Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"Today you are the media, it is your duty to report and keep the hope alive." -- Mir-Hossein Mousavi


iran uprising media cell phones

Anyone who was closely following the live updates Saturday, the 20th, understands that something very important took place, something that will shape the world in some as-of-yet unknown way. We know this because we felt it.

Saturday morning I woke up anxious, eager to find out if the protests would continue after Khamenei's warnings on Friday, and what would happen if they did. I found some live updates and was unable to leave my computer. I sat refreshing my screen until 5PM.


9.55 am. About 3000 or 4000 people are in Enqelab square now. Police is there. No Khatami, no Karroubi, no Mousavi

10.24 am. Tehran protesters coming in waves, will go on till dark and beyond. This no longer rally but street fighting.

10.32 am. City is closed down with anti-riot forces and police. The people are being beaten with knives, batons. Things are going downhill.

10.50 am. things are horrible, please pray for us

11:24 am. Helicopters spraying water with agent in it onto crowds. Skin irritant, will make it feel as though water is scalding.

11:41. am. This is street fighting like the first 2 nights. They are chanting death to the dictator now, no slogans about votes anymore

12.02 pm. Mousavi tells he's bathed [ritually] for martyrdom.

12.05 pm. Confirmed: European embassies are giving care for injured! They help care for acid burns. Hospitals are traps!

12.46 pm. I feel like I'm in a police state for 1st time. Pple are so pissed, starting to feel scared. As of late aftrnoon Basij are everywhere


Those messages were posted on Twitter by people on the streets, interspersed with cell phone photographs and videos. It was amazing and immediate. I had access to large amounts of raw, personalized information, and it was left up to me how to interpret, think, and feel about it, instant by instant. Unfiltered information funneled straight into my home resulted in a real (and emotional) connection to the people in Iran. The information meant something in way it normally does not, shaped around individuals yet still existing within its larger context. (It was also great to see something as frivolous as Twitter and cell-phones being used for something important!)

I knew all of this on Saturday but it wasn't until trying to catch up on events Sunday by way of cable news that I realized a true media revolution had taken place. Watching CNN felt like stepping back through time. Questions that normally exist in the back of my mind immediately inhibited my ability to watch: Why does this feel so motionless and dead? Why am I watching someone tell me the news? Why is this medium so clearly and effortlessly exposed to me as being a gate which holds back information instead of presenting it? I realized that one of the reasons the information online seemed so much more like news was because it was not dumbed down or interpreted by journalists for me. As Andrew Sullivan noted, "We simply became a hub for all this breaking information. This requires journalists getting out of the way of the story rather than attempting to put their own stamp on it and delivering their own version of the truth. I felt last week more like a DJ than a journalist, compiling and sampling and remixing the sounds, sights, events and words streaming out of an ever-shifting drama." Throughout Saturday I felt stimulated knowing that some of the information I was receiving was probably completely bogus, but I knew that amidst a wide enough sample a true picture could be glimpsed. The picture being painted was much more detailed and nuanced than anything I had ever seen on television, and, most importantly, it wasn't being painted for me. The photographs were also allowed to exist on their own, moment by moment. Videos were not narrated or edited but shown simply as moments in time. The Monoform was not utilized to distill information, and because of this, it was quickly and obviously revealed how much the Monoform distorts the truth and condescends to the viewer. For the first time ever the word that best described the form and function of the mainstream media to me was archaic. Everything has changed, regardless of whether or not cable news recognizes it. "One Person = One Broadcaster."

Outside of this, something even bigger was happening. Again, Andrew Sullivan: "People throughout the world are not only listening but responding. They’re engaging with individual participants, they’re passing on their messages to their friends and they’re even providing detailed instructions to [allow] internet access that the authorities can’t immediately censor. That kind of participation is really extraordinary." Not only do we feel part of it, but because of the way technology was utilized, people from all over the world can (to some degree) take part in, and support, revolutions. The implications of this are obviously immense.

With the Internet slowed by the authorities, Iranians were forced to use something simple. "To communicate, they tweeted. Within hours of the farcical election result, I tracked down a bunch of live Twitter feeds and started to edit and rebroadcast them as a stream of human consciousness on the verge of revolution." My personal fear is that the far wider implications of such a remark -- a stream of human consciousness on the verge of revolution -- will be lost in a specific place and time, and not seen as something that needs to be nurtured and brought to fruition. I refuse to read that beautiful phrase the way Andrew Sullivan intended it.


iran protest uprising revolution

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Monoform II


(Previous Monoform post found HERE.)


Eric Alterman made a good point when he said “Everyday I read the Business Section of the New York Times. Not the Labor Section, not the Environment Section.” How can the media be filled with a true liberal bias when all of it exists within a right leaning (or corporate) paradigm? This is rarely (if ever) discussed by those who claim such a bias exists in the mainstream media.

Another thing that's rarely discussed in media debates (especially by liberals who defend the likes of NBC News and CNN) is the influence of form on content. Below is an article by Geoff Bowie, director of The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins (2001), which gives examples of how the media--CNN in this case--acts as an extension of government/business policy by presenting/promoting a very specific worldview through its use of camera angles, zooms, cuts, audio, information overload, emotional appeal, "reaction shots", and its refusal to stray outside of the aforementioned ideological narrative. Since the overwhelming majority of media criticism that comes from the left is focused on Fox News, this brief condemnation of CNN (and done in a way that is rarely discussed) is quite refreshing. It won't be particularly illuminating for anyone who watches the news (or television) with both eyes open, but it's important enough that I hope everyone at least finds it interesting.

Following the article are two semi-related (via content) short films by Adam Curtis: The Rise and Fall of the TV Journalist, and Oh Dearism. And following the Curtis shorts are two comedic videos by Charlie Brooker criticizing American television.


* * *


CNN is part of the largest media conglomerate in the world, AOL Time Warner. CNN International is the dominant global TV news channel, broadcasting in several languages to some 200 nations.

CNN - America's Pravda, by Geoff Bowie

"IT'S TRULY fantastic that the western media can speak so disparagingly and self-righteously about the censorship of the media in totalitarian or 'rogue' states. And it's fascinating that it manages to present itself as the standard bearer of freedom of the press and a keystone of democracy - all this when the western media has to be the greatest ideological noise machine of all time. CNN is a standout example of the media Gordian knot throttling progress toward any form of broader-based participatory democracy.

Like core sampling in the mining industry, we recently 'core sampled' CNN's signal on the day of President Bush's Iraq speech to see what it was made of. On Monday, October 7th 2002, we recorded an hour of programming in the morning from 10:00 - 11:00, an hour in the afternoon from 13:00 - 14:00, and two hours in the evening from 20:00 - 22:00 that includes the President's speech in Cincinnati and its immediate aftermath.

The Monday morning sample was taken up with Live 'Breaking News' coverage of the sniper story - "Sniper hits teenager outside school in Bowie, Maryland". There was primarily one camera shot - a high angle from a helicopter -- that zooms in and out repeatedly from Extreme Long Shot to Medium Shot, closing in on various parts of the school grounds wherever something was moving. There were several jerky pans, which like the camera zooming in and out, is very rarely seen on television. This is a deliberate style of shooting, a mise en scene of the news. It is literally an unsettling technique to underline the panic and urgency of the situation. The camera itself seemed to be searching for the sniper or else suggesting the sniper's point of view for the viewer. We can imagine him looking for his next victim through the camera's crosshairs. A mother, heard in a telephone interview was almost the only non-official, non-media person to speak. She said, "it makes you afraid to step outside your front door". The high angle sweeping, zooming and panning shot was interminable and so it soon became boring. We heard new terms added to the media lexicon, like "geographic profiling", "a target rich environment", "code blue" and "schools in lockdown".

A feeling of low level, grinding fear and boredom built up over the hour. The boredom in a way helps acclimatize viewers to the new crisis and also provides reassurance. We recognize the event coming immediately under media control and so we can assume police control will undoubtedly follow. Boredom domesticates the sniper story, making it homogeneous with the endless line of other exciting news story that have come and gone.

When the story lags, many other diversions on the CNN screen appeal for viewer attention. There are banner headlines, changing sub-headlines, cycling time and stock market information, and Headline News ticker tape scrolling along the bottom of the screen just slowly enough to be read. If CNN is not assuming an attention deficit syndrome of mammoth proportions among viewers, then it wants to create the same with the perpetual distraction of these information fragments. If you're not interested in forecasts about the President's upcoming speech, well how about the baseball scores, or the sniper story, or Kashmir, or Britney Spears make over or the Nasdaq's performance today? Distraction appears to play an important role in CNN's formula for viewer comfort. The station makes every effort to guarantee no moment when a viewer might make the effort to think.

Commercial breaks provide additional kinetic mental relief from what programmers must regard as the slow pace of the news. The ads (geared mostly to an affluent male, business audience -- holidays in the bikini-clad Caribbean, Fedex, Mac, Nasdaq) and especially the promotions for CNN's programming use an especially rapid editing rate usually reserved for music videos. A 15 second 'CNN Weekdays' spot had 20 shot changes. In a CNN promotion of its election coverage and other programming there were 67 shots in a 60 second spot. Added to this image barrage is a dense sound track of driving music, intense voice over and sound effects. CNN's aim must be to revive even the most bleary-eyed heroin user who might be watching.

The network also resorts to a bit of coarse ideological manipulation. One spot features an image of Saddam Hussein wearing a black suit and hat, and with one hand firing a rifle into the air. Frame by frame examination indicates that CNN 'doctored' this shot. If Saddam even fired the rifle, it must not have had the punch CNN was looking for. In this shot a few frames, before the 'firing' of the rifle have been tinted and a fade to white was inserted for 3 frames to enhance (or invent) the gun's explosion.

This kind of blunt treatment of an image of a political enemy would once have been considered the worst kind of propaganda. Now, it's probably accepted humorously as an example of CNN's Hollywood showmanship and corporate chutzpah. In our media cynical society we're on a first name basis with a character called 'Saddam' in the latest version of an "Axis of Evil" video game.

The hollywoodization of the news on CNN goes beyond fictionalizing the Iraqi leader. It includes type casting of the network's journalists and hosts. Larry King, with his suspenders, big raspy voice and avuncular manners, Aaron Brown's mellifluous warmth, Connie Chung's razor-edged beauty, Tucker Carlson's New England debating class brash, Lou Dobbs, Wolf Blitzer and company are like references from pop culture that run from Norman Rockwell, to Citizen Kane, to Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington, to Neuromancer and some comic books. 'Reporters as characters' is an essential element of CNN's 'branding' strategy.

- - -

The afternoon sample of CNN's programming is particularly supportive of the US administration's view of the world. There is what amounts to a 20 minute free-time political broadcast from the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld speaking at his daily Pentagon briefing (with no alternative points of view presented afterwards); a report from two CNN correspondents about the authenticity of a recent Bin Laden tape from inside Al Jazeera's TV studios; and a mini-documentary called "The Soldiers of 9/11" filmed at Fort Huachuca, Arizona Military Intelligence Corps training camp.

In the Bin Laden story CNN correspondent Martin Savidge and "Arab affairs expert" Octavia Nasser discuss the Bin Laden tape only between themselves. Nasser states the tape contains a direct message to the American people but neither she nor Martin Savidge tell viewers what that message is nor do they feel compelled to explain why they have chosen to keep it secret. The report via videophone with its poor quality image and sound also conveys a message. With the dark Al Jazeera studio in the background, CNN is obviously deep in foreign territory here. While Savidge does not finish his piece with "from Ali Baba's cave this is Martin Savidge", his use of 'street' English is a subtle form of editorializing to discredit the "Arabs" in his midst. Savidge says, "The people here at Al Jazeera believe it's the real deal. They also think it was made in the last two to three weeks. There are others who say 'well, an audio tape with a vague message doesn't prove anything as far as Osama Bin Laden'."

"The Soldiers of 9/11", a fast paced, tightly formatted 4 minute documentary, is militaristic and patriotic. We see the burning towers footage again as the mini-doc tells the story of two young New Yorkers after '9/11'deciding to give up the easy life with enviable jobs in the big city for the hard life of military service to their country. One is a young male actor and the second, a woman of 24 (barely articulate) who had been pursuing a career in the fashion business. Standard 'wall-to-wall' narration leaves room for a few, very short, on camera sound bites from the interview subjects.

- - -

In the evening's production of the President's speech, CNN appears to be more or less a partner with the White House. Early in the afternoon CNN's reports indicate the network has detailed advance information about the content of the speech. In early reports and promotions, journalists demonstrate their awareness of what the President will be saying. CNN has to prepare the location technically and its journalists have to plan their follow up reactions and comments. The director has to know where the President will enter and exit and determine the best opportunities to plan reaction shots of invited guests listening to his speech. But this high degree of cooperation and coordination between the White House and CNN is minimized or elided for the viewer.

The production of the speech seems very tightly scripted. Even the President's walk, as he enters the auditorium, gives the impression it has been studied and adjusted for its 'message'. The only spontaneous moment occurs when President Bush forgets where he's supposed to exit. He heads off stage and then suddenly turns back to walk, as scripted, through the appreciative audience shaking hands. This scene gives host Aaron Brown a chance to deliver his prepared summary of the President's speech that helps to key viewers to the 'proper' reaction to the speech. John King too, CNN Senior White House correspondent is instantly ready outside the Museum with his primed remarks that he presents as if they were off the top of his head: "The President, as promised by the White House, was methodically, calmly going through every question he could think of. Anyway, that the American people might ask."

Neither can CNN it seems, think of any other questions to ask. No guest or host or journalist on CNN talks for instance, about the lethal manipulation by the US of economic sanctions against Iraq said to be responsible for the death of an estimated 500,000 children under the age of five since 1991? Instead we hear the opinion about how unfortunate it is that the people of Iraq will not likely hear Bush's (totally outrageous) statement that "America is a friend to the people of Iraq" because Iraq's media is censored by government. It is difficult to imagine any media system in the world more effectively supportive of their government than CNN is of theirs.

"Larry King Live" after the President's speech, carries out a hollow and manipulative exercise in objectivity and democracy as he interviews an equal number of Democratic and Republican Senators and Congressmen to assess their reaction to the speech. The entire friendly debate revolves around whether or not UN involvement is necessary to bring about regime change and/or Iraq's disarmament. No one raises more fundamentally critical questions about American foreign policy.

Aaron Brown closes our sample just before the CNN News at 10 in MCU looking directly to camera. He says, "The President as you know, laid out his case against Iraq. To our ears he was like a prosecutor closing a murder case. His tone was low key, his words stern -- Saddam a murderous tyrant, a homicidal dictator addicted to weapons of mass destruction." By the time Aaron reaches his last sentence, a subtle switch has occurred. The close-up shot size, his direct gaze into the lens, his use of the phrase "to our ears" in an earlier sentence, his particular inflection and tone, combine to transfer these thoughts as Aaron Brown's own on Saddam Hussein. He's no longer simply reporting the President's views. This has implications for the viewer who is more likely to identify with Aaron Brown than directly with the President.

The shoddy journalism, the uncritical stance to US government policy, the contempt for reality, understanding, and the consciousness of the viewer expressed in CNN's packaging of the news as another kind of entertainment genre, might be interpreted as a government/media conspiracy to keep the public dazed and confused. But the feeling watching CNN suggests something closer to what Harper's magazine editor Lewis Lapham states when he describes America as "a country that possesses the power to poison the earth without possessing either the means or the desire to know itself." CNN's well-heeled executives and network staff feel so much on the same side as the government, and share so strongly a 'we're-all-in-this-together' unity, the station simply doesn't see any need to be too strenuous about an 'arm's length relationship' to government. And they would probably consider it artificial and bad for business too, if CNN bothered too much with objectivity, disinterested inquiry, and critical analysis from diverse points of view."

* * *








Friday, June 12, 2009

The Prince of Clouds



* * *


The best translation of Les Fleurs du Mal is not the best known and certainly not the most widely read (it's currently out of print!). I'm referring to the 1936 translation by Edna St. Vincent Millay and George Dillon. What's astonishing to me about this collection is that it manages to change languages while still preserving the rhyme, meaning, and personality of Baudelaire. Millay and Dillon transform the poems so beautifully that it's as if they spent their time forging a pair of magic glasses for their readers! The translations are so artfully done that Paul Valéry remarked: "The quality of this is such that it would require the existence of another Baudelaire to convey an idea of it to the French reading public."

I have taken the time to type up a good chunk of Miss Millay's insightful Preface to the translation in THIS companion post. Here is an excerpt:

"When George Dillon wrote me that he was translating some of Les Fleurs du Mal into English verse, and that he was using in every instance the meter and the form used by Baudelaire in the original poem, I was very much interested; this had always seemed to me the only way to go about such a task. It is true that the translator, who is hard put to it enough in any case to transpose a poem from one language into another without strangling it in the process, here takes upon himself an added burden; but he is more than rewarded when he finds that his translation, when read aloud directly after the original, echoes the original, that it is still, in some miraculous way, the same poem, although its words are in a different language. One impertinence at least, of the many impertinences almost necessarily involved in re-writing another person's poem, has not been committed: the poem has been pretty roughly handled, possibly, but its anatomy at least is still intact."

But of course I am not making this post solely to praise a translation; I am making it to praise an extraordinary poem by Charles Baudelaire called Le Voyage/Travel. It's a long poem, yes, but one of the best. Enjoy!


* * *


Travel

I

The child, in love with globes and maps of foreign parts,
Finds in the universe no dearth and no defect.
How big the world is, seen by lamplight on his charts!
How very small the world is, viewed in retrospect.

Some morning we start out; we have a grudge, we itch
To hurt someone, get even, — whatever the cause may be,
Here we are, leaning to the vessel's roll and pitch,
Cradling our infinite upon the finite sea:

People who think their country shameful, who despise
Its politics, are here; and men who hate their home;
Astrologers, who read the stars in women's eyes
Till nearly drowned, stand by the rail and watch the foam;

Men who must run from Circe, or be changed to swine,
Go tramping round the deck, drunken with light and air,
Thinking that wind and sun and spray that tastes of brine
Can clean the lips of kisses, blow perfume from the hair.

But the true travelers are those who leave a port
Just to be leaving; hearts light as balloons, they cry,
"Come on! There's a ship sailing! Hurry! Time's getting short!"
And pack a bag and board her, — and could not tell you why.

Those whose desires assume the shape of mist or cloud;
Who long for, as the raw recruit longs for his gun,
Voluptuousness immense and changing, by the crowd
Unguessed, and never known by name to anyone.

II

So, like a top, spinning and waltzing horribly,
Or bouncing like a ball, we go, — even in profound
Slumber tormented, rolled by Curiosity
Like hoops, as some hard Angel whips the suns around.

Bizarre phenomenon, this goal that changes place! —
And, being nowhere, can be any port of call!
Where Man, whose hope is never out of breath, will race
Madly, to find repose, just anywhere at all!

Our soul before the wind sails on, Utopia-bound;
A voice calls from the deck, "What's that ahead there? — land?"
A voice from the dark crow's-nest — wild, fanatic sound —
Shouts "Happiness! Glory! Love!" — it's just a bank of sand!

Each little island sighted by the watch at night
Becomes an Eldorado, is in his belief
The Promised Land; Imagination soars; despite
The fact that every dawn reveals a barren reef.

Poor fellow, sick with love for that which never was!
Put him in irons — must we? — throw him overboard?
Mad, drunken tar, inventor of Americas...
Which, fading, make the void more bitter, more abhorred.

So the old trudging tramp, befouled by muck and mud,
Ever before his eyes keeps Paradise in sight,
And sniffs with nose in air a steaming Lotus bud,
Wherever humble people sup by candlelight.

III

Astonishing, you are, you travelers, — your eyes
Are deep as the sea's self; what stories they withhold!
Open for us the chest of your rich memories!
Show us those treasures, wrought of meteoric gold!

We'd like, though not by steam or sail, to travel, too!
Brighten our prisons, please! Our days are all the same!
Paint on our spirits, stretched like canvases for you,
Your memories, that have horizons for their frame!

Tell us, what have you seen?

IV

"What have we seen? — oh, well,
We have seen waves, seen stars, seen quite a bit of sand;
We have been shipwrecked once or twice; but, truth to tell,
It's just as dull as here in any foreign land.

The glory of the sun upon the violet sea,
The glory of the castles in the setting sun,
Saddened us, made us restless, made us long to be
Under some magic sky, some unfamiliar one.

Truly, the finest cities, the most famous views,
Were never so attractive or mysterious
As those we saw in clouds. But it was all no use,
We had to keep on going — that's the way with us.

— Fulfillment only adds fresh fuel to the blaze.
(Desire! — old tree that pasture on pleasure and grow fat,
Your bark grows harder, thicker, with the passing days,
But you are set to reach the sun, for all of that!

Shall you grow on for ever, tall tree — must you outdo
The cypress?) Still, we have collected, we may say,
For your voracious album, with care, a sketch or two,
Brothers, to whom all's fine that comes from far away.

We have bowed down to bestial idols; we have seen
Baldaquined thrones inlaid with every kind of gem;
Palaces, silver pillars with marble lace between —
Ruinous for your bankers even to dream of them — ;

Processions, coronations, — such costumes as we lack
Tongue to describe — seen cobras dance, and watched them kiss
The juggler's mouth; seen women with nails and teeth stained black."

V

And then? — and then?

VI

"You childrenI! Do you want more of this?

Well, then, and most impressive of all: you cannot go
Anywhere, and not witness — it's thrust before your eyes —
On every rung of the ladder, the high as well as the low,
The tedious spectacle of sin-that-never-dies.

Woman, vile slave, adoring herself, ridiculous
And unaware of it, too stupid and too vain;
And man, the pompous tyrant, greedy, cupidinous
And hard, slave of a slave, and gutter into the drain.

The headsman happy in his work, the victim's shriek;
Banquets where blood has peppered the pot, perfumed the fruits;
Poison of too much power making the despot weak;
The people all in love with the whip which keeps them brutes;

Divers religions, all quite similar to ours,
Each promising salvation and life; Saints everywhere,
Who might as well be wallowing on feather beds and flowers
As getting so much pleasure from those hair shirts they wear.

Humanity, still talking too much, drunken and proud
As ever of its talents, to mighty God on high
In anguish and in furious wrath shouting aloud,
'Master, made in my image! I curse Thee! Mayst Thou die!'

Not all, of course, are quite such nit-wits; there are some
Who, sickened by the norm, and paying serious court
To Madness, seeking refuge, turn to opium.
We've been around the world; and this is our report."

VII

Bitter the knowledge gained from travel... What am I?
The small monotonous world reflects me everywhere:
Yesterday, now, tomorrow, for ever — in a dry
Desert of boredom, an oasis of despair!

Shall I go on? — stay here? Stay here, exhausted man!
Yet, if you must, go on — keep under cover — flee —
Try to outwit the watchful enemy if you can —
Sepulchral Time! Alas, how many there must be

Constrained like the apostles, like the wandering Jew,
To journey without respite over dust and foam
To dodge the net of Time! — and there are others, who
Have quietly killed him, never having stirred from home.

Yet, when his foot is on our spine, one hope at least
Remains: wriggle from under! Onward! The untrod track!
Just as we once set forth for China and points east,
Wide eyes on the wide sea, and hair blown stiffly back,

We shall embark upon the Sea of Shadows, gay
As a young passenger on his first voyage out...
What are those sweet, funereal voices? "Come this way,
All ye that are in trouble! — all ye that are in doubt!

"Ye that would drink of Lethe and eat of Lotus-flowers,
Here are miraculous fruits! — here, harvested, are piled
All things the heart has missed! Drink, through the long, sweet hours
Of that clear afternoon never by dusk defiled!"

We know this ghost — those accents! — Pylades! comforter
And friend! — his arms outstretched! — ah, and this ghost we know,
That calls, "I am Electra! Come! — the voice of her
Whose lost, belovèd knees we kissed so long ago.

VIII

Oh, Death, old captain, hoist the anchor! Come, cast off!
We've seen this country, Death! We're sick of it! Let's go!
The sky is black; black is the curling crest, the trough
Of the deep wave; yet crowd the sail on, even so!

Pour us your poison wine that makes us feel like gods!
Our brains are burning up! — there's nothing left to do
But plunge into the void! — hell? heaven? — what's the odds?
We're bound for the Unknown, in search of something new!

Friday, June 05, 2009

Winter Soldier (1972)

                                                  "original courage is good,
                                                  motivation be damned,
                                                  and if you say they are trained
                                                  to feel no pain,
                                                  are they
                                                  guaranteed this?
                                                  is it still not possible
                                                  to die for somebody else?

                                                  you sophisticates
                                                  who lay back and
                                                  make statements of explanation,
                                                  I have seen the red rose burning
                                                  and this means more."



on the fire suicides of the buddhists
by Charles Bukowski


* * *

The documentary Winter Soldier shows how institutionalized modes of thought and circumstance turned many young men into mass murderers in Vietnam, resulting in a war where the massacre, rape, and mutilation of civilians was often the rule rather than the exception.

Although the main focus is on the testimony given by American soldiers concerning the actual atrocities committed in Vietnam, between the testimony Winter Soldier gives us a glimpse of how social and cultural forces help set the stage for larger atrocities to take place.


"'The type of boy we aim at turning out,' the Head used to say to impressed parents, 'is a thoroughly manly fellow. We prepare for the universities of course, but our pride is in our excellent Sports Record. There is an O.T.C., organised by Sergeant-Major Brown...
     On such occasions he invariably quoted those stirring and indeed immortal lines of Rudyard Kipling which end up, 'You'll be a man, my son.' It is so important to know how to kill. Indeed, unless you know how to kill you cannot possibly be a Man, still less a Gentleman." --Richard Aldington, Death of a Hero (1929)




"An apathy settled in. I withered. I learned nothing. I did nothing. I was kicked, hounded, caned, flogged, hairbrushed, morning, noon and night. The more I suffered, the less I cared. The longer I stayed, the harder I grew." --Death of a Hero


American soldiers were taught to view the Vietnamese as less than human. The seeds of this objectification are found in the smaller, unspoken offenses that take place in our everyday lives when we push people away, ignore them, discredit them, and dislike them simply because of the assumptions we make about who they are.




On the surface the two men above appear to be examples of people who have learned a great deal from their experiences, but I wonder if this is true. In Vietnam, they went along. The moral code was altered and they were altered along with it. There was no sense of self holding them to anything they had previously known. After returning home to a place where what they did as soldiers was seen as unacceptable and horrible, they too found their actions unacceptable and horrible. Again, they went along. I wonder if this is real change we see in them or just another example of their malleability to surrounding social and cultural norms.

And just as the soldiers went along with (and participated in) the destructive behavior that was encouraged by the dominant culture that surrounded them, so too have we: