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Book Review: Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty

Writing as “a historian who has devoted four decades to the study of Virginia” and an author striving to “do his best”, Richmond, Virginia scholar Jon Kukla—who has directed research and publishing at the Library of Virginia, authored history books and run Virginia’s Red Hill/Patrick Henry National Memorial—accounts for the one major American Revolutionary who “never held national office” in his biography Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty (published today by Simon & Schuster).

Presuming an audience with serious interest in the Virginia lawyer, planter and American radical who defiantly proclaimed “Give me liberty, or give me death!”, Kukla immerses the reader in a dense, detailed and exhaustively factual biography. Neither exactly a straight chronological narrative nor a predominantly political philosophical reckoning, Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty instead goes for completeness in providing the central facts of Patrick Henry’s career as an orator, thinker and founder of the American republic.

Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty is impressive. Do not, however, expect or look forward to a portrait of the whole man. Kukla emphasizes essential points of Patrick Henry’s remarkable life, career and achievements—most impressively, offering deeper or newer details on Henry’s thoughts, ideas and writings—and does not get into the personal life, such as children and marriage. Patches of Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty are dull, dry and laboriously overdone with non-essential facts, names and information. But if history, and, in particular, great mythical tales of American history, entices your intellect, most of the reading is page-turning.

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History earns my most intense​ readership and Jon Kukla’s meticulously researched volume, with over 100 pages of notes, acknowledgements and preface, brings newly disclosed documents and insights to this patriot’s role in the radical, grass-roots movement to break free from British statism, declare independence and create an American republic.

“[Patrick] Henry was of medium build and average height, with deep-set but piercing steel-blue eyes, a dark complexion, and strong features,” Kukla writes. “His face was described not as handsome but as ‘agreeable and full of intelligence and interest.” Henry once sported a bright red cape when elected to public office. Indeed, he became known for rampant individualism, which may explain why he does not typically get his historical due as an influential Founding Father. Absorbing and continuing threads include Patrick Henry’s abiding friendship with George Washington—Virginia’s first governor and America’s first president—despite the pair’s principled dispute over the Constitution.

Young Patrick Henry and his brothers had grown up hunting, fishing and exploring the countryside, Kukla notes, and his philosophy apparently formed relatively early in life. Virginian Henry, indulging himself in nature, studied and guided himself in contemplating books, arts and Western ideas. “After breaking his collarbone at the age of twelve,” the author writes, “Henry during his convalescence taught himself to play the flute, though only for his private enjoyment. He was also an excellent performer on the violin.” Henry, like Thomas Jefferson, “spent hours ‘lying with his back upon a bed’ reading Laurence Sterne’s popular and risque comic novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Miguel Cervantes’s Don Quixote or Daniel Defoe’s Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.” Friends described Patrick Henry’s disposition as “benevolent, humane, mild, quiet, and thoughtful.”

As an adult, Patrick Henry did own slaves even as he denounced slavery, which he believed was detrimental to everyone, causing white workers to “despise honest physical labor”, and Kukla seeds the volume with a running and carefully integrated account of slavery. He does so as it relates to his subject. So, the reader is more likely to come away with an objective grasp of why early advocates for slavery’s abolition, such as Patrick Henry, failed to follow through. Among complicating factors are Haiti’s violent slave rebellion, which set the cause of abolitionism back, an inter-colonial slave trade and, not insignificantly, the looming War for Independence, which appears to have all but derailed serious consideration for abolition.

Patrick Henry emerges as a compelling man of principle. Henry taught himself the law, seeking guidance from an attorney whom he considered honest, who “won [Patrick Henry’s] admiration for his strict refusal to defend clients he thought were wrong.” Soon, Henry built a profitable legal practice, increasing his caseload from 176 in 1760 to 493 in 1763, according to Patrick Henry’s ledgers.

Yet his ability to make money was inextricably tied to the issue of the British government’s control of nearly every aspect of colonial lives and Henry’s lifelong pursuit of happiness fuels his activism for creating a society based on individual rights. When the British crown rejected the Two-Penny Act of 1758, which Henry considered a perfectly logical law, Henry echoed political philosopher John Locke, denouncing the British king’s disallowance by noting that a king who fails to protect his people “forfeits all right to his subjects’ obedience.” After accounting for Henry’s formative three weeks in Williamsburg, where he witnessed Virginia’s first opposition, both public and private, to the government’s imposition of stamp duties on the colonies firsthand, Kukla takes on the facts and details of the Stamp Act of 1765, which, like ObamaCare, was concealed from the public and presented in the press as a fait accompli weeks after enactment, a tactic which would inform Patrick Henry’s later political methodology.

Henry’s blistering opposition to the Stamp Act forged his reputation as an American radical for liberty. In fact, Kukla reports that colonial newspapers reprinted versions of Patrick Henry’s Stamp Act resolutions during the summer of 1765, galvanizing resistance among the colonial population. The Massachusetts governor warned the British that Henry’s proposals were proving to be “an Alarm bell to the disaffected.”

And Henry, who celebrated Hugo Grotius and others as “illustrious writers” and benevolent spirits who “held up the torch of science to a benighted world,” took painstaking inventory of the toll each act of injustice took on himself and his fellow Virginians. Kukla writes that even Patrick Henry was shocked when the Stamp Act’s details came to light; Henry’s legal practice was subject to 40 government fees on every document, including wills, deeds, bills of sale, even college diplomas. The Stamp Act imposed taxes, too, on Virginia’s newspapers, almanacs, calendars, and pamphlets. A fellow attorney and Virginia burgess exclaimed: “Every kind of business transacted on paper is taxed!”

The Virginian fought the king’s tyranny with words, ideas—and oration. George Mason wrote that Henry was “the most powerful speaker I ever heard.” Mason attested that “[e]very word he says not only engages but commands the attention; and your passions are no longer your own when he addresses them. But his eloquence is the smallest part of his merit. He is in my opinion the first man upon this continent, as well in abilities as public virtues.” Congressman Silas Deane gushed: “Patrick Henry is the compleatest Speaker I ever heard…but in a Letter I can give You no Idea of the Music of his voice, or the highwrought, yet Natural elegance of his stile.”

Patrick Henry’s oratorical style, like his savvy political, business and intellectual sense, was bred by thoughtful and methodical study of facts, context and analysis of what making a nation based on individual rights would necessitate, mean and entail. While visiting Philadelphia, Patrick Henry roamed bookstores, purchasing Thomas Leland’s edition of The Orations of Demosthenes on Occasions of Public Deliberation (London, 1763), one of many books about oratory Kukla writes that Henry used to improve his public speaking. The book bears Henry’s printed bookplate, signature, and his handwritten notation: Philadelphia 1774. But Kukla observes that Henry’s copy also contains a dog-eared corner of a page at this passage of particular interest to Virginia’s great orator: “When we take up arms against the Barbarian,” Demosthenes proclaimed about 354 BC, “we take them up for our country, for our lives, for our customs, for our liberty, and all such sacred rights.”

Henry “electrified the whole house”, Kukla writes, recapturing Henry’s legendary lines delivered on Tuesday, September 6, 1774, according to delegates’ notes of the congressional debates, that “The Distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders, are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American.” Kukla adds that “Patrick Henry’s oratorical skills were impressive, of course, but the delegates placed greater weight on his ideas.” Years later, John Adams told Jefferson that, in that Congress of 1774, “there was not one member, except Patrick Henry, who appeared to me sensible of…the Pinnacle on which he stood, and had candour and courage enough to acknowledge it.”

With a chosen pen name Scipio—”a pseudonym honoring the Roman patriot and general praised by Cicero as an exemplary orator and leader”—Partick Henry railed against Britain’s “bloody massacre” at Boston, reminding the king that “the breath of a tyrant blasts and poisons every thing, changes blessings and plenty into curses and misery, great cities into gloomy solitudes, and their rich citizens into beggars and vagabonds.”

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Filling Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty with such stirring words, usually grounding the speeches, excerpts and moments in their proper context, Kukla lays Patrick Henry’s life and ascent bare, demonstrating that the brilliant agitator for an American revolution and nation based on man’s rights was often biting and brave. That he once “sneered” to appeasers: “Shall we try “humble supplication”? That he may have saved the Midwest from British rule during the American Revolution with a band of elite forces, battled malaria and wrote his will entirely in his own hand. That believer Patrick Henry had concerns about the growing influence of deism and was not strictly for separating religion and state. That President Washington twice considered appointing him to the Supreme Court and once to succeed James Monroe as ambassador to France. That he wrote that he “detests” paper money. That Henry had 17 children and nearly 80 slaves when he died of stomach cancer at the age of 63.

Or that the text of Patrick Henry’s 1765 resolutions against the Stamp Act were a starting point of the American Revolution.

But Kukla also recounts, sometimes too generally or, conversely, with too much detail, that Patrick Henry, who was also a military colonel in the Revolutionary War, was intensely interested in and had a decent understanding of military history and strategy. Col. Henry created Virginia’s navy and, Kukla notes: “By the end of the Revolution, the legacy of Patrick Henry’s navy comprised two major shipyards and a dozen smaller ones as well as scores of warships—brigs and brigantines, schooners and pilot boats, and cruisers and row galleys—all manned by seven hundred officers, sailors and marines.”

To this end, Henry was loved by his enlisted men, who at one point threatened to quit and refused to serve under any other commander. But what also comes through in Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty is that Patrick Henry was a deep and serious thinker, not merely a man of high ideals, inspiring speeches and decisive action, who was capable of life-affirming insight and introspection. For instance, Henry held that “[m]aturity grew not from “uninterrupted tranquility” but from hardships that “compel an exertion of mental power…Adversity toughens manhood—and the characteristic of the good or the great man is not that he has been exempted from the evils of life, but that he has surmounted them.”

Surmount them Patrick Henry apparently, did, too, as his wife Sarah, his “beloved companion”, “lost her reason” and showed signs of mental instability, dying in early 1775. Henry put his Scotchtown plantation up for sale in August of 1777. He sold it the following year for “eight times the purchase price, considerably advancing his fortune.”

Patrick Henry, whom Ayn Rand named a Midwestern university after in her epic novel of ideas, Atlas Shrugged, uttered his most famous line on March 20, 1775. Jon Kukla alludes to it in the title of his book’s Chapter 14: Liberty or Death: “When at last Henry took the floor, eyewitnesses describe him as starting “calmly,” as was his practice…Henry warned that his opinions were “very opposite to theirs.” …Henry wanted Virginians to face the whole truth, acknowledge the worst, and provide for it. Henry’s speech, as one distinguished historian observed, “transformed resistance into revolution.”

How exactly comes into sharp focus as Kukla recaptures Henry’s glorious American moment:

There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable—and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.” When Henry paused, murmurs of “Peace! Peace!” emanated from the pews where some of his timid colleagues sat, punctuating the dramatic moment and plodding one of history’s greatest orators toward the culmination of his most famous speech. “Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace,” Henry answered. echoing the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, “but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field!” he exclaimed, affirming once again Virginia’s policy of steadfast unanimity with the other colonies. “Why stand we here idle?” “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” He paused again, lifted his eyes and hands toward heaven and prayed, “Forbid it, Almighty God!—I know not what course others may take, but as for me…give me liberty, or give me death!” Then as his voice echoed through the church and his audience watched in stunned silence, Henry raised an ivory letter opener as if it were a dagger and plunged it toward his chest in imitation of the Roman patriot Cato. The church fell silent. “Men looked beside themselves,” one listener recalled. Another listener, standing outside a window after failing to find a seat inside, felt overwhelmed by Henry’s oratory. “Let me be buried at this spot,” exclaimed Edward Carrington, the younger brother of a Charlotte County delegate.”

Kukla notes that the British redcoats moved to disarm colonists at Concord and Lexington three weeks later, in what Ralph Waldo Emerson termed the shot heard ’round the world, setting off the fireworks that sparked an American Revolution.

For his part, Patrick Henry, convinced that the Constitution would result in a consolidated government that, when it proved oppressive to Virginians, could not be altered, opposed ratifying the Constitution. He opposed We the People, which he held was presumptuous, insisting that We the states was the proper phrase. “The chief aim of government, he insisted, was neither the promotion of trade nor imperial visions of becoming “a great and powerful people” but the protection of personal liberties. “Liberty ought to be the direct end of your government.” But this does not mean that Henry was an advocate of states’ rights as that term is widely understood. He wrote that “the dissolution of the Union is most abhorrent to my mind. The first thing I have at heart is American liberty: the second thing is American union.”

Nearing conclusion, Kukla observes that Patrick Henry warned that “The Constitution squints toward monarchy” and that he cautioned that “Your president may easily become king,” asking: “What will then become of you and your rights?”

In the chapter Last Call, Kukla largely lets the great American hero Patrick Henry have the floor, recalling his words: “If I am asked what is to be done when a people feel themselves intolerably oppressed, my answer is ready—overturn the government. But … wait at least until some infringement is made upon your rights that cannot otherwise be redressed; for … you may bid adieu forever to representative government.”

Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty ​is an excellent and important biography of the patriot Patrick Henry—who inspired the American to rational action for individual rights in this land’s darkest hours—and wrote:

Reader! whoever thou art, remember this,

and in thy Sphere, practice Virtue thyself,

and encourage it in others.

P. HENRY

Movie Review: From Here to Eternity (1953)

From Here to Eternity (1953) taps America’s pre-World War 2 anxiety and mixes it with fatalism to produce a seminal movie about war, death and dying. The film, based on James Jones’ 1951 novel, depicts a nation mired in self-doubt.

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Embedding anti-heroism underneath anti-social and anti-war themes begins with a character named after a Confederate war general. Director Fred Zinnemann (Oklahoma!, High Noon) introduces Prewitt, indelibly played by Montgomery Clift (Red River), as he plays pool. Prewitt plays alone, however, and, lest the audience mistake his insolent individualism for a heroic trait, as it was in The Fountainhead, it becomes clear that here, in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1941, being a man of principles out for himself leads to nothing but trouble and worse.

“A man don’t go his own way, he’s nothing,” Prew, as he’s called by friends, says early in the black and white movie. Unlike Roark in The Fountainhead, Prew’s path to his own way seems doomed from the start. This is Pearl Harbor in 1941, after all. Army soldier Prew is the movie’s moral center.

On orders of his new captain (Philip Ober), who’s caught wind of Prew’s renowned boxing ability and wants him back in the boxing ring, Prew’s singled out for hazing. He still refuses to box, and with good reason. It’s Prew’s principled stand which contrasts civilized individualist with barbaric conformist and From Here to Eternity—which I recently saw through Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies’ Big Screen Classics series—makes this point over and over.

Watch what happens to Prew and his scrawny Army buddy, Maggio (Frank Sinatra, The Manchurian Candidate), who spend most of their time getting drunk and getting punished or cavorting with Honolulu’s quasi-prostitutes (Donna Reed, It’s a Wonderful Life). In an unforgettable role as a thug nicknamed Fatso, Ernest Borgnine makes a strong screen presence two years before he played a similar part in Bad Day at Black Rock and the rest of the cast, from supporting soldier types played by Jack Warden and Claude Akins to leading cast members such as Deborah Kerr (The King and I) and Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry, Separate Tables, Seven Days in May) as illicit lovers, also shine. All of them, except for Sinatra’s character, the weakest link, form a cohesive company.

In fast cuts, sharp lines and subtle hints, twists and clues, From Here to Eternity lazily leads up to the Japanese sneak attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and, briefly, its bleak and harrowing aftermath. As it does, with Lancaster and Kerr famously falling on the sands of Kuhio Beach, director Zinnemann plants the dark, cynical marks of postwar American insecurity in Donna Reed’s line about putting herself up for grabs: “I don’t like it, but I don’t mind it.” With drunken, violent outbursts and messy displays of repressed desire, From Here to Eternity manages to dramatize its theme that the good is not possible.

America is not exceptional; it’s as panicked, fake and afraid as everywhere else in the world, From Here to Eternity insists. The sound of bugles is always on guard in this compelling and watchable classic movie with its cast of movie stars—including Clift as the Fifties’ brooding, sensitive and tortured male, which made way for other mumbling, unsettled anti-heroes such as Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford—but, seriously, what good does being American do? Even Burt Lancaster’s imposing physical superiority is useless to protect anyone from Fatso, though his scene confronting Borgnine’s meaty beast in the bar is among the most intense showdowns in cinema.

“I play the bugle well,” mutters the principled individualist whose rogue, solo pool game—Prew takes one more shot after being told to stop—begins From Here to Eternity. That he adds that he’d played taps at Arlington Cemetery for the president on Armistice Day only underscores the fact that, now, he’s powerless. By the end of this bleak exercise in striking down the strong and defiant, he, too, will be reduced to playing another round of soulful taps. As Kerr’s bitter wife tussles with Lancaster’s diminished if determined sergeant, Army, company and paradise get lost.

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This is the real, moral theme of From Here to Eternity; that, no matter what you do—especially if you stand alone, in particular if you do so on principle—there exists something more powerful than yourself, to invoke a common bromide, and it controls you and could easily shoot you down. In 1953, From Here to Eternity, which won Oscar’s Best Picture, might have seemed new, bold and different with its realism and frank sexuality. But it plays like a prelude to America’s predominant self-doubt and its byproduct: hard and begrudging pragmatism pushing everyone to go AWOL, get drunk or get in line to get snuffed out.


TCM Big Screen Classics: From Here to Eternity showed on Sunday, December 11 and Wednesday, December 14 with pre-recorded commentary from Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz.

I saw the screening at Hollywood & Highland’s Chinese Theater complex. Sound, projection, theater and audience were perfect. The winner of eight Academy Awards® in 1953, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Sinatra) and Best Supporting Actress (Reed), was written by Daniel Taradash (Hawaii, Golden Boy, Picnic). The movie’s title, From Here to Eternity, is taken from a line from an 1892 Rudyard Kipling poem in which soldiers are damned “from here to eternity”.

TCM just announced its 2017 schedule to screen a slew of classic movies, so the wonderful and encouraging series, which is a unique opportunity to see the best movies as they were intended to be seen in movie theaters, will happily continue.

Movie Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

billy-lynn-movie-1Director Ang Lee (Life of Pi, The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain) makes interesting movies and this one is no exception. I found it oddly moving, if hollow and flat. This is not Lee’s best picture.

Aside from the striking, new visual technology, he shows and tells the audience something important about today’s American soldier.

Opening with the sound of rapid fire, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk builds a tale within a tale around an appearance on Thanksgiving 2004 at a pro football game. Those appearing include the title character and his fellow Iraq War soldiers.

The Dallas, Texas-set film, made in cooperation with Communist China, follows the wandering unit in two places: Texas and Iraq. So it predictably includes digs at oil, money and hydraulic fracturing and a biting line at the expense of the facts and history of the Alamo. However, the sense of alienation that pervades all of Ang Lee’s films works with these unfortunate bits, adding to the emptiness and aimlessness of being a soldier in the non-war which Americans fight in Iraq, where they’re basically like targets that have been deployed to no end.

As one soldier in the movie puts it, they build schools for students without textbooks.

Flashbacks frame the plot and knowing in advance what will happen, in particular how it impacts blue-eyed Texan William “Billy” Lynn (Joe Alwyn), smuggles an emotional punch into Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. A flat script and agnostic theme trap the movie, which dramatizes in its mid-section the contrast between America’s lifelessness—through its vapid obsession with pro football, pseudo-patriotism and traditionalism—and the soldiers’ passion in battle.

For long stretches, nothing much happens onscreen, until you realize that this may be the movie’s point. The band of young men, perfectly cast ordinary youths who look, sound and talk like typical Americans enlisted in the Army, are forsaken by their countrymen. They are alternately emasculated and overromanticized. The band of men are left, as in Clint Eastwood’s Sully and American Sniper, to drop dead by a nation too busy obsessing about football, Beyonce and other mediocrities and spectacles (Trump drifts into one’s mind). It’s a fact that, for 15 years, the bravest men have been systematically slaughtered, maimed and deeply, horribly damaged by the aimless deployment by the U.S. government with not much success in terms of America’s defense. The vivid picture’s middle alone is worth seeing for the sake of thousands of U.S. veterans of an asinine, badly conceived and waged war in Iraq.

Like today’s vets, who are left to die, mistreated, neglected and forgotten in the horror chambers of government-run health care known as the VA, the men who Billy Lynn helps to lead are both admired under false pretenses and abandoned on passing whims. Billy Lynn doesn’t even get an Advil he’s asked for until near the end of the movie. But, boy, do they ride like show ponies in gussied up Hummers with an agent (Chris Tucker) trying to cash in on their bloody battle in Iraq.

With Vin Diesel (the Fast and Furious movies) as an Army leader, Kristen Stewart (Twilight, The Runaways) as Billy’s soulmate who happens to also be his sister, Garrett Hedlund (Troy, Unbroken) as his superior and Steve Martin (The Jerk, Housesitter) as a conservative businessman, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, based on Ben Fountain’s book, falls short of the high expectations of its 3D/high resolution pedigree. At its best, however, and with great clarity in the middle of the picture, it depicts how vacuous America’s let itself become and the long-lasting harm such nothingness does to men that might have become its greatest defenders.

As an aside, I think I may have sat next to a war veteran during the screening of this film in Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome. During the usher’s movie introduction, the stranger made a sharp, bitter remark to me about starting the movie on time. When I turned, I noticed that he was heavily bearded and much younger than his comment made him seem. I also noticed during the movie that he was quieted as the picture wore on, less anxious, and he slowly slipped lower and lower and lower into his seat, like an abused child feeling smaller and more vulnerable by what’s happening around him. He was rapt. He was all alone and in that short time and exchange it seemed to me that he was alone in more ways than one. This is why I have a hunch, and it is only a hunch, that at some point he may have enlisted in the Armed Forces to fight for America. Whatever its flaws, and apart from my mixed estimate of its value, I think Billy Lynn, which debuted on Veterans Day, is made to depict and drive home the willfully unknown American soldier. If we are ever to get through this civil division and bring an end to the war engulfing us, he ought to be known, recognized and properly honored. And I think he ought to feel like he’s ten feet tall.

Movie Review: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Paramount Pictures’ war movie about the September 11 Islamic attack on America at Benghazi, Libya, is both visceral and powerful. Coincidentally, and I say this because I’m not a fan of the director’s work, it’s the best movie directed by Michael Bay (Transformers: Age of Extinction).

In fact, this gripping account of what exactly happened in those 13 hours does not depict exactly what happened, not in a comprehensive sense, but the character-driven movie is one of the better pictures about the long, unnamed, undeclared, unending military conflict between Islamic jihadists and the West. I can’t speak to the film’s fidelity to what did or did not happen. 13 Hours is based upon a book by the men who were there, the only Americans to defend the U.S. assets and Americans attacked (read what I posted about the 2012 attack here).

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi begins as most of these types of movies do with titles and setup scenes to establish what many already may know about the Libya crisis. During the days of the so-called Arab spring, when American intellectuals became convinced that the West’s meddling in Middle East, Arab and regional affairs would lead to liberalization of Arab and other area dictatorships (it didn’t, hasn’t and won’t), Libya’s longtime dictator was ousted—so was Egypt’s—with tacit or explicit U.S. military support. All of this U.S. military meddling instead destabilized Africa and the Middle East and put Islamists in power. Today, for instance, Libya is in serious peril of falling completely to the Islamic state. But a few years ago no one could convince Washington, DC—from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the left to Ambassador John Bolton, who supported Obama’s attack on Libya, on the right—that removing dictators in countries vulnerable to Islamic jihadist insurgency was a terrible idea.

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Michael Bay’s movie version of the military mens’ book does not delve into that background or context, though it’s surprisingly thoughtful and layered in depicting the film’s unseen villain: the state. Yes, this abstraction is at the plot’s center of what really threatens and endangers the characters, heroes and American interests in 13 Hours; both the unseen, unnamed states that sponsor Islamic acts of war and the elusive American state that enables, appeases and essentially supports states that sponsor Islamic acts of war. While 13 Hours breaks no new ground in storytelling, and needs improvements and edits, this villainy is carefully embedded, probably thanks to the book’s writers and screenwriter Chuck Hogan (The Town).

The world at large is at stake from the start, as Bay offers a view of the globe from space, then a drone’s lens’ view common to this genre before the main character (The Office‘s John Krasinski, excellent in Aloha and also here) sits on a passenger jet bound for post-U.S. intervention Libya. Clearly, his character values life. He is fully facial-haired, too, a common choice among American contractors in Libya, so he’s trying to blend into today’s increasingly unstable world, in this case a society where beards show that one has faith and is not an infidel. After he looks at a fellow passenger—a head-scarved woman of indeterminate designs—the camera cuts to the exterior of the descending plane as it lowers, drifts and blends into Libya’s beige, desolate landscape.

This sets an ominous tone. Tension builds as soon as Krasinski’s soldier meets his fellow soldiers at a secret CIA facility and they’re assigned to accompany an undercover couple in Benghazi. The head honcho (David Costabile, Lincoln) embodying the worst bureaucratic stereotype, represents the left’s mindlessness in practice, spewing forth that the band of bodyguards, because they are strong, military contractors not intellectuals who went to Harvard or Yale, are “not so good at following orders”. Of course, he means this as an insult, even though it affirms that Ivy League schools turn out followers.

Not following orders is precisely what makes the difference in the battle of Benghazi.

It happens on 9/11. The year is 2012. Someone at the CIA compound watches a news clip of the hijacked passenger jet as it veers into the World Trade Center on 9/11 of 2001. Someone says something about an Islamic attack in Cairo. Any but the most daft could have predicted that Benghazi would require serious security precautions and defense.

Enter U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, an altruist and “true believer” in the Obama administration’s policy of sacrificing for the sake of others, an explicit rejection of selfishness as an ethical virtue which Stevens practices to a tee. The ambassador, the men of the security detail are informed, insists, in accordance with the left’s multiculturalist fantasies, upon his own reckless procedures. He chooses to stay at a posh, unsecured open compound. He makes other bad choices, too, some of which are overturned. But he is willful and explicit in his altruism: “America is here for you,” he tells a local Libyan gathering. He means it. America is not there to advance its interest, not even to foster mutual understanding and peace. America—the new America outlined in Obama’s inaugural worldwide apology tour—is there to serve others, period.

It’s the Obama (and Bush, McCain, etc.) way: put others above self.

Time and again in 13 Hours, a heart-pounding tale which comes in waves, altruism and its particular execution through an effete left-wing lunacy is vilified by dramatization. Not as sculpted as the brilliant portrayal of a sacrificed soldier in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, Krasinski’s posted soldier, too, misses his life at home, strives to be his best, and learns from the devastating attack in Benghazi. While he bonds, leads and pivots around the ambushes, schemes and nuances of these deadly days and hours, his wife and kids gain admittance at Disneyland. It’s the perfectly secular, American contrast to the mindless, faith-based wails in Arabic that “God is great!” And if thoughts of his family at the happiest place on earth bolster his fighting spirit, the reality of his brethren at the most miserable place on earth—where “we got nothin’ and no one”—weighs heavily on his conscience.

“What a shit show”, one of his fellow secret soldiers concludes after the blood spills and Americans are murdered—yet again—with no support from the U.S. military, which never does show up. The brutal 13 Hours, with piercing battle scenes as  Islamists lay siege upon the Americans, shows what happens when those with delusions reign over those with knowledge. One officious character offers a stinging lesson in earned guilt. Others among the soldiers talk and trade stories of life and love on the downtime and this is their story foremost. The cast is suited to the material.

But 13 Hours does not stop at depicting the men who are engaged in today’s constant state of American military altruism. The State Department and Obama administration officials are an unseen, offscreen presence, represented on screen by the intelligence types that buy into Obama’s diplomacy and surveillance state as the total solution to all foreign problems. Decent, pro-Western Arabs are also on screen, fighting for their country and their lives, though they are tiny in number and have a minimal impact.

The most exciting scene involves a Mercedes-Benz that makes a wrong turn. It’s the toughest movie motor car since Patriot Games and it’s a symbol for the audience; a reminder that toughness has limits and can be breached. It is impossible while watching 13 Hours, which I think every American ought to see, to escape thoughts of Islamic terrorist attacks on Americans in Paris, San Bernardino, Boston, Fort Hood, Garland, Beirut, Berlin and countless passenger planes, cruise ships and hotels. It’s been 15 years since the Twin Towers, Pentagon and thousands of lives were breached and destroyed and the enemy looms. The horror of being abandoned to insurgents in an Islamic siege with no hope for U.S. military intervention—in Obama’s America, you’re on your own—is forecast in the faces of the men murdered in the inferno at the U.S. consulate and those slaughtered and maimed in the assault that followed.

Compounding the effect: the men you’re watching are trained for battle. You, the audience, probably are not.

“Watch for different tactics,” one secret soldier says during another siege. But how can the U.S. government—whose primary purpose is to defend America and Americans—watch when they refuse to see? In the end, it’s an oil businessman’s jet—running on the energy source the Obama administration does everything to oppose—that offers safe passage for what’s left of the living. Watch the movie’s sole female operative for a complete arc from mindless automaton to fully functional human and try to appreciate that making this movie is itself a courageous act of defiance against the United States government. Or don’t. But take 13 Hours for what it is—an intense and powerful account of one small battle in the Islamic barbarians’ war against the West—with its cautionary theme and warning that, in the words of one brave soldier, “this isn’t over…’til they’re all dead or we are.”

Civil War Stories

Photo by Matthew Brady, National Archives

Photo by Matthew Brady, National Archives

Part of this year’s American Civil War exhibit, “Empire & Liberty: Civil War and the West”, at the Autry National Center of the American West includes an occasional academic affair and I recently attended such a panel discussion, titled “Invisible Injuries: Civil War Veterans and the Legacies of Violence.” The event was informative and sobering.

Two scholars, Dora Costa, a UCLA professor of economics and author of Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War and Roxane Cohen, a University of California, Irvine psychology and social behavior professor, and moderator William Deverell, director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, examined several aspects of recent studies about Civil War soldiers, including certain demographic and relational breakdowns, injuries and deaths.

They addressed their research into war-related trauma among Civil War veterans and their communities and the long-term psychological consequences of the war. Among their findings, which readers can explore here, are that 19 percent of enlisted soldiers in the study were between the ages of nine and 17 years old. I had known from my education and studies with John David Lewis that those who fought in the war were especially young. I had not known, however, that 95 percent of those enlisted were volunteers, more than any other war since the American Revolution. The presentation gave me a sense of life the United States at the time of the Civil War while demonstrating that the long-term effects of war on communities, states, countries and the culture are serious, devastating and transformative, if realized decades later.

Their resarch shows that unit cohesion, such as how many in the company were related by blood, similar age, community, ethnicity, etc. and/or how closely soldiers related to one another as friends and comrades, enhanced a soldier’s ability to heal and survive. Another positive impact apparently came from strong social network support, such as moral support through picnics and parades, which had measurable improvement on mens’ ability to survive and sustain injury after the war. Even celebrations around Christmastime and Thanksgiving correlate to mens’ higher survival rates and longer lives. Scholars also explained that companies were constructed differently; the Union companies were kept largely intact, while the Confederacy constantly replenished its company troops on the idea that new recruits would motivate the men to learn to fight.

Additionally, Costa attributes the rise of trench warfare to the huge proliferation following the Napoleonic Wars of small arms. When I asked her about survivability rates among abolitionists that enlisted—survivability rates were highest among deserters and free black men in the Union Army who were not assigned to fight in battle as often—Costa said they died in greater numbers because abolitionists were more motivated to fight to win and end the war to abolish slavery, which the Civil War did, in fact, accomplish. This was a fascinating program, part of the Autry’s “Empire & Liberty: Civil War and the West”, which I plan to review in a future post.