Film class — week 2

31 August 2006, 1710 EDT

Film #2: “Twelve O’Clock High” (1949). We watched it Tuesday.

Reading for Thursday: by the neorealist John J. Mearsheimer, “Power and Fear in Great Power Politics,” in G.O. Mazur, ed., One Hundred Year Commemoration to the Life of Hans Morgenthau (1904-2004) (New York: Semenenko Foundation, 2004), pp. 184-196.

In this brief chapter, Mearsheimer outlines some of the basic tenets of his influential theory of offensive neorealism, which emphasizes the role of fear in motivating tragic state action. Horrible wars and costly arms races occur even though no state necessarily seeks them. This is primarly because of the anarchic nature of international relations.

States know that other states possess offensive forces; yet, they cannot predict their intentions, cannot trust their assurances, and cannot rely upon others (or certainly not a central authority) to restrain these other states. Therefore, they have little choice but to make worst-case assumptions and to pursue more and more power. Such (difference maximizing) strategies are adopted to assure their own relative success (and to avoid loss).

In the film, Gregory Peck plays a hard-ass General in World War II who is put in charge of an air unit that is both critical to the war effort — and failing. The previous leader was a nice guy, even a friend of Peck’s, but he was not getting the necessary “maximum effort” out of his forces. Part of the problem is that the US employs daytime precision bombing, which is more accurate for hitting targets, but far more deadly for air crews.

Peck’s character, General Frank Savage, said this to his men on his first day on the job:

We’ve got to fight and some of us have got to die. I’m not telling you not to be afraid. Fear is normal. But stop worrying about it, and about yourselves. Stop making plans. Forget about going home. Consider yourselves dead. Once you accept that idea, it won’t be so tough.

How’s that for rallying the troops?

You can probably guess a fair amount of the storyline. I won’t reveal the plot details, but will say that the men become more engaged with the fighting when the bombing turns directly to German military targets and away from various missions over France.

The film has some genuine air bombing footage courtesy of the “War Department” and is well-acted by a good cast. If you eat various Kellogg’s cereals, you can even order a free copy of the DVD.

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