a motorcycle, the very epitome of young, glamorous, spoiled children of stars). But perhaps the story he recounted with the most gusto concerned the deep unhappiness of Fox’s board over the approval and production of Star Wars, from 1973 to 1977.

Alan Ladd Jr. was in charge then, and they kept giving him hell about greenlighting it. They never thought it would be a hit.” He paused, then chuckled. “So nobody really objected when Lucas wanted the licensing rights. If they thought it would ever make so much money, they would never have given him the rights.

(In one way, you couldn’t blame these men for their lack of imagination. Ever since the disastrous 1967 Rex Harrison musical Dr. Dolittle, no studio had managed to make money off movie-related toys and other tie-ins. Furthermore, with Star Wars premiering in May, nobody imagined that children’s fascination with the world Lucas created could even be sustained till the all-important Christmas season.)

When members of the Fox board got a look at early footage, they were positively convinced they had gotten a steal: Lucas had foregone an additional $500,000 in directing fees for what was sure to be a turkey in return for keeping licensing and merchandising rights for himself. With a vision of an entire six-film saga in his head, Lucas didn’t want anyone interfering with his work. The money didn’t mean that much to him, but independence from the studio “suits” did.

How lucrative was that licensing deal? In 1978, the first year after the premiere of the franchise, more than 40 million "Star Wars" figures were bought, producing gross sales of more than $100 million. In 2011, when there was no new movie in the series to fan interest, "Star Wars" toys brought in more than $3 billion.

Equally integral to Lucas’ film were special effects. When Ladd reviewed Lucas’ original script, he told the young filmmaker (who had at that point only one major hit, American Graffiti, to give him box-office cred) that he didn’t understand the necessity for everything requested, but that he trusted Lucas enough to go along with his project. 

But, as much as he liked the young man, Ladd could only provide so much assistance. Fox no longer even had a special effects department. Yet visual effects (“with lots of pans and this giant space battle at the end,” in Lucas’ words) would constitute one-fifth of the movie’s $10 million budget. If Lucas wanted them, he’d have to create them himself.

The product of that determination, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), was set up in a warehouse behind the Van Nuys airport in 1975. Its employees—unused at the time to working under breakneck film deadlines—were assigned to create Lucas’ creatures, spaceships, circuit boards, and cameras—a process that turned out to be protracted and ferociously hot. (For relief, the workers filled up a water tank with cold water and dipped into it during breaks.) 

In the end, all this painstaking labor paid off. Star Wars won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects (all six of its wins were in technical categories), and to date ILM has received 15 Academy Awards and 29 nominations. By 2015, ILM had made special effects for approximately 320 movies, according to this retrospective published that year in Wired

The critic Alfred Kazin wrote that Ernest Hemingway brought “a major art to a minor vision of life.” The same might be said of George Lucas. In the four decades since his magnum opus hit theaters with all the speed of its Millennial Falcon, the technical aspects of moviemaking have advanced to undreamed-of heights, helped in no small part by him. But the art of movie storytelling has not only not kept up but has even deteriorated, as Hollywood cannot conceive of attention spans much larger than a teenager’s--the same demographic at the heart of his movie. The Lucas legacy, then, is a mixed one.