“Almost Sunrise”: two Iraq war veterans walk across America to raise awareness of “moral injury” from combat

Almost Sunrise”, directed by Michael Collins, written with Eric Daniel Metzgar, aired on PBS Independent Lens and POV Monday Nov. 13.  The film depicts a journey of two Iraq war veterans, Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson, on foot, across much of the country (from Milwaukee to Santa Barbara), to raise awareness of veteran PTSD and suicide, and particularly with the psychological issue of “moral injury”. That concept refers to the idea that when in combat soldiers engage in behavior that would be criminal or otherwise morally reprehensible in civilian settings.

But of course one of the points of international terrorism (especially some associated with radical Islam) is to blur or eliminate the distinction and vulnerability between civilian and military combatants.

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The men gather support, including from those who find that some veterans’ families don’t get full benefits, as after suicide.   There is a home with a family of an affected veteran with a “no media” sign on the front door.

In Colorado they reach an ashram run by an unusual Catholic priesthood.  They explore some other forms of spirituality. In Utah, they go through some of the familiar scenery.

The film was funded by Kickstarter.

The film was accompanied by two shorts.  One of them, “Voices of Resilience: Insight from Injury”, by Veterans Trek and Pacific Islander.  The film presented a support group in Hawaii, where there seemed to be no VA hospital (Pearl Harbor notwithstanding). But there followed  panel discussion about the effect of a volunteer Army which almost seemed to beg the question of returning to conscription (including women, and making the now settled question about gays [don’t ask, don’t tell as repealed in 2011] and less settled issue of trans solders morally [aggravated by Trump’s tweets] relevant). The film said we have a warrior class of a small percentage of the people waging a war on terror of unprecedented length. It is also a problem that civilian citizens act as if military and foreign policy should not be their concern.

The program also presented a very short animated film “Tom’s War” where Tom visits the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC.

Name: Almost Sunrise
Director, writer:  Michael Collins, Eric Daniel Metzgar
Released: 2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  PBS POV 2017/11/13
Length:  98
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Thoughtful Robot Productions, PBS POV
Link:  official PBSofficial

(Posted: Tuesday, November 14, 2017 at 12 noon EST)

“A Troublesome Inheritance” still provokes controversy, but over eons environment does affect the genetics of different peoples

Nicholas Wade (science reporter for the New York Times) created controversy and anger with his 2014 book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History”.  Right away, I wonder if this is the conservative-to-libertarian answer to Al Gore’s idea of “An Inconvenient Truth” as a book and movie title.

Let’s go over his basic argument.  Mankind originated in Africa (we are all “black”), and a mass migration north split off into two groups:  one group, gradually becoming Caucasian, settled Europe, the Middle East, and India. Another, becoming “oriental” settled East Asia, centered on China.  More recently further splits led to separate groups in Australia (aborigine), and the Americas (across the Bering Strait).

Mankind started out living in tribal groups with very close association with biological kin, as is common among other primates and many social animals.  First in Asia, and later in Europe, as populations increased and faced a “Malthusian trap”, populations had to organize into larger social and political groups (sometimes mediated by religion) to feed themselves.  Gradually, as social structures became more complex, society started to reward deferred gratification and individual problem solving. Families who were good at these skills, compared to using short term use of force and tribal violence, tended to prosper, especially as commerce developed. They had more children.  So in some parts of the world people are better adapted to modern civilized living than in others.

Africa, by comparison, did not have the population growth and geography that favored the growth of modern states, and colonialism intervened before it had time to catch up.  Likewise, smaller populations in the Americas and Australia did not have as much population mass to build modern states, although it seems to me that the Incas and Maya indeed built impressive civilizations.

For other reasons having to do with geography and the relative safety from invaders, Europe went through a second wave of innovation and developed openness to modern science (and balancing the power of the centralized state with other institutions) that led to technological superiority.  This is not always connected to “white people”.  Muslim populations in the Middle East often maintained tribal ways for geographical reasons, and tended support religious fundamentalism in a tribal context.  In China, innovation did not continue as quickly because the state became too centralized and conformist.

Wade has a lot of discussion of genes, alleles, and the statistical nature of how these are distributed.  At an individual level race may mean nothing as to innate capacity.  But in the aggregate, aggregate small differences in some psychological traits associated with genetics can wind up having profound political consequences.

Some reviewers have criticized Wade’s analysis of genetics (like on a final exam in Biology 101).  He gets into the issue of IQ, and notes that by some measures East Asians measure the highest, then Europeans, and then Africans.  But the work of others “A Path Appears” by Nicholas Kirstoff, would claim that the relative intelligence of groups in different parts of the world has a lot to do with child medical care and the availability of early learning. But Wade maintains that it is not easy to teach “western values” to tribal populations.

Wade also goes into detail on the relative success of Jewish populations in intellectual and artistic pursuits, and hints why western classical music sounds richer and more nuances than tribal or folk music of many parts of the world.

I think that Wade’s comments on the values of tribal societies are very interesting. Tribal groups (most of all, hunter-gatherer) are both egalitarian within and authoritarian. The values behind some kinds of religious social conservatism (like “The Natural Family” by Carlson and Mero) reflect extended familial or tribal values.  In tribal culture the nuclear and extended families develop slowly as social constructs, with many rigid rules about gender.  It takes many generations for nuclear families to develop and it may venture toward polygamy, favoring more powerful alpha males; in the beginning, most men interact with women and protect them from rival tribes collectively.  Sexual intercourse is strictly about procreation and, when in marriage, is connected to local privilege over the lives of others in the family.  Family values evolve from a system where most men had to be good at warrior behavior to protect the women and children in the tribe.  The refusal for a man to sacrifice himself when required to do so for the tribe is considered cowardly, and Wade bluntly points this out.  That relates to the practice of military conscription of men by more advanced states. It also helps explain “homophobia” (and now “transphobia”) and why modern gay rights seems so recent and so dependent on modern civilization.  But the practices of some native tribes would refute that claim.  In any case, personal morality is about a lot more than just making wise choices according to consequentialism.

Modern neuroscience does support the idea that various personality traits are influenced by genetics (and for sexual orientation and sometimes gender identity, epigenetics — I won’t get into how traits that seem to hinder procreation remain persistent here).  Sometimes these can become pathological or destructive, as in various recent violent events related to mental illness and probably somewhat to genetics.   Indeed, the existential “combativeness” of young men in tribal cultures seems hard-wired to a degree shocking to people who have grown used to openness.  So it seems reasonable that over time, characteristics that promote individual competiveness in an open society, rather than just following the group, could be favored and become more common in an advanced culture.

There’s one other thing to say “in favor” of tribalism, as it occurs in nature.  I think there are reasons that it may connect to “the afterlife” (through genetics) better than a self-directed individual’s own “soul”.  I’ve covered this recently on my News Commentary blog. Ponder again, the big cats: lions are social, tigers are not, and in a pride the alpha male lion guards his own lineage first.

Author: Nicholas Wade
Title, Subtitle: “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History”
publication date 2014, 2015
ISBN 978-0-14-312716-1
Publication: Penguin, 278 page, paper, indexed, 10 chapters
Link: Charles Murray review

(Posted: Saturday, June 24, 2017 at 3:45 PM EDT)

“Churchill” dramatizes the British Prime Minister’s nervous waffling before D-Day

Churchill” (2017), directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, re-enacts four days in Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Chuurchill’s (Brian Cox) life, his retreat to the bottle well handled by his dedicated wife (Miranda Richardson), as he challenges the Allied Command, especially Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery) and the plans to make a concentrated D-Day attack across the English Channel in early June 1944.

Churchill has been called “the Greatest Briton of all time.” He doesn’t act like it in his personal life in this film, like when he screams at a female typist for double-spacing a memo. It turns out the typist has a fiancée midshipman who will participate in storming the beach.

Churchill doesn’t want all the Allies’s eggs to stay in one basket. He wants another initiative in the Mediterranean at the same time. But the Command says there are not enough resources to do everything. The film script leads one to believe where the real legal authority to order D-Day resides.

Eisenhower calls the troops back once for weather. But then the storm has a lull, after a warm front moves through, leaving a window of calmer weather. Eisenhower says “Let’s go!” My father used to say that Ike ordered “Let ‘em rip!”

What followed, as we know, was like a pawn storm against a castled position in a chess game (where the two sides are castled on opposite sides of the board, like in a Dragon Sicilian). Tens of thousands of men, many draftees, were lost. Churchill has a beach conversation with Eisenhower where Churchill questions the morality of leaders ordering other men to sacrifice themselves when the leaders stay behind in safer quarters or bunkers. Ike says, “It’s their job. It’s not yours.”

The film never shows the actual attack (like “The Longest Day”, by Zanuck based on Cornelius Ryan’s book, 1962).

When I lived in downtown Minneapolis 1997-2003, I lived in a downtown modern highrise called “The Churchill”.

I have visited a D-Day landing site once, near Bayeux, France, in May 1999.  “The Cross of Sacrifice” (wiki).

Churchill visits the troops in Normandy (wiki).

Name:  “Churchill”
Director, writer:  Jonathan Teplitzky
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, 2016/6/2, late, I was the only person in the auditorium, showing just for me!
Length:  98
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Cohen Media Group
Link:  official

(Posted: Saturday, June 3, 2017 at 4 PM EDT)

“Mad Dog” Mattis: “Warriors and Citizens”: how distinct should the military be from civilian society?

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Author: James Mattis, editor
Title, Subtitle: Warriors and Citizens: American Views of our Military
publication date 2016
ISBN 978-0-8179-1934-4
Publication: Hoover Press, 360 pages, 11 chapters, hardcoer and Kindle, indexed, endnotes each chapter
Link: official site


President-elect Donald Trump’s choice of former Marine Corps general James Mattis (“Mad Dog”) for Secretary of Defense has drawn attention to the book which he just edited, “Warriors and Citizens: American Views of our Military”. Perhaps it is fitting to review this book on the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

The book has essays by various contributors, including Rosa Brooks, Lindsay P. Cohn, Matthew Colford, Thimas Donnelly, Peter D. feaver, Maj. Jim Golby, Jim Hake, Tod Lindberg. MacKubin Thomas Owens, Cody Poplin, Nadia Schadlow, Kiro Schake, Alec J. Sugarman, Benjamin Wittes.

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The last essay, “Enduring a Civil-Military Connection” is co-authored witk Kori Schak, and it pretty well summarizes the basic moral paradoxes that American civilian society and leadership must face in managing its military. In some ways, the tone and even some of the arguments remind me of my own writing, particularly in Chapter2 (about the military draft during Vietnam) and Chapter 4 (about the military gay ban, into the early years of Bill Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”). Mattis is said to have read almost every book ever written, so maybe that includes mine.

Mattis insists that the civilian public understand that the military world is very different in many ways from the customary civilian society: it is responsible for winning wars against enemies who don’t play by the same rules. It needs personnel who bond together in “unit cohesion” in a warrior culture, as offensive or personally problematic as “warrior values” are to many civilians. Several of the other essays mention the early days of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. One mentions that President Clinton lost the initial round in Congress (to Sam Nunn, influences by Charles Moskos) even when he controlled the House. Another essay criticizes Colin Powell and others for threatening to resign over Clinton’s plans. One essay notes well the resistance of many American campuses to allow ROTC and military recruiters, and traces the history particularly at Stanford. (It’s interesting to remember that Mark Zuckerberg was a freshman at Harvard when the ROTC controversy was all over campus; something he would have known about during the year before he started Facebook.) Mattis does not call for overturning the repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell” or blatantly refuse to allow women in combat, but he does suggest that the civilian leadership will need to defer more to military leadership when facing an asymmetric enemy with such horrifying values (although we can wonder if ISIS is more terrible than Nazi Germany, whom we faced before). He (as do several other contributors) discusses the cost of an all volunteer military (which, remember, President Kennedy had said in 1961 would become an “all black Army) but he does not take up the possibility of reinstating a draft nor does he take up the opposite idea of abolishing the Selective Service System. He also says that American civilians don’t grasp what it would be like to lose a war, although we did “lose” the Vietnam war, as political support failed after 1973.

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In fact, one of the reasons why the “military ban” matters (and why I re-entered the debate in 1993) is that war can affect civilians who are used to peace and separation from geo-politics. Someone who excluded from “duty” or risk-sharing due to a purported or speculative character defect may well experience loss of opportunity in other areas of life. Furthermore, cherished ideas like freedom of speech (and on social media as we know it know) can be undermined by necessary government reactions to an enemy that places ordinary civilians in the crosshairs as if they were combatants (unwilling but somehow complicit).

Along those lines, Colford and Sugarman, “Young Person’s Game: Connecting with Millennials”, suggests that ROTC or service academy graduates could serve alongside civilians in areas like the CIA or NSA (they already do), or in community activities like teaching disadvantaged youth. That’s actually an idea that is important in a retrospective early chapter of my novel draft “Angel’s Brother”.

Lindberg discusses the public reaction to some movies, especially the reaction of the Left to “American Sniper” (2015), even inovling Michael Moore, before mentioning some other movies, like “Mister Roberts”, “South Pacfiic” (the likeable Joe Cable is killed), “Catch 22”, “The Caine Mutiny”, “The Naked and the Dead”, “From Here to Eternity” (my parents’ favorite), “Mash” (with all the gore), and of course “Patton”.

Brooks notes the earlier attitudes toward the draft, that men were fungible (an idea of George Gilder in “Men and Marriage” (1986)), but young women were more vital to keeping the family or tribe going — almost feeding the “demographic winter” argument that the alt-right likes today.

Several authors note the Clausewitz belief that war, politics, and civilian society in practice are more like a continuum, with blurred boundaries.

(Posted: Wednesday, December 7, 2016, at 3:45 PM EST)

“Hacksaw Ridge”: a monumental film about sacrifice, service, conscientious objectors, faith, and the horrors of war

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Name: Hacksaw Ridge
Director, writer:  Mel Gibson (wr; Roger Knight, Robert Schenkkan)
Released: 2016/11/4
Format: 2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, 2016/11/5, fair audience
Length 131
Rating R (prolonged graphic war violence)
Companies: Summit Entertainment; Cross Creek
Link:  official

Hacksaw Ridge” (directed by Mel Gibson – “The Passion of the Christ”) presents the moral dilemma of sharing personal sacrifice during war, which overrides even the movie’s obvious focus on the “conscientious objector” issue, which sometimes got expressed again during the Vietnam era draft.

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The film begins around 1928 or so, when Desmond Doss , as a boy, almost kills his brother with a brick in a fight.  At the time, as recompense, his particular Seventh Day Adventist instantiation of the Sixth Commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, starts as he reads a mural in a family room in his Virginia home.

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Years later, in 1942, Doss (now played by Andrew Garfield) saves another man’s life after a car mishap, and meets his future bride, a nurse, as he gives blood.  He goes through the usual learning curve of dating and approaching a future wife (Dorothy Schutte).  He also develops, to the chagrin of his father (Hugo Weaving) who had lost other relatives to World War I, a feeling of duty to serve his country as a medic in the Army but not to carry a weapon, in honor of the Sixth Commandment.

The film plays up the sacrifice issue well here, as it covers the idea that Doss could have gotten a “deferment” with a military munitions plant job. He takes Basic at Dort Jackson, SC, which is where I took Basic Combat Training myself in 1968. The post looks a lot “simpler” in the film than it did in real life.  In fact, the three fiction portions of my “Do Ask Do Tell” book certain in some way around my own experience, which would be quite interesting to recreate as it was during Vietnam in a film.  I describe how to do this in a couple places (“Two Road Trips”  and an account of the Fort Jackson Basic Combat Training Museum ).  We did have the horizontal ladder, but we did not have to climb walls, and the night infiltration course (and “individual tactical training”) did not include making ).  the sand underneath the wires wet and muddy.

The Post cadre at first try to bully Doss into rifle training (M1’s then; I trained on the M14);  he avoids court-martial at the last minute only under last-minute intervention form his dad, who still has some connections.  The movie turns to its second act, lasting well over an hour, which comprises the battle of Hacksaw Ridge on Okinawa (Urasoe Mura).

As presented, the battle is one of the most violent and graphic ever shown on film.   Soldiers are burned alive by flame throwers, and amputations occur on cameras.  Many half-bodies are shown, with varmin eating the remains.  It would have been impossible to honor all of those fallen properly; surely the remains of many soldiers lost were never found to be buried.  Doss, who, despite skinny build, has shown himself the physically strongest soldier of all, almost like superman, repeated rescues many comrades in all sorts of perilous sequences.  He even treats the enemy, as dictated in the Bible. After being bullied earlier in BCT by his unit (the whole “unit cohesion” issue)  Toward the end, the Japs fake a white flag surrender and then counter-attack, and Doss is finally significantly wounded, but will recover.  In keeping with Gibson’s own faith, he does become an inspiration for the troops.   Garfield’s own charisma increases throughout the film.  “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The film was shot in Australia (Gibson’s home), with Australian financing.  But a few scenes in Virginia really do like the Blue Ridge (the Old Rag area

(Published: Sunday, November 6, 2016, at 5:15 PM EST)