Saturday, July 05, 2008

Another Time To Try Men's Souls- The Detroit Winter Soldier Investigations-1971

As The Burns-Novick Vietnam War Documentary Airs- Another Time To Try Men's Souls- The Detroit Winter Soldier Investigations-1971

DVD Review

Winter Soldier, various soldier witnesses, Winterfest Productions, 1972

I am rather fond of invoking, especially in writing of the American Revolution that we have just again celebrated, Tom Paine’s little propaganda piece in defense of that revolution which hails the winter soldiers of 1776 for staying at their posts when others either ran away or became faint-hearted at the prospects of defeating the bloody English. It is those efforts by those long ago winter soldiers that other leftists and I have honored in the past and continue to honor today. We will leave the hollow holiday rhetoric and mindless flag waving to the sunshine patriots. Needless to say, given the title of the film under review, I am not the only one who appreciates that description and the producers here, I believe, have caught the essence of the spirit of those long ago winter soldiers in this documentary about the rank and file soldier-driven investigation in 1971 into the atrocities and horrors produced by the American military in the Vietnam War.

It is an old hoary truism, if not now something of a cliché, that war does not bring out humankind’s nobler instincts. For a very recent example one need look no further back than at the newspaper headlines of the past few years concerning various atrocities and acts of torture committed by the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, Iraq and Afghanistan are hardly the first time that the American military has been exposed acting in less than its self-proclaimed ‘agent of liberation’ role in its various imperial adventures. If one rolls the film of history back to the last generation, for those who have forgotten or were not around, Vietnam presents that same story. As against prior wars two things made awareness that something had gone horribly wrong possible in Vietnam. First, Vietnam was the first televised war and at some point it became impossible for the military to hide everything that it was doing. Secondly, a small critical mass of American military personnel, mainly those rank and file personnel who actually carried out military policy, wanted to clear the air of their complicity in that policy.

Needless to say, an investigation into atrocities and torture is not something that the American military establishment wished to have aired in public (and as the fate of this film indicates raised hell to successfully keep it out of the major media markets of the time). That establishment was much more comfortable with internal governmental investigations or whitewashes of their actions as occurred, ultimately, in the case of My Lai. However the traumatic reaction of a significant element of the rank and file soldiery in Vietnam caused this 'unofficial' investigation to take place. For those who grew up, like this reviewer, believing something of Lincoln’s expression that the American democratic experience was the ‘last, best hope for mankind’ this was not pretty viewing. For one, also like the reviewer, who was a soldier during the Vietnam War period and who had friends and ‘buddies’ just like those that populate this documentary AND DID SOME OF THE SAME THINGS it was doubly hard. But, dear reader, for the most part what the citizen-soldiers- our brothers, sons and other relatives- have to say here needed to be said.

Naturally in a documentary that films an investigation into atrocities, torture and military standard operating procedure (SOP) during the Vietnam War the interviewees are going to be a little more articulate, a little more remorseful and a lot more angry than the average soldier who went through Vietnam came home and tried to forget the experience. These soldiers had an agenda- and that agenda was to get their buddies- the troops still in Vietnam- home. Nevertheless one must be impressed by the way they expressed themselves –sometimes haltingly, sometimes inarticulately, sometimes from some depth that we have no understanding of. Moreover, their testimony has the ring of truth. Not the SOP military truth but this truth- humankind has a long way to go before it can, without embarrassment, use the word civilized to describe itself. No, my friends, these were not our soldiers but, they were our people-these were the winter soldiers of the Vietnam War.

Friday, July 04, 2008

A Fresh Look At 1776- The Great American Revolution

This year marks the 232th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. A lot has gone wrong with the promise presented by that document and the revolution that went with it but we nevertheless justly still commemorate that event today. The point is to take that history out of the hands of the sunshine patriots who have appropriated it- and by the look of things - we better make it pronto.


1776, David McCullough, Simon&Schuster, New York, 2005

Regular readers of this space will recognize that I spend a fair amount of time discussing the lessons of, or looking at specific aspects of, the three great European revolutions- the English, French and the Russian. I have also given a fair amount of space to the grandeur of the American Civil War. I have, in contrast, tended to give short shrift to the virtues of the American Revolution. This is flat out wrong. Thus, over the past couple of years I have tried to rectify that slight by increasing the amount of space given over to various aspects of the American Revolution, mainly biographic sketches. Today I continue that shift with a review of the well-known historian and documentary narrator David McCullough’s 1776.

Part of the reason for selecting Mr. McCullough’s work is the personal need to go over again the specifics of the revolutionary period. You know, the battle of this or that, or some military operation led by whomever. However, the more pressing reason is that Mr. McCullough has written an important book centered on detailing the creation of the American revolutionary national liberation army, its trials, tribulations and faults. Moreover, McCullough has written his narrative of events in an easy to follow way, including some very insightful commentary about various turning points in the revolutionary experience, like the effect of the issuance of the Declaration of Independence on the morale of the troops in the field.

The key to understanding the eventual success of the American colonial struggle against bloody England was the coalescing of a ragtag, localized basically over-sized weekend militia into first a New England- wide then a continent-wide army worthy of the name. Along the way cadres were formed that saw the struggle through to the end. No revolutionary movement can be successful without that accrual. The case of Henry Knox, local Boston bookseller turned military magician, bringing captured cannon from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston in order to help ‘push’ the British out of Boston is just the most dramatic case of such cadre development

Equally as important, the names Washington, Gates and Knox and lesser cadre keep coming up repeatedly during this narrative, and rightly so. That points to the decisive question that the narration of events here turns on- leadership at crunch time. A whole school of historians, at one time at least, tended to diminish the role that Washington played in keeping these ragtag forces together. McCullough, rightly I think, challenges that assumption and places the Washington leadership as a key component to success.

McCullough, moreover, intentionally or not, through his narrative not only traces the development of Washington as a leader in the abstract but how he fares during the various campaigns. Thus we are treated to the high of his maneuvers in the key fight that led to the evacuation of Boston by the British in March of 1776, and then the low of the shifting of the struggle to the south with the devastating initial colonial defeats in the greater New York area when the militarsy forces of British imperialism got into high gear and applied its muscle.

Thereafter McCullough details the various retreats down through New Jersey and ends the year with the famous Battle of Trenton that was key to the survival of the revolutionary army in its first year. The narrative breaks off there. Although the opponents slugged it out for several more years the maintenance of a functioning revolutionary army in the field pointed positively toward the conclusion that victory was possible. Read this book and learn more about some of our common revolutionary history.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

*Dual Power in the American Revolution-Professor Maier's View

Click on title to link to The History Place's Timetable for the pre-revolutionary events that are discussed in the book reviewed below.

This year marks the 232th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. A lot has gone wrong with the promise presented by that document and the revolution that went with it but we nevertheless justly still commemorate that event today. The point is to take that history out of the hands of the sunshine patriots who have appropriated it- and by the look of things - we better make it pronto.


From Resistance to Revolution: 1765-1776, Paula Maier, 1974

In my youth I was greatly enamored of Crane Brinton’s classic sociological study of the stages of revolution, Anatomy of a Revolution. In that work Brinton put forth a number of propositions that he believed were common to the English revolution of the 17th century, the American and French revolutions of the 18th century and the Russian of the 20th century as he tried to draw some conclusions about the similarities of great modern revolutions up to his time. Although his work has been superseded, in part, by advances in scholarship over the past half century of so every thoughtful observer of revolutions can still benefit by a reading of his work.

A central theme of that work was that in the pre-revolutionary period a fair slice of society (generally a literate, activist segment) shifted its allegiance in self-defense away from the established order and either adhered to new parallel political organizations or remained neutral toward the possibilities of an impeding uprising. Professor Maier has taken that proposition, although she seemingly has made no formal recognition of her debt to Brinton, and applied it to a study of the American Revolution and has made a very nice case for Professor Brinton’s proposition. Using his schema has nevertheless strenghtened her argument.

Leon Trotsky in his seminal three-volume work The History of the Russian Revolution has a chapter in Volume Two headed Dual Power. The gist of the argument that Trotsky presented there is that in revolutionary periods the organized structures of the old regime are confronted with parallel structures organized by the revolutionary forces. In the case of the Russian revolution that, once the question of the monarchy was out of the way- a question basically settled by the February revolution, shaped up to be a battle between the forces around Kerensky’s bourgeois Provisional government and the revolutionary forces around the Workers, Soldiers and Peasants Soviets. In the long haul one of those two forces had to prevail and in the Russian case it was the soviets.

Trotsky, here was, of course, discussing the question of the direct struggle for state power but I would argue that that same notion can be used for the pre-revolutionary period, at least for the American Revolution. Professor Maier’s work bears out that contention. Certainly the way that she structured her time frames captures the various turns in the political struggle toward revolution fairly accurately (first peaceful petition and non-cooperation, then spirited public demonstrations, boycotts, acts of violence against British property and eventually creation of an organ of self-government- the Continental Congress).

In that ten year period from 1765, the period of the agitation centered on the activities of the Sons of Liberty against Stamp Act, through the various other oppositional movements to unjust parliamentary actions through the key establishment of a Continental Congress (the American equivalent of the National Assembly in the French and Soviets in the Russian experiences) culminating in a declaration of independence there is a sea change in the shift of the political allegiance by the bulk of American colonists toward England and the monarchy.

The radicals in America, like John and Samuel Adams (cousins), Joseph Warren, James Otis and John Hancock, started out assuming that the English monarchy, its governmental ministries and an elected Parliament were rational organizations. And they were for the English if not for the unrepresented colonialists. Thus each act, like the Stamp Act, Townsend Acts, etc. contrary to the interests of the colonialists met with an organized opposition. However, this opposition started out with the colonialists acting merely as aggrieved by an uninformed, or in the worst case manipulated, sovereign as time and the number of egregious incidents goes on the radicals move further left, pick up other layers of society and begin to see that self-interest required independence. Along the way some elements react against the leftward movement and either goes to the sidelines of the political struggle or adhere to the monarchy. Valuable political lessons were accumulated along the way.

Are there any lessons to be drawn today from those struggles of our forebears, though? In short, are we in that ten-year period prior to a revolutionary turn? Certainly the objective situation in the economy, the world political situation and the crush of social institutions are not qualitatively different from 1765. But no, I see no parallels today of people creating alternate institutions to take on the government, although they should. Nevertheless scholars, history buffs, radicals and revolutionaries should read this book to learn about revolutionary timing, if nothing else.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

*To The Armed Struggle League- Propaganda or Agitation?

Click on the title to link to an "Under The Hood" (Fort Hood G.I. Coffeehouse)Web site online article about the "Oleo Strut" Coffeehouse, an important development in the anti-Vietnam War struggle. Hats off to those bygone anti-war fighters.


On Slogans- Propaganda or Agitation?

Every once in a while I get a political communication that baffles me. Today is one of those days. I am looking for help and comments from readers as much as I want to comment on this one myself. I monitor a number of amorphous left wing political sites to get a sense of what is happening in our little corner of the political universe and to get a better slant on events than one generally gets from the bourgeois media (although one should not dismiss that source out of hand, if for no other reason than to know what the buggers are up to). I have commented on other occasions that some of these left wing sites have gone off on more than one conspiracy theory tangent to explain away the impotent of the left but the subject of today’s entry is of different magnitude.

Here is what I am up against upon receipt of a communiqué (in English, although today that means less than it used to) from a group called the Armed Struggle League. Personally, I have never heard of this group, at least not under that name although I do not necessarily keep up with the doings of every grouplet as I have enough to do creating my own propaganda along with my own little grouplet. The substance of the Armed Struggle League’s message is that NOW is the time, due to a myriad of political, social and economic circumstances (the usual laundry list- the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the housing crisis, the commodities crisis, the poor American education and health systems) to form workers councils, use those organizations to struggle for power and defend them by arming the workers. That is where we part company-for the moment.

After giving the communiqué some thought my initial satirical reaction was that here was a group that had been underground for a long time and had only surfaced now that United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and his majority had given its imprimatur for the individual right to bear arms. But that was too facile an analysis even for this writer. My next reaction was that the group had been underground for a long time and had only recently gotten the word that the 1917 February Revolution had occurred in Russia and that they were playing catch-up somewhere in the summer of that year. Again, that is too easy an answer. I am going to assume for my own political purposes that this is a rational group and that they are just frustrated (like the rest of us on the extra-parliamentary left) that the masses have not yet risen to slay the monster who is certainly taking a big chunk out of their lives.

Elsewhere I have tried to explain the difference between our general propaganda tasks in defense of socialism in this period and our occasional ability to take the offensive and agitate for certain demands either because the objective situation cries to high heaven for that solution or because the demand has some capacity to get a hearing from some segment of today’s political audience. The clearest example that I can give of this in recent times, and that concerned me personally, was the question of creating soldiers and sailors solidarity committees to link up with the soldiers in Iraq to end the war a couple of years ago when there were openly civil war conditions in Iraq and American military forces, especially the rank and file, were in turmoil. Without going into all the details of how my group decided to agitate around that issue it certainly met, for a time, the two criteria I mentioned above- objective necessity and possibilities of a hearing from political elements. Sometime in mid-2007 that slogan lost its agitational edge as things calmed down in Iraq with the ‘victory’ of the Bush/Petraeus ‘troop surge’ strategy. We still use the slogan as propaganda on selected occasions but we do not highlight it much less agitate around the slogan today.

And that, my friends, is exactly what is wrong with the political prospectus of the Armed Struggle League today. Workers Councils- great idea. Center a workers government around this organizational form- even better. Defend those organizations by arming the workers against internal counter-revolution and external imperialist intervention- ABC’s. But what does all that have to do with today’s “simple” little tasks like getting working people in America to break from their political allegiance to the Democratic Party (and, apparently, in the cases of at least some white workers the Republican Party) and struggling to create a workers party that can fight for a workers government. Not as sexy as invoking the glory days of the Russian Revolution but those are our general propaganda tasks today.

Note: The thought had passed my mind that this message was an act of provocation by some nefarious forces, governmental or otherwise. For what purposes, however, I do not know. The e-mail address I tried to reply to was one of those no reply things. However, since the thrush of the communiqué had some sense of historical knowledge I think this is really the work of some antsy “ultra left” kids. In that case I urge them to think things through- our day will come, it is just not today. If any reader knows anything about this group, has received this communiqué or is a member of the group I definitely want to hear from you.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

*Again, An Anniversary of Sorts- On Keeping (Or Trying To Keep) A Revolutionary Perspective In Hard Political Times

Click on title to link to the Leon Trotsky Internet Archive's copy of pages from Leon Trotsky's Journal for 1936 and 1937, a tough period for him politically and personally before the Mexican exile came through.


Parts of this entry were used last summer (An Anniversary of Sorts, July 2007 archives) to mark my 35th year as a follower of Karl Marx. Most of these remarks are also pertinent here as I celebrate my 35th year as a follower of Leon Trotsky.

This summer (2007) marks the 35th year of my commitment to Marxism. Those who have been reading my commentaries for a while know that I try to commemorate, and comment on, important anniversaries in our common working class and leftist history like the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti or the start of the Paris Commune. Those same readers also know that I have been rather short with bourgeois politicians like John Kerry who have a habit of commemorating every little political move they have taken. The winner for me was Kerry’s very public celebration at historic Fanueil Hall in Boston in 2006 of the 35th anniversary of his anti-war testimony before Congress in 1971. Christ, I still chuckle over the absurdity of that one. But hear me out on this. I want no pat on the back but to just make a comment about why, despite the current historic trend away from socialist solutions to the world’s problems, I still proudly carry the title communist.

I once remarked in a review of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto that the third section of that document where he polemicizes against the various liberal and so-called socialist groups of his day that in my search for political solutions in my early days I had probably held virtually every position that he argued against. And believe me, dear reader, that is no exaggeration-except maybe I did not advocate for feudal socialism. But the rest, liberalism, both tactical and principled versions of pacifism, anarchism, guerrilla warfare, and ...well you get the drift I was right in the thick of. This is probably why when I headed, reluctantly I might add, to Marxism it stuck. And that is the main idea I am trying to get at in this piece. That is the power of Marxism as a tool for looking at and changing the world. The only other point I would add is that over the past thirty-five years nothing in politics, our few victories and our many, too many defeats at the hands of the capitalists, has made me regret that I took the road back to my working class roots. I have made many a political mistake in my life, that is for sure. But this is not one of them. LONG LIVE THE WORLD SOCIALIST REVOLUTION!!!


Recently in an entry (A Slight Irving Howe Confession, May 2008 archives) I mentioned Professor Howe’s role in my introduction (at least conscious introduction) to the work of Leon Trotsky. As mentioned below it was not enough back in 1972 to come to a Marxist understanding of the world it was also necessary to trace the threads through to the thoughts of more modern Marxist thinkers. I repost the section on how I was introduced to Trotsky’s thought here as a little reminder that fate takes some funny turns in this wicked old world.

Confession#2- Irving Howe actually acted, unintentionally, as my recruiting sergeant to the works of Leon Trotsky that eventually led to my embrace of a Trotskyist worldview. As I noted last year I have been a Marxist since 1972. But after some 150 years of Marxism claiming to be a Marxist is only the beginning of wisdom. One has to find the modern thread that continues in the spirit of the founders. This year marks my 35th year as a follower of Leon Trotsky. Back in 1972, as part of trying to find a political path to modern Marxism I picked up a collection of socialist works edited by Professor Howe. In that compilation was an excerpt from Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, a section called On Dual Power. I read it, and then re-read it. Next day I went out to scrounge up a copy of the whole work. And the rest is history. So, thanks, Professor Howe- now back to the polemical wars- the truce is over.

Once Again in 2008- Long Live The World Socialist Revolution!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Alabama, God Damn- Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mocking Bird"

Click on the headline to link to a "Wikipedia" entry for Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mocking Bird" as background for this entry.


To Kill a Mocking Bird, Gregory Peck, black and white, 1962

This film is an excellent black and white adaptation of Harper Lee’s book of the same name. The acting, particularly by Gregory Peck (and a cameo by a young Robert Duval), brings out all the pathos, bathos and grit of small town Southern life in the 1930’s. The story itself is an unusual combination, narrated by Peck’s film daughter Scout (and presumably Lee herself), of a coming of age story that we are fairly familiar with and the question of race and sex in the Deep South (and not only there) with which we were (at the time of the film’s debut in 1962) only vaguely familiar. That dramatic tension, muted as it was by the cinematic and social conventions of the time, nevertheless made a strong statement about the underlying tensions of this society at a time when the Southern black civil rights struggle movement was coming into focus in the national consciousness.

The name Atticus Finch (Peck’s role) as the liberal (for that southern locale) lawyer committed to the rule of law had a certain currency in the 1960’s as a symbol for those southern whites who saw that Jim Crow had to go. Here Finch is the appointed lawyer for a black man accused of raping a white women of low origin- the classic ‘white trash’ depicted in many a film and novel. Finch earnestly, no, passionately in his understated manner, attempts to defend this man, a brave act in itself under the circumstances.

Needless to say an all white jury of that black man’s ‘peers’ nevertheless convicts him out of hand. In the end the black man tries to escape and is killed in the process. In an earlier scenario Finch is pressed into guard duty at the jailhouse in order to head off a posse of ‘white trash’ elements who are bend on doing ‘justice’ their way- hanging him from a lynching tree. On a mere false accusation of a white woman this black man is doomed whichever way he turns. Sound familiar?

The other part of the story concerns the reactions by Finch’s motherless son and tomboyish daughter to the realities of social life, Southern style. That part is in some ways, particularly when the children watch the trial from the “Negro” balcony section of the courtroom, the least successful of the film. What is entirely believable and gives some relief from the travesty that is unfolding are the pranks, pitfalls and antics of the kids. The tensions between brother and sister, the protective role of the older brother, the attempt by the sister to assert her own identity, the sense of adventure and mystery of what lies beyond the immediate household that is the hallmark of youth all get a work out here. But in the end it is the quiet dignity of solid old Atticus and the bewildered dignity of a doomed black man that hold this whole thing together. Bravo Peck. Kudos to Harper Lee.