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Movie Review: The 15:17 to Paris

The newest movie directed by Clint Eastwood, The 15:17 to Paris, is as plain and perfunctory as its title. Screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal oversimplifies the heroes’ decency, mixing in clashing motivations (possibly taken from the heroes’ book upon which this film is based). Mr. Eastwood’s minimalist filmmaking and decision to cast the three American heroes whose story unfolds here puts 15:17 to Paris in a striking contrast to today’s overproduced movies, such as Marvel’s mangled Black Panther, though both movies have conflicted themes in common.

Similarities end there. For starters, unlike Marvel’s movies and like the heroic story of 12 Strong, the extraordinary events depicted in 15:17 to Paris happened. Three Americans chose to act upon their own judgment, tackling an Islamic terrorist rampaging with an arsenal through a train, capturing, detaining and hogtying the jihadist, securing the train and medically treating wounded passengers. The three Americans saying “Let’s go” recalls Flight 93’s American passengers saying “Let’s roll” on 9/11. In this case, saving everyone on board. 15:17 to Paris depicts the Islamic terrorist attack, which is unfortunately never branded as an Islamic terrorist attack, and what made three friends since childhood in California the type of men to shut it down.

That Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and, especially, Spencer Stone, who portray themselves, went from forgotten middle school students to European hostel heroes tracks back within each individual to mutually shared confidence in being a boy with the world as his to master. This exuberant boyhood is cultivated by the boys themselves, who play war with toy guns, study combat with maps and certain gaming scenarios and think of themselves as worthy in themselves, not as means to the ends of others. Raised by single mothers, except for Anthony, a charismatic black kid whose home life goes unseen, these boys struggle from 2005 to 2015 in today’s government-dominated educational system, which ignores or neglects boys. When switched to a religious school, problems persist and deepen. But Alek and Spencer also meet Anthony, who becomes their playmate and, in a way, mentor. Anthony, the least anxious of the trio, is the one who challenges Spencer, who’s the center of The 15:17 to Paris, which intersperses flashes leading up to the jihadist siege.

Anthony’s candor is his armor, as anyone who watched his breathtaking accounts of the attack knows. The white boys enlist in America’s military, Spencer seeking meaning in life and Alek, whose mother says she talks to God, driven by legacy. By the time they trek across Europe, they’ve been three decent, productive boys who seek to acquire knowledge, trade and play to live meaningful, enjoyable lives. Whatever fleeting notions and hunches anyone voices, and 15:17 to Paris sends mixed signals, these three move toward action with a sense of purpose. They expend effort. They practice. They fail. But, always, these boys prepare for life as men.

For instance, during an alert at Lackland Air Force Base, Spencer goes rogue. But, in doing so, Spencer shows strength and preparedness. Called out by his instructor, he knows exactly why he chose to disobey orders (and he has a point). Alek, deployed in Afghanistan, becomes the reason his fellow soldiers must divert from plans, endangering the team. But Alek, later visiting Germany, honors an ancestor’s military service, demonstrating a commitment to think, re-think, act and become his best. In a smaller way, brandishing a selfie stick while being a tourist with Spencer, Anthony, too, learns from his mistakes. Each superficially bounces like a rolling stone toward the unseen, the unknown, like many young Americans. But each acts like he knows that he’s taking charge of his life and that he likes and knows that he’ll earn it.

This may be Mr. Eastwood’s point, and movies he directs, such as Sully, American Sniper and Jersey Boys, reflect the idea that Western man is good, decent and honorable. Clint Eastwood is too journalistic and pragmatic to fully dramatize this theme but his movies tend to be good, sometimes excellent.

With the actors portraying themselves coming off as more self-conscious than natural, The 15:17 to Paris is less a docudrama than a stone-faced re-creation. It’s too scripted, stiff and staged. Yet 15:17 to Paris reconstructs their lives and re-creates their goodness, making the climactic terrorist attack by the religious fundamentalist (Roy Corasani) more tense and dramatic. Every encounter in Europe, especially boarding the Paris-bound train when they help an old man, is benevolent. Whether speaking in the foreign language of the land they visit, flirting with young women or trading while traveling, no one is the Ugly American, to use that hackneyed term. The men, as I previously wrote, represent the heroic American — each a kind of handsome, upright cowboy.

Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris contrasts these innocent, cheerful, peaceful Westerners, unashamed of their Americanism and wearing symbols of Adidas, Yosemite and Los Angeles basketball, with the barbaric religious terrorist, whose eye is evil and whose face is blank. The muffled sound of the siege on the train to Paris follows ramblings about God, destiny and determinism and Spencer, who more than anyone saved the 15:17 to Paris, says a prayer. But a French statesman calls these three men what they are: Americans (also a Brit) who “fight for liberty”…to “save humanity itself”. As with his movie about Mandela in Africa, Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s underproduced new movie is probably too muddled and plain to convey its theme that the essence of being American means reverence for life — and that it’s usually the American who achieves peace and harmony and fights to preserve both.

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.

September 11 and Saudi Arabia

salargeLast night’s discussion at LA’s Hammer Museum, a Hammer Forum program titled “9/11: the Saudi Connection”, brought an invigorating exchange of ideas and projections and a powerful call to action.

The program, moderated by local public radio’s Ian Masters, who rightly pointed out in his introduction that Islam is not the exclusive source of religious fundamentalism, featured former CIA operative and CNN security analyst Robert Baer and former U.S. Senator and former Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham. Baer and Graham have written books about Islamic terrorism, the September 11, 2001 attack and Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of acts of war against the West.

Baer, who has been to Saudi Arabia, called the dictatorship—which everyone kept calling a “kingdom”—”a country in peril.” As he does on cable news shows, Baer sees Saudi Arabia’s demise as imminent due to a “herd mentality” which has become embedded in the country, which, he added and emphasized, “cannot stand for long”. In a short speech, Baer made reference to the fact that, for all practical purposes, Syria and Iraq no longer exist as functional states run by governments (as I recognized about Iraq earlier this year). For the same reasons, he explained, Saudi Arabia’s origins as an artificial country formed in tribes in 1932 preclude its continued existence.

Baer contends that the Middle East is driven by tribalism, not ideology. He sees tribalism as the larger threat to the West. In the contest between Shiite and Sunni Moslems, Baer counts four Sunni-dominated Mideast capitals which have recently been lost to Shiite Moslems: Baghdad, Beirut, Sunna and Damascus, which he sees as fueling discord and war in the region, leading to the fall of Saudi Arabia and displacement of as many as 120 million Arabs fleeing into the West.

Baer’s assessment is sobering. But Baer adds that he thinks Islamic terrorists are neither evil—he thinks modern Middle East problems are caused by Western “imperialism”—nor moved by ideology, i.e., fundamentalist, radical or jihadist Islam, terms he declined to use throughout the evening. In fact, he kept insisting that he’s not an apologist for Islamic jihad but, by denying the role of ideas and rationalizing Islamic terrorism, he is.

Despite this moral error, Baer’s practical and historical observations, forecasts and accounts should be taken seriously. He argues that, because Saudi Arabia depends on subsidies and being the West’s sole, main supplier of oil, the dictatorship wants the oil industry’s fracking to stop. His comments on how fracking has hurt Saudi Arabia did not go over well with the left-wing, west Los Angeles audience, but he explained why fracking—and America’s decreased dependency on Saudi oil—is relevant to the region’s stability. Additionally, during Q & A, Baer added when asked that he regards Edward Snowden as an annoyance, though he admits that indiscriminate mass surveillance does not protect the United States. In short, Baer’s projection that Saudi Arabia’s days are numbered is cogent where his causal connection is not.

On the other hand, Florida’s former Sen. Bob Graham displayed full moral clarity.

Sen. Graham, acting in this capacity as an American statesman in the best sense, called upon his memory of the 9/11 Commission’s first witness, a woman named Kristen Breitweiser, who had lost her husband Bob in the attack. He reminded the audience that Americans have an obligation to answer why? And: Did the hijackers act alone? He told the Los Angeles audience that the first two hijackers entered the United States through Los Angeles International Airport and detailed specific meetings implicating Saudi Arabia (as does my own research, first posted here). He spoke about the San Diego connection and how $50,000 for the hijackers was dispatched from the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC to a woman. He mentioned the prominent Sarasota, Florida, family and their connection to three Florida-based 9/11 hijackers and explained how the family returned to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Graham spoke of discrepancies in the FBI investigation and, once again, urged the audience to press the U.S. government to declassify and release the 9/11 report’s 28 classified pages (which he has read) detailing the attack’s financing by Saudi Arabia.

Sen. Graham named President Lincoln as a great president for insisting upon transparency in government during the Civil War, knowing it would make U.S. allies look bad and he praised Lincoln for putting the enlightenment of the American people above sparing an ally’s embarrassment. The Democrat singled out the Obama administration for criticism. He denounced American “passivity” about this 14-year-old Islamic act of war. When asked to name the best presidential candidate in terms of disclosure about the attack on September 11, 2001, Graham answered succinctly and without pause: “Rand Paul”, who supports releasing the 28 classified pages.

In a moment of rare, bipartisan unity around an intelligent idea to advance national defense, Baer agreed with Rand Paul and Bob Graham about declassifying the 28 pages and said that he, too, thinks the pages should be released. Judging by audience response, by the program’s end, most in the audience seemed to agree. Finally, Baer, whatever his flaws, expressed the perfect afterthought to Sen. Graham’s crusade to illuminate the facts of the September 11, 2001 mass murder: “Rational people must [be free to] make up their minds.”

With Saudi Arabia proposing to build 200 mosques in Germany as a “response” to the exodus from Arab states to Western Europe (reported here during the presentation), let me add: rational people haven’t much time.

Colin Powell, Anti-American

ColinPowellThe ideals, life and career of Colin Powell came to a climax today on NBC’s Meet the Press. The former secretary of state under George W. Bush, a Harlem-born Republican who endorsed Barack Obama for president—twice—after serving as Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, a four-star military general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced his support for Obama’s death pact known as the Iran deal.

This is the ultimate betrayal of the United States’ defense by one of its greatest pretenders. While Powell, whom I called upon to resign as secretary of state in a May, 2001 newspaper op-ed, has a reputation of being a competent, reasonable government official, the opposite is true. He has a long and undistinguished record in American government. In fact, his career is marked by blunder, failure and defeat.

This is because his philosophy is worse than his undeservedly decent reputation; Colin Powell is fundamentally anti-American.

The career military figure has always projected a measured, careful demeanor. In his early days as a military adviser in South Vietnam, where he was part of the unit involved in the My Lai massacre, Powell’s record is mixed and partly heroic; he was wounded and rescued comrades after he survived a helicopter crash. But from his service under President Nixon to Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton, advising or commanding short U.S. military interventions in Grenada (1983), Libya (1986), Panama (1989) and the Gulf War (1990), his record is defined by short missions that accomplish little or nothing at all. He tends by his own admission to favor diplomacy over the use of military force that advances the nation’s defense and interest.

Powell’s limited, get-in-and-get-out incursions have shaped and defined U.S. military policy for decades with disastrous results; in Grenada, the U.S. rescued the medical school students but failed to dissuade Communist Cuba from militarily opposing the U.S., including supporting states that sponsor terrorism. In Libya, the limited bombing failed to accomplish anything and actually bolstered the dictatorship, which was unshaken by the strike. In Panama, the country was invaded by the U.S. for the sake of protecting Americans, helping others and stopping illegal drug trafficking and the dictator was removed, all to little effect. The Gulf War infamously liberated Kuwait at the expense of leaving an anti-American dictator in power in Iraq and abetting the rise of Islamic terrorism, which spread and led to the worst attack on America in history in 2001.

Powell’s half-measures leave enemy combatants essentially unopposed to do real harm and inflict major, lasting damage.

This is because Colin Powell’s ethics embrace selflessness, as against selfishness, as a virtue. He consistently and emphatically holds that the highest morality is helping others. He is mixed, as evidenced in his opposition to Clinton’s policy to help others in Bosnia on the grounds that it did not also benefit the United States. What drives Colin Powell, however, is the antithesis of self-interest. Powell opposes any act which explicitly advances U.S. interest, such as advancing toward Baghdad during the Gulf War to take out Saddam Hussein or get oil or annihilate Islamic terrorist state sponsors—and he does so exactly because the proposed act advances U.S. interest.

Powell opposed any unilateral U.S. military action following the September 11, 2001 attack on America, for instance, insisting that the U.S. must plead for permission from the United Nations instead. When, as secretary of state, Powell got his way and pleaded to the U.N. for an invasion of Iraq, he did so not on the grounds that the U.S. retains the moral right to eradicate state sponsors of terrorism but on the argument that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction—which Powell was also wrong about—posed some vague, general threat to the world. The invasion proceeded, accomplished nothing, sacrificed thousands of innocent American servicemen and women and failed, all but delivering today’s Iraq into the control of America’s arch-enemy, Iran.

Now, Colin Powell supports Obama’s deal with Iran.

From castigating Israel for acting in its self-defense, offering praise and support for Communist dictator Fidel Castro and trying to schedule a meeting with Arab terrorist and Munich Olympics massacre chieftain Yasser Arafat while he was secretary of state, Powell’s anti-Americanism is fully, alarmingly steady and consistent. That he wants this death pact with Iran, too, is part of Powell’s doctrine of self-sacrifice.

I do not doubt that this is his sincerely held philosophy. Colin Powell, who opposed neoconservatives in the Bush White House and defends a woman’s right to an abortion, expresses sincerity in all of his convictions. But he is mixed and the mixture is bad for America with deadly implications for U.S. national defense. For this reason, he is the worst type of American leader: one who claims that America is good and ought to be defended but only because America helps others at the expense of American interest and strictly on the condition that America seeks and obtains the approval of the others whom it’s morally obliged to help.

From the beginning of his military career, when he served as an adviser in South Vietnam, to today’s deplorable sanction of a deal to engage nuclear advancement for America’s foremost enemy, Powell consistently acts against America. Powell’s selflessness goes back decades, to his earliest experiences when he says he “found himself” in what he sees as service to the state. It was never more explicit than when he asserted in 1997—spearheading the Bush-Clinton initiative to impose “national service” under the Orwellian term volunteerism—that each individual has a moral duty to serve others, the opposite of the founding American ideals of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of one’s own happiness for one’s own sake. This selfless statesman’s dogged anti-Americanism is never more wicked and dangerous than it is now in defense of those who seek death to America.

The Great American Hero

Courtesy Reuters

Courtesy Reuters

Fourteen years ago on September 11, before the United States entered its longest war, before George W. Bush squandered an opportunity to rally Americans around a moral defense of the nation based on individual rights and Americans instead elected and re-elected Barack Obama and chose to sacrifice liberty for faith in government control predicated on a false sense of national security, one of the passengers on a plane hijacked by Islamic terrorists on 9/11 called an end to plans for self-defense and said: “Let’s roll.”

What the phrase means, then and now, is an Americanism: it’s a combination of the moral commitment to a united act of self-defense imbued with “can-do” optimism. That the men on United Flight 93 who acted on this call to action were the only Americans to succeed in self-defense on that black Tuesday, and that they were civilians as against the government and military personnel whose proper role is to defend the nation, should have made an enormous impact on the American public in terms of discerning military defense as the highest and most proper role of government.

It didn’t. Instead, most Americans chose to have faith in the state and support the omnipotent state, though some, such as Edward Snowden, choose to question the role of government. There are others, including activists, intellectuals and freethinkers across the political spectrum, who fight to varying degrees for individual rights. Last week, the world witnessed in one brave act of self-defense against another Islamic terrorist attack, the return of the American hero.

His name is Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos (pictured here from left to right). There are others, including an American whose struggle against the Moslem terrorist alerted the three young American heroes, and a British businessman. But it was these three who took the religious barbarian, who came charging down an aisle on a train bound for Paris intent on mass murder, down. They hogtied the Islamic radical, who had watched a YouTube video calling for jihad before boarding the train, according to officials in France. What prompted the men—three friends from suburban California—to act was when one of them, upon hearing gunfire, said: “Let’s go.” They charged toward the jihadist and took him down.

The story of this great American act of heroism reminds me of the heroic passengers on United 93. Their call to roll, as historian John David Lewis said while evoking phrases such as “Remember the Alamo!” in my 2011 interview, should have but never caught on. Even more obscure is the fact that, according to reporter Jere Longman, after United 93’s passengers broke into the cockpit and stood facing the enemy, in what may be the last recorded words of the final flight used in the worst attack against America, one lone passenger called out: “Let’s get them!” Then, there was a union of self-defense against the siege and the plane went down.

Last Friday, thanks to an act of self-interest, it was the siege that went down. In the American history of men fighting for life against a barbaric siege, the Alamo’s Davy Crockett once advised: “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” These three Americans, Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos, heading for Paris, acted on the call to go by reason. Come this year’s 9/11, instead of the meaningless, usual displays of grief, weakness and submission to faith, despair and statism, Americans ought to think of the American hero—Davy Crockett, United 93’s passengers, and the Paris-bound train’s defenders—and pledge to go by reason, get the enemy before it’s too late and roll over any and every threat to our lives and freedom.