Bang for the Buck

How much defense spending is enough?  Faced with big budget deficits, a reluctance to pay taxes, and a sluggish economy hard put to square the circle by generating wealth, inquiring American minds want to know.  In 2007 the American defense budget was about $470 billion.  In 2012 the defense budget was running about $550 billion a year. That’s a lot of bucks.  What did Americans get for the money?  They got an Army of 569,000 soldiers on active-duty; an Air Force with 1,990 fighter planes; and a Navy with 286 ships.[1]  That’s a lot of bang.

It’s a common-place that the American defense budget is equal to the combined defense spending of the next seventeen countries on the list.[2]  That bald statement argues for cutting spending without sacrificing security.  However, it needs interpretation.  On the one hand, it assumes that the “interests” of the United States and those of the other countries on the list are symmetrical.  They aren’t.  China’s primary interests are in the Far East; India’s in South Asia; Russia’s in the countries bordering it around the huge arc from Eastern Europe to Eastern Siberia; South Korea’s in Northeast Asia; France’s in Western Europe and the Mediterranean.  Decision-makers in Washington have to worry about the Far East, South Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and Latin America all at the same time.  In terms of possible operations, the American military has to face a range of threats from nuclear war to conventional war to guerrilla warfare to terrorism.

On the other hand, it assumes that fighting power is closely linked to budgets.  It isn’t.  Russia and China pay, house, feed, and care for their troops at a much lower level than does the United States.  Military equipment also is comparatively cheap in low-wage economies.  More importantly, how big is the Taliban’s defense budget?  Drones at a million and a half dollars a pop kill enemies, but the culture of a primitive area causes new ones to spring up like dragon’s teeth.

Perhaps it isn’t how much money a country spends that tells you something about its attitude toward military power or its sense of pressing danger.  Perhaps it is the share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) a country will devote to military power that is key.[3]  In 2012 the United States devoted 4.7% of GDP to defense, Russia 4.4%, the People’s Republic of China 2.1%, and the European Union countries 1.7%.  China’s neighbors don’t appear to feel deeply threatened–yet.  Japan spends 1.0%, Taiwan 2.3%, Vietnam, 2.5%, South Korea 2.7%.  On the other hand, not all of Russia’s neighbors seem to feel secure.  Georgia spends 5.1% of GDP on defense.

On one SIPRI list Iran devotes a nominal 1.8% to defense.  Other estimates put it at 2.7% and back in 2006 the commander of the US Central Command called the Iranian military the most powerful in the region.  Moreover, the Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons and willingness to use proxies in Iraq and Syria make them far more menacing to their neighbors than the statistics alone suggest.  As a result, Saudi Arabia spends 8.9% of GDP on defense, Oman 8.4%, and the United Arab Emirates 6.9%.  Perhaps those high figures reflect doubts about an American security umbrella.  They may also hint at an informal alliance with Israel to prevent Iran from finishing its drive for nuclear weapons.  War is coming to the Persian Gulf if the Iranians don’t blink.

[1] “Downsizing the Military,” The Week, 5 October 2012, p. 13.

[2][2] See the rankings by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) presented at

[3] Ibid.

Major Uncertainty

Peter Cappelli, a professor at the Wharton School, has offered a warning about the irrational exuberance surrounding current discussions of college majors.[1]  He urges people to look at higher education as an economic commodity.[2]  What is the best way for “education consumers” to spend tuition dollars?[3]  Currently (Fall 2013), public discourse[4] encourages parents and students to focus on “practical” majors that will mesh with the labor needs of American employers.  Colleges have responded by consulting the oracles about the likely paths to future prosperity—for themselves as much as for their customers.  (Generally this means the reports of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, rather than the more traditional sheep entrails.)   Any form of Business, Nursing and anything else related to health care, and majors centering on Leisure (voluntary as with Personal Training or involuntary as with Criminology) all are growth fields at colleges.[5]

Cappelli warns that “Today’s Jobs Aren’t Necessarily Tomorrow’s.”  For one thing, technology itself is an enormously disruptive force, both eliminating jobs in recently robust fields and creating jobs in unanticipated fields.  It isn’t possible to tell now what new technologies will exist in six years (the common time to a BA).  There just isn’t an app for that.

For another thing, predicting that some particular type of job is going to be in demand and paying high wages in the future merely guarantees a flood of candidates into preparation for that field today.  They will all emerge from the funnel at the same time.  In all likelihood there will be an excess of candidates, wages will fall, and many of them will not get jobs in the field for which they prepared and will have to adapt in search of some other job.

The tarantula on the angel food cake[6] here is that the currently favored degree-programs may leave students intellectually more disabled or inadaptable for the work that will emerge than will the now-disfavored liberal arts degrees.  Highly specialized knowledge is difficult to transfer to other fields.  (You try finding work doing something else if you’re a 59 year-old, whitemale with a Ph.D. in History.)   Highly-specialized fields that have to answer to accrediting agencies tend to run up the number of courses that they require.  This crowds out liberal arts courses that would enhance basic skills in analysis and communication.  As with any revolution, Thermidor is coming.  Oh, wait!  That’s a historical reference to patterns in human behavior.  Never mind.

[1] Peter Cappelli, “Why Focusing Too Narrowly in College Could Backfire, WSJ, 11 November 2013.


[2] But who are the “consumers”?  Are they the parents footing the bill or are they the children who actually choose a major, take the courses, and “possess” the BA or BS upon graduation?  There may be an analogy here to the tax-free status of health-care plans provided by many employers.


[3] The very idea of viewing it this way drives liberal arts faculty wild.  They see what they are offering in an entirely different light.


[4] You know, the same sort of discourse before Pearl Harboring Iraq in 2003 and selling mortgaged-backed securities before 2007.  “Old echo chambers never die, they just move on to new subjects.”  On the other hand, Russ Feingold is still a senator and John Paulson is still a billionaire.  From this I derive the lesson that thinking for yourself is not always punished, even in America.


[5] I haven’t run across programs for Cocktail Waitresses or Personal Escorts—yet.


[6] Raymond Chandler, Farewell My Lovely (1940).  I forget the page number.

Why the Crimean War mattered

In the middle of the Nineteenth Century there were five “Great Powers” which charted he course of European diplomacy: the Austrian Empire, the German kingdom of Prussia, France, Britain, and Russia.  Of these, Austria held pride of place.  The Austrian Empire dominated both Germany and Italy, and had an alliance with Russia to maintain the international system created at Vienna after the fall of Napoleon.

To the southeast lay the Ottoman Empire.  In those days it included much of the Balkan Peninsula, the future Arab countries of the Middle East, and modern-day Turkey.  Plagued by centuries of sloth and despotism, the Ottoman Empire had been disintegrating for many years.  Europeans expected it to break up, eventually.  When would that time come and who would gather up the bits and pieces?  This last question put Britain, one of whose “lifelines of Empire” ran through the Eastern Mediterranean, at odds with Russia, which shared a long border with the Ottoman Empire.  When Russia and the Ottomans went to war in 1853, Britain and France (which had its own interests in the Middle East) joined the Ottomans in 1854.

The British Army that went to war against Russia suffered from several disabilities.  First of all, it lived in the shadow of its previous successes.  The most recent and most important of these had come under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington.  Wellington had commanded the British troops fighting against Napoleon’s armies in Spain (1808-1814) and then had defeated Napoleon himself at Waterloo (1815).  Whatever the “Iron Duke” had done was good enough for his successors—even if conditions had change.  The senior ranks of the army were filled with men who had served under the duke in their younger days.  These were now long past, so a virtual living history museum now led the army.  Second, Britain’s subsequent wars had been comparatively small-scale fights in distant India.  Officers drawn from the ranks of the British aristocracy often chose not to accompany British troops to India.  Instead, they allowed professional soldiers from lower social groups to command on foreign duty.  A “European” war against Russia appeared as very different and more acceptable service than did Indian service.  Those with little experience of real war would take command.

The war took place around the edges of the Black Sea, first in the future Rumania, later on the Crimean Peninsula.  The Russians had invaded the Balkan portions of the Ottoman Empire, but had then retreated.  The British and the French decided to invade Russia itself by capturing the port of Sebastopol.  From September 1854 to September 1855 the British and French besieged Sebastopol while other Russian forces tried to raise the siege.  Bloody battles followed at Balaclava, Inkerman, Eupatoria and Tchernaya.  All were defeats for the Russians.  Sebastopol finally surrendered.

The subsequent peace treaty did nothing to solve the problem of Ottoman decadence.  The behavior of the Austrians, who had remained neutral while their Russian ally was beaten, led to Vienna’s isolation when first Italy, then Germany, were united at its expense.  The rise of a powerful Germany, the long-term hostility between Russia and Austria in the Balkans, and the continuing collapse of the Ottoman Empire provided the fuel for the First World War.

War Movies 7: “Battleground.”

The Second World War made a deep impression on Robert Pirosh (1910-1989).  He came from a well-off Baltimore family.  Desiring to be a writer, after graduating from high school, he spent time in Europe.  After this he got into the movie business.  Pirosh proved himself adaptable, which Hollywood likes.  On the one hand, he co-wrote two Marx Brothers’ hits (“A Night at the Opera” (1935) and “A Day at the Races” (1937)) then adapted an Ayn Rand play (“The Night of January 16” (1941), then went back to comedy with “Rings on Her Fingers” (1942).  Then the war came along to derail his nice little life.  Pirosh got drafted into the 35th Division.  The 35th Division landed in Normandy a month after D-Day, but then saw a lot of fighting in the break-out from Normandy and pursuit of the Germans.  Pirosh rose to be a sergeant.  The 35th Division helped relieve Bastogne, with Pirosh leading one of the first patrols to enter the town.  After the war, Pirosh went back to writing, directing, and producing movies.  We owe him some of the best of the movies about the Second World War: “Battleground” (1949); “Go for Broke!” (1951); and “Hell Is for Heroes” (1962).  Each movie focuses on a squad of soldiers and treats them as real human beings, rather than as ideal types.

“Battleground” recounts the week-long siege of Bastogne by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge.  The 101st Airborne Division was rushed from peaceful, if not cushy, quarters in France, to defend the vital crossroads town.  Ill-equipped for winter weather, short of ammunition, and with dense cloud cover keeping Allied air forces on the ground, the men hold off the Germans because…well, because “we’re the 101st  Airborne and this is as far as the bastards are going.”  The squad at the center of the movie fights the Germans in a dogged, un-dramatic way.  They complain about each other’s about various little quirks, complain about the food, and complain about the Army Air Force (“London this morning, Berlin this afternoon, headlines tomorrow”).  None of them wants to be there.  One guy was supposed to go home on a dependency discharge (wife at home was sick and he had to go help with the kids).  One guy got out of hospital and was headed to Paris on leave when he got pushed into a truck and driven to Bastogne.  One guy is a newly-arrived replacement, worried that no one will learn his name before he gets killed.  One cracks during an artillery bombardment and runs away; another is wounded; another is killed.  There is some shooting, but not a whole lot.  Eventually, the cloud cover clears and the Army Air Force rains down destruction on the encircling Germans, then the tanks of George Patton’s Third Army show up.  The ragged survivors are ordered to fall in on the road forward toward the front.  Resentful and grumbling at the new demands on them, they reluctantly do as ordered.  Their sergeant then gives the order to “About Face” and they march away from the war as well-equipped and fresh soldiers march up to take their share of the burden.  As they approach the FNGs the men unconsciously adopt a more military bearing that reflects their pride in who they are.

The movie is historically accurate.  Pirosh wanted it that way.  He wrote from what he had seen.  He had twenty veterans of the 101st hired to train the actors and serve as extras.  They shot the movie in cold, wet conditions in CA, OR, and WA.  It was a big hit with audiences.

War Movies 6: “The Lost Command.”

Jean Pierre Lucien Osty (1920-2011) came from a French-peasant-moved-to-Paris background.  War became a central experience of his life: he served in the French Army at the start of the Second World War; then escaped from Vichy France to North Africa by way of Spain; and fought in Italy and France.  Earning an officer’s commission, he then served in the Far East, including a stint in Korea.  Then he became a war correspondent.  His experiences provided the basis for a string of book, published under the pen-name of Jean Larteguy.  One of these books was the novel The Centurions (1963), about the war in Algeria.

The Centurions became a huge best-seller in France, then was translated into English and had a wide readership in the United States as well, many of those readers were Army Special Forces officers.  Larteguy sold the movie rights to the book to Americans.

The book is sprawling as it tries to cover a half-decade of complex action.  Nelson Giddings, who wrote the screenplay, and his frequent collaborator Mark Robson,[1] who directed the movie as “Lost Command” (1966), had to greatly simplify the story for a two-hour movie.  It is a classic statement of the American liberal anti-Communist point of view.  They shot the movie in Spain because they could find there the same dry, scrubby Mediterranean countryside and the European looking cities that prevailed in Algeria.  (Thank you Fernand Braudel for the insight.)  Also, labor costs were low under a right-wing dictatorship, and that met a pressing concern for progressive people making a movie about the evils of oppressive government.

Basically, it is a very conventional war movie, dressed up with some awareness of current issues.  It has standard stock characters: Colonel Pierre Raspeguy, a plain-spoken Basque peasant who has risen to become an officer in an army led by aristocrats;[2] Captain Philippe Esclavier, a well-intentioned aristocratic officer who recognizes that things have to change; Lieutenant Mahidi, an “assimilated” Algerian Muslim army officer who is driven to support the rebels by the abuse of his people; his very wiggly sister Aicha,[3] who becomes Esclavier’s lover; and Major Boisfeuras, a Franco-Chinese half-caste who is an exponent of counter-insurgency.[4]

It begins in the doomed French fortress of Dien Bien Phu.  In brief compass, Dien Bien Phu falls; Raspeguy’s men return from the Vietminh prison camp just in time to join the Algerian War; Raspeguy is restored to a command thanks to the machinations of a French countess with political influence who is swept away by his manly charms; Raspeguy’s unit fights the Algerian rebels in the “bled” and in Algiers, but they start to have doubts when they discover that people like Mahidi and Aicha are on the other side, that Boisfeuras uses torture, and their scummy aristocratic commanders will leave them to bear the blame for any failure.  Raspeguy has to fight against both sides while maintaining his honor.  He wins the “Battle fo Algiers” as well as a final shoot-out with Mahidi.  “Lost Command ends with the enlightened Frenchman shaking hands with the enlightened African medical officer in a foreshadowing of France’s loss of empire.  So, Hollywood, except that Esclavier doesn’t get Aicha (although Raspeguy may get the countess).

The movie got so-so reviews, but Larteguy’s novel has continued to command the attention of people concerned with counter-insurgency warfare—like David Petraeus.

[1] Robson specialized in directing adaptations of middle-brow literature.  He had directed the war movies “The Bridges at Toko-ri” (1954); “Von Ryan’s Express” (1965).  He had directed “Home of the Brave” (1949) and “Trial” (1955), which are attacks on racial prejudice, the latter as an entering wedge for Communism.   He became confused by American culture in the late Sixties and Seventies.  That is true of many of us.

[2] Raspeguy is modeled on Marcel Bigeard, as is Colonel Jean Mathieu in “The Battle of Algiers.”

[3] Played by the very wiggly Claudia Cardinale.

[4] Boisfeuras is standing-in for the French theorists of “revolutionary war” David Galula and Roger Trinquier.

War Movies 5: “Dresden.”

In retrospect, the Cold War loomed at the end of the Second World War.  This has led to speculation that the Americans and the British unleashed extraordinary air-borne violence against the enemy as much to impress the Russians as to end the war.  In the American case, it was the atomic bombings.  In the British case, it was the fire-bombing of Dresden.

Dresden was a beautiful city (“Florence on the Elbe River”) in eastern Germany.  From 13 through 15 February 1945, 1,200 British and American bombers dropped almost 4,000 tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on the city.  Although the Nazis claimed that the bombing and the fire-storm it set off killed 200,000 people, the current best estimate is 22,000 to 25,000 dead.  One of those who survived the attack was the American POW Kurt Vonnegut.

“Dresden” (2002) is a German television movie about being on the receiving end of “strategic bombing.”  The movie’s plot is melodramatic and conventional.  A German nurse falls in love with a downed British bomber pilot on the run; her father and her German fiance are diverting morphine meant for the patients onto the black market through a corrupt official so they can buy a hospital in nice safe Switzerland; the nurse’s best friend is a Gentile married to a Jew; the nurse’s little sister is a Valkyrie look-alike having it off with the corrupt official; Mom is popping pills (cue Mick Jagger); the British bomb Dresden, with the downed pilot’s best friend leading the attack; and fire and death rain down on the city as the nurse, her German fiancé, and her British lover try to escape through the inter-connected cellars of the old city.

What do we see in this movie?  There is the prolongation of the air war against cities until the last stages of the war as the Germans launched V-1 and V-2 rockets against London and the Allied air forces bombed, then re-bombed every possible target.  There is the hatred felt by the German civilians for the British air-crew, who sometimes were lynched as “terror-flyers” when they had to parachute onto German soil.  There is the savagery of the dying Nazi regime toward anyone who showed the slightest hint of defeatism.  A woman arrives at the hospital with a head-wound, then the military police arrive to finish the job for having sheltered her deserter-husband.

There are the air-raid precautions as Germans turn off the gas to the stove, gather their possessions, and head for the shelters in the basement of the apartment block when the air-raid sirens sound.  There is the experience of being in the shelters while fire rages above and just outside the sealed doors, and the ground rocks with the explosions.  People pray, comfort frightened children, and light candles as a warning of carbon monoxide, while the bloc-warden tries to maintain order and morale.  There are people sucked into the fire by the draft a 1,000 degree fire creates.  There is the horrific aftermath of an air-raid, with dazed survivors wandering through rubble-choked streets or chalking messages on the walls of their wrecked homes, and the bodies turned to cinder.  There are the rare moral doubts felt by the flyers and senior officers.

What we don’t see in the movie is the successive attacks.  For dramatic reasons, everything is shown as one great attack.  This hides the reality that successive attacks were partly meant to catch the firemen and the EMTs out in the street—and kill them.  Nor do we see the controversies that have swirled around the attack since almost as soon as it happened.

War Movies 4: “The Star.”

The Germans invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941.  By Christmas they were near Moscow, where they stalled for the winter.  In Summer 1942 they attacked again, this time in Southern Russia.  Eventually, the German Sixth Army fought its way into Stalingrad.  There it got trapped and had to surrender in early 1943.  After more fighting in Summer 1943, the Russians were ready to go over to the attack in Summer 1944.  Operation Bagration was the greatest battle of the Second World War.  By the end of the summer the Red Army had destroyed the German Army Group Centre and reconquered the Ukraine, Belorussia, and eastern Poland.

“The Star” (2002) is set during the preparations for “Bagration.”  Red Army commanders want to identify the location of important German troop units before the attack.  They want to target the German units with air and artillery attacks before launching their own offensive.  In this particular story, they want to find the Waffen SS armored division “Wiking” (part of Himmler’s private army).  A local commander details a captain (who looks like the Russkie Tom Cruise) to lead a small patrol behind German lines to find “Wiking.”

The movie is conventional in one sense.  The scout team is made up of “representative” figures from the multi-ethnic Soviet Union of the time.  The captain and his side-kick are Cossacks (they are shown riding horses easily and the sidekick has a fur hat, so they’re Cossacks); there is a Tatar sharpshooter who practices as a shaman on the side; there is the wimpy college-boy radio operator-translator who mans-up in the end; there are three other guys I can’t place because I don’t speak that much Russian, but I’m sure that they are representative “types.”  In this sense, it is just like any American war movie: struggle against a common enemy dissolves difference and creates unity.  Also, at the other end of the radio link is a young woman named Katya.  She has fallen for the Cossack captain and rebuffs the commander who ordered the patrol when he wants to make her his “field wife.”

It is less conventional in other ways.  For one thing, this is a post-Communist Russian movie.  There are pictures of Stalin and Lenin on office walls, but none of the men are Communists.  For another thing, there is nothing hi-tech about this mission.  They have camo smocks to wear over their uniforms and a little radio-telephone to lug around so that they can report to headquarters.  (Nobody knew Morse code because it took too long to learn.  All training was pretty bare-bones compared to what Americans got.)  Other than that, they have sub-machine guns and pistols and knives.  Mostly, they skulk in the woods and report what they see.

For yet another thing, the movie is casually explicit about the brutality of the war.  There’s a boot with a leg in it; there’s a river full of corpses of Red Army POWs murdered by the Germans; there’s a brief tracking shot that runs from bucolic idyll-to-burned farmhouse-to-hanged peasant family; there is a German with a bayonet shoved all the way through his neck.  Conversely, the Russian patrol habitually kills the Germans they capture along the way.  It isn’t out of revenge.  They just can’t take prisoners along on a secret mission.  Until they capture an SS general.  Of course, that brings the Germans after them in hot pursuit.  Will they succeed in their mission?  Will they escape?

War Movies 3: “Hamburger Hill.”

“Hamburger Hill” (1987) follows the misfortunes of a squad (the smallest Army unit) of the 101st Airborne Division[1] in the Spring 1969 fighting in Vietnam, Republic of.

The squad is led by Sergeant (Sgt.) Frantz, an able veteran who is returned to the unit after the military police arrested him for over-staying leave.  His squad mixes blacks and whites; and “short-timers” (men counting down their year-and-a-day tour of duty), veterans, and “FNGs” (Fucking New Guys who don’t know how to do anything and who will be killed or cause other people to be killed through their ignorance).  The constant bickering inside the group reflects these tensions, but slowly gives way to group solidarity; the FNGs rapidly mature into good soldiers.  In both cases, it is the shared experience of combat that changes men.

The squad forms part of a platoon, nominally under the command of a new lieutenant named Eden, but actually run by the veteran top sergeant, Worcester.  That is as far as visible authority goes in the movie.  The higher order–company, battalion, regiment, and division—appear only briefly as disembodied voices on the radio.

One common image of the Vietnam War is of a guerrilla war: suspicion of a civilian population that seems uninvolved in the war and only interested in gouging money out of the G.I.s; big sweeps through the boonies by American forces searching for contact with the Viet Cong (VC, Victor Charlie); brief fire-fights before the enemy fades away into the jungle.

That is not what happens in this movie.  Instead, we witness an assault on a heavily entrenched position defended by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars.  The “American way of war” portrayed here relies upon the use of technology.  On the one hand, soldiers ride to war in helicopters that move them rapidly over long distances.[2]  On the other hand, the Americans apply massive firepower.  The infantry spray fire from automatic rifles (M-16s), light machine guns (M-60s), and grenade launchers (M-1s); they call in “fire missions” from artillery (whenever they talk to “Coldsteel” on the radio); they are supported by airstrikes from helicopter gunners and jets dropping napalm (jellied gasoline).  Even so, it all comes down to the “grunts.”          References to American popular culture of the era show the men to be part of mainstream culture: they listen to Motown or country-and-Western music (which is meant to show the distortions of military recruiting); they admire muscle cars in Road and Track and the Zeppelin-breasted models in Playboy.  Yet the references to “hairheads” and college students back home, and the lack of support from both politicians and the media show a growing estrangement from that society.  Back home, people were discussing the “Generation Gap.”  In this movie we see a different gap, one that continues to trouble us to this day: the gap between those who do military service and those who do not.[3]  What can a country ask of it citizens, what does a citizen owe?

[1] The “Screaming Eagles,” are also at the center of the HBO series “Band of Brothers.”

[2] The origins and first use of this method is portrayed in “We Were Soldiers” (2002), based on the book We Were Soldiers Once…and Young (1992) by Lt. Gen. Harold Moore (ret.) and Joseph Galloway.

[3] Former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican Senator John McCain, Democratic Senator John Kerry, and former Democratic Senator Bob Kerry all served in Vietnam.  Former Presidents Bill Clinton, Democrat, and George W, Bush, Republican, did not.  Nor did I…nor did anyone I know.

War Movies 2: “Currahee.”

How do you transform people from civilian volunteers into excellent soldiers?  E/”Easy” Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (P.I.R.), 101st Airborne Division, United States Army, provides a case study.

The company consisted of three rifle platoons and a headquarters unit.  Each platoon consisted of three rifle squads and a mortar section.  Each rifle squad consisted of twelve infantrymen; each mortar team of six men.  Each rifle squad had one machine gun; each mortar team had one 60-mm mortar.  In sum, nine rifle squads and three mortar sections, 135 men with  semi-automatic rifles, carbines, and sub-machine guns, nine light machine guns, three mortars.  That was a lot of firepower.  They would need it.

The idea behind paratroopers was to drop them behind enemy lines before an attack so that they could seize key points of communication.  This would disrupt enemy communications and hold open the door for advancing ground forces.  In one of the most dramatic and bloody fights of the war, German paratroopers had stormed Crete from the air.   Now the British and Americans hoped to do the same on the grand scale.  The paratroopers would be out on the end of a limb until the ground forces arrived.  Skills and toughness would be essential to success—and to survival.

A crude camp near Toccoa, Georgia, in the Piedmont region and close to the South Carolina line, served as the initial training site.  The soldiers were all very young when they began training.  Most of the officers ranged in age between 22 and 25.  Most of the enlisted men ranged in age between 18 and 23.  They were young and impressionable.  They had grown up during the Depression, when nobody gave you anything for free.

Lieutenant, later Captain Herbert Sobel (1912-1987), commanded the company during its training.  Sobel drove his men ruthlessly to achieve the highest standing in physical fitness and military training.  Long marches, lectures on military subjects, calisthenics, weapons training, numerous inspections with minute infractions punished by cancellation of week-end passes, and frequent timed runs up the neighboring Mount Currahee—“three miles up, three miles down”—did the job.  The regiment’s commander judged Sobel’s company to be the finest in the regiment.  Then came parachute training and test jumps.  Five jumps in one day and “anyone who hesitates in the door will be immediately removed from the paratroopers.”  Then came “war games” in North Carolina as companies were forged into battalions, battalions into regiments, and regiments into divisions.  As more and more men failed to make the cut, the survivors could regard themselves as a special group of men who had shared many hardships.  Of this, comradeship began to be born.

In early 1944 the regiment shipped out for Britain.  Here the training became even more intense, but also more focused on combat operations.  Stresses and strains developed.  Whatever Captain Sobel’s achievements as a trainer, his unsympathetic character left him estranged from his men.  He initiated court-martial proceedings against his own Executive Officer, Lieutenant Richard Winters, in what might be taken to be a case of petty abuse.  Worse, he showed signs of being a poor tactical leader when all minds had turned to the coming jump into German-held territory.  Easy Company’s sergeants offered to resign their ratings and requested transfer to another unit rather than serve with Sobel in combat.  Sobel soon found himself transferred to other duties with the regimental headquarters.  Lieutenant Thomas Meehan took command of Easy Company.  Now began the anxious waiting for the invasion of Hitler’s “Fortress Europe” in Summer 1944.  On 5 June 1944 the order came.  The men began to pile into their planes.

War Movies 1: The Thin Red Line.

When James Jones (1921-1977) enlisted in 1939 the Army shipped him to Schofield Barracks in the Hawaiian Islands.  He spent a couple of years getting to know the “Old Army” and witnessed Pearl Harbor.  A year later, in December 1942 and January 1943, he fought in the Battle of Mount Austen on Guadalcanal and was wounded there.  After the war, he wrote two of the great novels of military life based on his experiences: From Here to Eternity (1951) and The Thin Red Line (1962).  Both were made into movies, the second one twice.

The second, 1998, version of “The Thin Red Line” is the better-known of the two.  The idiosyncratic Terrence Malick[1] wrote the screen-play and directed.  Malick is famous for shooting miles of film with an enormous cast of stars, then cutting most of them out of the final print of the movie. Fair’s fair: I’m going to do the same thing to his version of “The Thin Red Line” by omitting all the philosophical goop.  (Is “philosophical goop” redundant?)

The men of Company C, 127th Infantry Regiment, 25th Division land on Guadalcanal in late 1942 to help finish off the Japanese forces on the island.[2]  Some of them are veteran soldiers, but none of them have been to war before.  The youthful General Quintard (John Travolta) patronizes the older, passed-over Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), who is desperate to make his life mean something by commanding men in battle.  Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) finds himself commanding Company C in a struggle in which Reason and Argument play no role. As a lawyer in civilian life, he finds this disconcerting to say the least.  Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn), who really runs the company, discovers that War is his element.  Private Witt (Jim Cazaviel) doesn’t like the Army or the War, but proves himself a brave soldier.

After pushing inland from the landing beach without encountering any opposition, Company C is ordered to attack a high ridge covered in tall grass defended by Japanese troops in bunkers that cannot be seen from below.  An artillery bombardment is just for show.  “It’ll buck up the men,” says Tall.  Men are shot down by the hidden Japanese.  The frontal attack up the ridge quickly stalls and Staros refuses an order from Tall to keep pushing.  A small party of volunteers goes forward to destroy the bunker.  A chaotic fight among a few men suddenly turns from defeat into victory.  Japanese resistance collapses, so Tall orders a general attack.

In this movie there is nothing of the loving attention to military minutiae that one sees in recent depictions of Americans at war (e.g. “Band of Brothers”; “Saving Private Ryan”; “Zero Dark Thirty”).  Instead, the artillery support never does any good and the rear echelons can’t get water to the fighting men in a tropical climate.  Soldiers crumple under the weight of fear and leave the battlefield or engage in acts of heroism just to get their dying over with.   A veteran sergeant grabs a grenade by the safety pin, a classic “rookie mistake” that kills him.  Ragged, starving Japanese prisoners are abused and murdered.  The essential humanity of Staros makes him a poor commander, while Tall’s egotism brings “victory.”

Later, Captain Staros is relieved of his command by Colonel Tall.  His replacement (George Clooney) mouths platitudes about the company as a “family.”  Witt, who has listened to Sergeant Welsh deride the significance of any one man “in this fucked-up world,” sacrifices himself to save a patrol during an encounter with a larger Japanese force.  The war grinds on.

[1] B.A., Philosophy, Harvard (1965); Rhodes Scholar (1965-67); M.I.T. philosophy instructor (1967-68); free-lance journalist; MFA (1969); directed “Badlands” (1973); “Days of Heaven” (1977); “The Thin Red Line” (1998); “The New World” (2005); “The Tree of Life” (2011); and “To the Wonder” (2013).  Two Best Director nominations.

[2] From August to November 1942 the First Marine Division held a chunk of the island against Japanese attacks.  Having broken the Japanese forces, they were relieved.  Fresh Army and Marine troops arrived to finish the job.