peteg's blog


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Over three sittings. I generally like the old epics, and am not short on patience right now, but this is quite bad. Did Kirk Douglas do anything decent? (OK, Paths of Glory.) Something of a Laurence Olivier segue from Bunny Lake is Missing by way of Douglas's ego. I enjoyed Charles Laughton's performance the most; Peter Ustinov's smarm comes just a little too easily. (Wow, he got an Oscar for that?) I'd say this was a formative lesson to Kubrick as he tightened things up from here on out.

Roy Scranton: War Porn.

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Kindle. A while back John Quiggin pointed at an article by Scranton in the New York Times, calling it "[an] excellent piece on the redemptive power of war (a huge factor in the enthusiasm with which so many entered the Great War)." Its opening is pure Khe Sanh, and this book expands those first three paragraphs into something of a fragmentary memoir. Strangely, refreshingly, this is not a movie script.

Scranton has several angles on the war in Iraq, and struggles with those beyond his direct and constructed poet-warrior experience. The scene where a dog bites an Iraqi maths PhD student is closer to Wolf than reality, if only because everyone knows you don't go near blood-crazed animals. War has often been characterized as mostly tedious boredom punctuated by bursts of existential panic, and getting lost while driving around to ultimately no end made me think that Scranton was a bit late, or not invited, to the Generation Kill party. The ending takes things to the peace-time limit, perhaps intending to demonstrate how unenlightening encounters with violence are, or that some develop a taste for the extreme, or women sometimes get more than they ask for, or whatever; by then we're too deep into exploitation territory to have much confidence about his intent. Much of the writing is incoherent: at one point a heaving bosom yields a slow breath, and the interstitial text is often unreadable. No one cares about the Dow Jones. No one.

The central problem with this book is that it focusses far too closely on violence. Yes, the violence is ugly, it doesn't redeem, it cannot enlighten, and saying this forcefully is valuable. However most people don't need to actually go to war to understand that. What he omits, and is perhaps difficult to see from the rank of private in the U.S. Army, is all the other stuff that's going on. The above-mentioned article contends that the "chief virtues" of "[the US Army] troops ... are obedience and aggressiveness." That is probably the case, and yet many have learnt deep lessons in the midst of war. Here's a brief list:

One could go on. I liked the title of his Learning to die in the Anthropocene, and am very sympathetic to that view, but having read this and the introduction of that I think I'll give it a miss.

Joshua Buhs spills more words on this than I could be bothered too. Michiko Kakutani equivocates and gestures at Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke as some kind of benchmark.