My Comments Post

•November 30, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Here are all 10 of my comments on other peoples’ blogs.

Comment 1

Comment 2

Comment 3

Comment 4

Comment 5 (“Awaiting Moderation”)

Comment 6 (“Awaiting Moderation”)

Comment 7 (“Awaiting Moderation”)

Comment 8

Comment 9

Comment 10


My Last Post

•November 28, 2009 • Leave a Comment

So, here I am, with the semester about to end, typing up the last, tenth, closing post for Literary Responses to War and Peace, in a series of posts which has become more and more personal, and more and more rushed, as the semester ran on. It seems like it was only a short time ago when I was staring at this monitor, trying to figure out what RSS feeds I’d be using and what I could possibly chose to write about. It wasn’t that long ago that I was scrabbling to make deadlines and find connections, typing furiously on a laptop keyboard sticky and unresponsive from a Coca-Cola accident and years of collected dust. Maybe it’s just me. But the distance from Labor Day to Black Friday is deceptively short.

Now, for class I’m concluding Tim O’Brien’s psuedo-novel, psuedo-memoir The Things They Carried. It’s an interesting conclusion for things, connecting a lot of themes from our previous works. While Vera Brittain ponders the nature of heroism related to Roland’s death, O’Brien touches the issue in almost all of his stories. There’s the issue of loss, with the death of Ted Lavender, and Curt Lemon, and Kiowa. An interesting spin on the role of women, with “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.” There’s the issue of absurdity, with the tales told, with the fetishes the soldiers carry–the pebble, the love letters, the pictures, the stockings.

And, most of all, there’s the theme of storytelling, of war tales.It’s not as blatant as in Levi or Vonnegut, where all storytellers are liars. But the art of telling a war tale is important to this text, even to the characters, who critique their own war tales as they’re being told. The importance is worth noting. After all, O’Brian did write, “can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories.”

So, if the book is a sense of closure, so too is the blog. Here we have all of those issues dealt with and connected to a modern, or at least an attempt thereof. This blog has changed a lot from what I originally intended. Part of it was the slow start in finding a topic, part of it was the fact that the topic floated about out-of-bounds frequently. But, I’d like to think the thoughts in here have some interesting permutations, some solid connections, or at least were interesting. The theme is still one I’m having a hard time describing, but loosely, it was meant to focus on the relationship between humanity and war technology. In the end, I think it’s become more about how war affects humanity in general, a look at the effects of war as shown through war literature. And I think there it will stay.

Just as I was unsure how to start this blog, I’m unsure how to end it. Obviously, there’s the comment post, but that comes tomorrow since I’m a perpetual procrastinator. But in a general sense, I guess there is no ending, much like war has no ending. It affects everyone who encounters it: Levi is a good example, who committed suicide later in life, as did the mother in Maus, and Vonnegut most certainly was affected by Dresden. War is absurd. So far, there’s been no end to war. But, perhaps, maybe by understanding the literature of war, we understand war better. And while the pessimist in me is trying to repress the thought, the optimist hopes that such understanding can lead to an ending.

The Children’s Crusade

•November 28, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Kurt Vonnegut’s amazing Slaughter-House Five, the psuedo-novel, pseudo-metafictional memoir about the firebombing of Dresden, can be argued to have one, simple, overarching message: war is absurd. It’s inane, it makes no sense. The people best situated to survive, well-trained infantry scouts, die, while the misfit Billy Pilgrim lives. Edgar Derby is killed for no tangible reason–for stealing a teapot. And there’s something deeply chilling, in an absurd black-humor kind of way, about being captured, working in a slaughterhouse for your enemies, surviving through staying in said slaughterhouse during the bombings, and then being forced to dig through human slaughter-houses, to dig through the crumbled and burned buildings to remove the crumbled and burned bodies. It’s the punchline to an amazing joke, a joke on cosmic scale, leaving you unsure whether to laugh or cry.

So it goes.

We can look at the absurdity of war in a modern setting by the recent surge in the British investigating the “legality” of the Iraq war. Issues abound: the Dowling Street Memo, the fact that U.S. planners had talked about invasion for years before the war, the tenuous links between al-Qaeda and WMDs. Debating the legality of a war is like arguing over the definition of an abstract, and what makes it worse is that it happened over six years too late. It’s an exercise in bureaucracy, a moral standpoint made after the fact and still waddling through red tape to arrive at a standpoint in general. One of the most recent updates in this debate to pop up in my Google reader is the following from

The Iraq War was legal but not “legitimate” for a democratic country, Britain’s former UN ambassador said yesterday.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock told the Iraq inquiry that the 2003 invasion did not have the backing of the UN or the majority of British people, “so there was a failure to establish legitimacy”.

He said he believed the US and the UK could establish legality under UN resolutions if Iraq was shown to have breached disarmament rules. But a “final” verdict was never likely to be made.

And Sir Jeremy, Britain’s top diplomat at the UN from 1998 to 2003, added: “If you do something the majority of UN states think is wrong, illegitimate or politically unjustifiable, you are taking a risk.

“I regard our participation in Iraq in 2003 as legal but of questionable legitimacy in that it didn’t have the backing of the majority of member states.”

Several years back, I met an Iraq war vet in one of my English classes, who claimed he had been in Army Intelligence. He said that when he moved into Baghdad, his unit’s first and ongoing job was to pick up the documents fromIraqi intelligence agencies, and continue their work weeding out Al-Qaeda cells within Iraq. Apparently Al-Qaeda was about as fond of the Iraqi government as they were of the U.S. And it makes a certain degree of sense: Iraq is the only Arab state in recent memory to war on other Arab states, a big no-go for conservative Islam, and Saddam’s history of one-man totalitarian rule makes me think that he wouldn’t look kindly on any kind of challenge to his rule.

After the war, this guy used the GI Bill and was getting his degree in English and Education, was real active in politics, said the war made him an active Democrat. He seemed like a stand-up kinda guy. I’m not sure if he really was with Intelligence, or even served in the army. At this point I don’t even remember his name, so it goes back into the “friend of a friend” category of reliable information. But there’s something deeply absurd about toppling another government under pretenses of dealing with terrorists, only to pick up their pieces and continue their same damn job, fighting their same damn enemy, in a chilling, absurd black-humor kind of way. So it goes.

So it goes.

Iraq War was legal but not ‘legitimate’

By Jason Beattie 28/11/2009

Correspondance At War

•November 27, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Reading through Since You Went Away, a compilation of letters from American women on the home front to men serving overseas, I found an interesting connection in Chapter 5. In and among the photographs in the pictorial essay section, several of the posters featured V-Mail prominently. As explained in the book, V-Mail was a system where letters were written on specially sized paper, then photographed; it ended up being cheaper, and more compact, to send reels of film to be developed in-theater, compared to writing, shipping, and delivering tons of airmail. The poster in specific is below, although others were also informative:

V-Mail Poster

For its time, V-Mail was certainly innovative, enough for a massive publicity campaign to surround it. By filming up these letters, space and weight was saved, and upon reaching the theater, the letters were re-sent, as high-quality photos. Though some of the writers noted their fear for privacy, for the most part it was well-regarded.

Today, the issue of fearing for privacy isn’t coming from the soldiers and their loved ones, but instead is something which affects the U.S. Military. With such an array of technology as email, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, blogs, Skype, and dozens of voice-over-IP and instant messenger programs, staying in touch is no longer a problem. This deluge of free-floating information is exactly the opposite of the 1940’s worries; privacy is no longer an issue for many of these, since as soon as they’re out, everybody who sees it will know the info. So, now the issue is that the military doesn’t want important information floating around on cyberspace, like Geraldo’s map in the sand which nearly got the reporter thrown out of Iraq in 2003. As early as 2004 the Pentagon was censoring soldiers’ blogs.

Blogs in particular are replacing letters, diaries, and journals, acting as multi-function records of events. With the War on Terror, military blogs, or milblogs, are booming, with entire sites dedicated to them. The concept has even spread to the major news media, with the New York Times operating an “At War” blogger station for military personnel serving overseas.

At War is a reported blog from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and other areas of conflict in the post-9/11 era, expanding the scope of its predecessor, Baghdad Bureau (whose contents have been incorporated here). The New York Times’s award-winning team of correspondents, photographers, videographers and local interpreters provide insight — and try to answer your questions — about the combatants shaping events along political, military and religious faultlines, and the civilians caught in the middle.

Posts include one soldier’s re-enacting of a hometown tradition, a bicycle race, held at an air base south of Baghdad. The post, “From Lancaster to Iraq: A Thanksgiving Day Racing Tradition,” details the race held on base in memory of the race held back at home:

Among the hundreds of things I miss about home during my year in Iraq is the Turkey Day bike race in Lancaster County, Penn. This unofficial final race of every season draws 50 or more racers from around the county, and it shows which cyclists kept up with their fitness routines since the end of the season in September. So when I finally got a chance to organize a bike race on Tallil Ali Air Base after six months here, I wanted it to be on Thanksgiving Day.

In another example, “The Digital Fog of War,” a soldier comments on the lack of dedicated electronics available to soldiers on par with the civilian smartphone, a critique on the way the U.S. Army handles its technology, made more interesting by the fact it appears in blog format:

A senior noncommissioned officer who just completed a stint as a drill sergeant recently told me, “Today’s soldiers are the Xbox generation. They might not be as physically tough or in shape but they sure are digitally savvy.”

To members of the Xbox generation, however, military hardware and software seem to date from the Atari era: Too often it is bulky, confusing and impractical.

In terms of software, the main culprits for the Army’s Luddite setup here is a weak architecture and lack of interoperability between systems.

Compared to the past, we currently live in a technological paradise, a world of far-reaching technological advancements.  Let’s not forget that the Al-Qaeda and Taliban cells wield brick-like cell phones along with their AK’s, coordinating via text messages, email, and chat clients. As technology continues to grow, new issues and problems will emerge, such as the line between privacy and secrecy.

November 3, 2009, 12:19 pm. The Digital Fog of War. By TIM HSIA

November 26, 2009, 1:13 pm. From Lancaster to Iraq: A Thanksgiving Day Racing Tradition By SGT. NEIL GUSSMAN

At War Blog: Notes from the Front Lines.

The Holocaust, part III – Survival and Denial

•November 27, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Primo Levi’s “Survival in Auschwitz” is an insider’s look at the holocaust, showcasing the struggle for survival and its effects on humanity. Probably the most damning section comes near the end, after the SS guards have left the camp behind in ruins, fleeing before the coming of the Soviets. In it, Levi philosophizes over the nature of death and survival, who lives and who dies, a question which was raised frequently in Maus. The selections, the killings, the camp in all its arbitrarily chaotic nature—this is the true horror of surviving Auschwitz.

Earlier in the book, Levi details the aftermath of a selection, while wondering himself why he survived. Similarly, several young, healthy men were chosen for the gas chambers, and yet one old man (Kuhn) managed to survive the inspection, and prays, thanking God while the chosen victims look on. Levi writes:

“Kuhn is out of his mind. Doesn’t he see, in the bunk next to his, Beppo the Greek, who is twenty years old, and will be gassed the day after tomorrow, and knows it, and is lying there staring at the light bulb without saying anything and without thinking about anything more? Doesn’t Kuhn realize that next time it will be his turn? Doesn’t Kuhn understand that what has happened today is an abomination that no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no atonement by the guilty, nothing at all in the power of man can ever heal again?

If I were God, I would spit Kuhn’s prayer out to the ground.” (Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, pp 129-130, 1996 Touchstone Books ed.)

Living in a prison system—any prison system—fundamentally breaks down one’s humanity, whether forced by the system or otherwise. Freedoms and possessions taken for granted are summarily repossessed or denied, in order to keep order. I remember a scene from an old Alcatraz movie with Clint Eastwood, where a fellow inmate rambles on about the Brooklyn Dodgers, only for Eastwood to point out that the Dodgers moved to California; in a maximum security prison, a prisoner doing life will miss countless changes over a lifetime. I remember reading that many convicts will commit a crime in prison—a stabbing, a theft, anything—just to see the things they’re denied seeing, however briefly, while they’re shuffled to and from hearings: grass, trees, the sun, cars, women.

The Holocaust was no different. Who has time to wonder when everyone is in constant fear of death, starving, doing back-breaking work while being beaten by their overseers? The Nazi machine managed to dehumanize its victims inside and out. On the outside was its propaganda machine, culling the “weak and impure” within the system—the mentally handicapped, homosexuals, Jews, leftist political activists, and a swath of Slavic minorities. On the inside was the breakdown of order and the struggle for survival on a day-by-day basis within the camps.

Since the start of the War on Terror, the Guantanamo Bay facilities have received a number of comparisons to the Holocaust within their criticisms. While not similar at all in the sense of the Holocaust—it is not a death camp or work camp—it is similar in the vein of imprisonment and denial. Within its barbed-wire fences, reports the world media, resides a group ranging from radical terrorists to misguided idealists to accidentally-interned nobodies. Recently, President Obama admitted that his plans to close the facility by 2010 weren’t feasible, though the BBC reported that the situation was changing for the better after the announcement that Guantanamo will close:

Military and civilian staff we spoke to say that the atmosphere has got better – ever since President Obama signed the executive order to shut Guantanamo.

According to the military, some detainees used to regularly throw their “bodily fluids” at the guards.

It still happens, but not as much. The vast majority of detainees are now deemed “compliant”.

That means that 70% of the “prison” population are now allowed to live communally for up to 20 hours a day.

In camp six we saw detainees in art classes, or swapping library books, or bringing their concerns to a camp commander.

They even get to watch satellite TV – Al-Jazeera English and a few sports channels. They can order DVDs – the camp librarian says the Harry Potter movies are a favourite.

That said, the media are still not allowed to talk to any detainee to get their side of the story.

We are not permitted to film their faces.

And 26 of them – more than 10% of the population – are on hunger strike.

Some have been for years.

Until the facility closes, nobody outside the U.S. government will get an inside look of what goes on behind the doors in the top-secret facility.

Now, how to tie this to the Holocaust? Obviously, the two are different examples from different paths, but the similarities with imprisonment are still there, raising questions about the use of denial and the impact on a person, the balance between order and dominance. Again, I have no good answers. This is a dense and touchy issue, one which has already been a hot debate before I added the Holocaust into the mix.

Guantanamo calm as deadline shifts

Thursday, 19 November 2009
By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, Guantanamo Bay

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•October 29, 2009 • Leave a Comment

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The Holocaust, part 2 – Humanity and Seperation

•October 29, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Again, I have to deal with the Holocaust, and again I stall. I originally meant to do a follow-up to the last post, but haven’t made time until now. I realize going into this post that it’s a touchy subject, and I’m not always in the majority of opinions on the subject, but I think it’s a subject worth thinking deeply over given its real-world implications.

How do we further examine the Holocaust, through two more works in fiction? First, the class readings has progressed through and beyond Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the graphic novel detailing the Holocaust through the eyes of his father Vladek. As the narratives progress, one following Art’s attempt to reconcile with his father, the other of Vladek’s survival in Auschwitz, we get to see a lot of development in Vladek’s character, seeing how his time spent in the camps has impacted his post-war life in the 1970’s.

For example, Vladek fits several stereotypes associated with Jews, much to the irritation (and disappointment) of Art; throughout the work, Art struggles to reconcile with his father despite his flaws. For example, Vladek is deeply troubled by money worries, to the point of being miserly. In chapter three of the second Maus book, Vladek gets into an argument with a grocery store manager over returning opened groceries, exchanging them for new groceries. As he explains to Art and his wife, Francoise,

Vladek: He helped me as soon as I explained to him my health, how Mala left me, and how it was in the camps.

In another instance in the same book, Art’s wife stops to pick up an African-American hitchhiker, and Vladek reacts with an unexpected opinion:

Vladek: A hitch-hiker? And -OY- it’s a colored guy, a shvartser! Push quick on teh gas!

[… after dropping off the hitchhiker:]

Vladek: I had the whole time to watch out that this shvartser doesn’t steal us the groceries from the back seat!

Francoise: What?! That’s outrageous! How can you, of all people, be such a racist! You talk about blacks the same way the Nazis talked about the Jews!

Vladek: Ach!… I thought really you are more smart than this, Francoise… It’s not even to compare the shvartsers and the Jews!

In terms of separation and population displacement, probably the largest in recent years has been ironically carried out by Israeli Jews. Aside from the construction of settlements in Palestinian soil, one of the major points in the news is of the Israeli defense wall. Called by some the best hope of protecting  Israeli citizens from suicide bombers, called by others the “Apartheid Wall” to compare it with the South African policy of the same name, the wall has become a major sticking point in Middle-Eastern policy. As reported recently in the Washington Post after a visit by the Pope:

BETHLEHEM, West Bank | Pope Benedict XVI visited a Palestinian refugee camp Wednesday in the West Bank and condemned an Israeli wall overshadowing the facility as “a stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached.”

The visit climaxed a day in which the pontiff also urged Israel to end its embargo of the Gaza Strip.

The pope watched Palestinian children in traditional costumes performing a musical dramatizing their lives on a stage constructed in sight of the 33-foot-high concrete wall and an Israeli watchtower facing the Aida refugee camp housing about 5,000 refugees.

“Towering over us is a stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached – the wall,” Benedict said in a speech to some 1,500 refugees and Palestinian officials.

“In a world where more and more borders are being opened up – to trade, to travel, to movement of peoples, to cultural exchanges – it is tragic to see walls still being erected,” he added.

“On both sides of the wall, great courage is needed if fear and mistrust is to be overcome,” the pope said. “It takes magnanimity to seek reconciliation after years of fighting.”

So, you’re probably asking, what does this have to do with technology and humanity? Quite simply, the technology here is all designed to decrease, maybe even repress humanity. The Germans used the dirty conditions in the camps as proof that the Jews were dirty and unclean to further their racial ideology; this style of separation does nothing beneficial, and instead creates an “other,” alienating and dehumanizing another group of people to sub-human status.

If the same actions aren’t being used in the Palestinian territories today, the same result is created: a distance between two groups of humans is created. From a certain standpoint, the West Bank Wall makes no sense–what is the cost/benefit analysis for the terrorism deterred compared to the number of Palestinians who become terrorists because of such strong measures imposed upon them? Is it really a logical step to create a divide between people which can dehumanize, and therefore anger, the “other?” And to boil it down to a simple question, is this really an effective lesson in problem solving?

There are a lot of deep, politically-charged, and almost philosophical questions on the nature of humanity and separation. Honestly, I don’t think answering them is always the best course of action, usually leading to argument, but thinking about them is a good solution. I’m not going to say the Holocaust impacted the Israelis’ actions, because I’m not sure that it did, nor am I going to compare them to the Nazis or something. I do think that it makes for a fascinating, and perplexing, study in separation between two groups, and its impact on humanity and the human psyche.

“Pope decries Israeli wall”

Thursday, May 14, 2009

By John Phillips