Tag: IR films (Page 1 of 2)

What We’re All Missing in the “Zero Dark Thirty” Debate

This is a guest post by Peter S. Henne. Peter is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University. He formerly worked as a national security consultant. His research focuses on terrorism and religious conflict; he has also written on the role of faith in US foreign policy. During 2012-2013 he is a fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia

I appreciated Jeffrey Stacey’s recent post on the debate over “Zero Dark Thirty.” It’s useful to point out what is being obscured by the criticism of the movie’s depiction of torture. But I think his piece missed a broader aspect of the movie, as well as director Katherine Bigelow’s other war, “The Hurt Locker” (which focuses on an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team in Iraq): what it reveals about the civilian-military divide in the United States.

Many critics have praised Bigelow’s work for its artistic value, and its significance for understanding the post-9/11 era. Much of this has to do with her filmmaking skills. But a good amount of praise focused on her ability to faithfully tell the story of contemporary military activities. In The Washington Post, Ann Hornaday exclaims that Bigelow demonstrates early in the film that “she will not turn away from the most unsavory aspects of the history she’s chronicling.” The New York TimesManohla Dargis discusses the movie as “a seamless weave of truth and drama.” Similarly, many praised “The Hurt Locker” for its “authenticity.”

At the same time, many critiques of these movies focus on their lack of authenticity. By now, we are all familiar with the attacks on “Zero Dark Thirty” for misrepresenting the role torture played in the hunt for bin Ladin. But similar attacks arose after “The Hurt Locker” came out. The film was full of inaccuracies in its depiction of EOD teams, resulting in the head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America calling it “disrespectful.”

Now, I realize the obvious response is: “it’s a movie.” That’s correct, but if the biggest selling point of a movie—or two—is their faithfulness to reality, and they get that wrong, then we’re all missing something, right? No one worries about inaccuracies in “Apocalypse Now” because of, well, Marlon Brando. But we should worry about inaccuracies in Bigelow’s war movies.

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“Zero Dark Thirty” Debate Needs an Interrogation

special ops

Anyone who did not see “Zero Dark Thirty” on its opening night was smart, as it was mayhem in theaters everywhere.  The film shot to #1 at the box office overnight and is there still, for the plain and simple reason that it’s a must see (no spoiler alert here because we all know at least a little about eliminating Osama bin Laden).  Zero Dark features a razor sharp screenplay by Mark Boal, top form directing by Kathryn Bigelow, and higher than high stakes drama from start to finish.

This film, however, is sufficiently controversial that there may soon be Congressional hearings about it–Sen. John McCain and Sen. Diane Feinstein had it in their sites by day one.  The charge is that Bigelow and Boal depict torture in a manner that glorifies it, by way of a plot that allegedly portrays the U.S. government/military eliminating OBL only via intelligence gleaned from full on, no holds barred torture.  In my view they are innocent of this charge.  The raging debate over the film is misdirected and could do better to be debating this country’s torture legacy rather than a film that deserves serious consideration for a best picture Oscar.

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Understanding Zombie Comedy

Earlier this week, Tufts professor Dan Drezner tweeted that his Theory of International Politics and Zombies book has now sold more than 10,000 copies. That’s a huge total by academic standards and I sincerely congratulate Drezner on his success.

Fellow Duck of Minerva bloggers have previously written a good deal about zombies and Drezner’s book. For Foreign Policy, Dan Nexon wrote a brief comment about Drezner’s original article suggesting that we should think (naturally) about IR in terms of hierarchy and empire:

America’s unmatched global-strike capabilities will lead most other remaining states to acquiesce to U.S. leadership over the zone of the living.

The result will not, unfortunately, be Liberal Order 3.0, but a global Pax Americana supported by regional client-empires tasked with controlling and eradicating local zombie eruptions.

Likewise, Laura Sjoberg argues that Drezner reifies masculinization in/of IR.

Reviewer Adam Weinstein argues that the book is “a light, breezy volume” laced with “quick dry punch lines” (Drezner is said to have a “weakness for the cheap joke”). While Charli Carpenter conceded that “the book can and must be read as parody,” Vikash Yadav more critically writes that this hint of humor does not compensate for the mainstream thinking he finds both in Drezner’s book and the larger debate about it:

I do not see the discussions about zombies as a type of new or out-of-the-box thinking. If anything, the discussions of zombies that I have noted so far are completely “in-the-box” thinking, except with a touch of geeky humor, parody, and wit that is usually lacking in the discipline.

So what would constitute an out-of-the box critique of Theory of International Politics and Zombies?

In her most thorough Duck blog post about the book, Charli notes a potentially serious failing of Drezner’s work.

…the book actually scarcely mentions critical theory, post-modernism, feminist theory or pretty much any scholarship falling on the “reflectivist” side of the discipline, much less utilizes their tools. (Though to be fair, Dan doesn’t claim to do so, either.)

But if I have one critique of this otherwise brilliant little book, it’s that as a description of “the field” of IR, TIPZ’ relentless focus on rationalist theory to the near-exclusion of identities, language or embodiment frankly bites.

Broadly, Weinstein agrees with this assessment, as he claims that Drezner’s survey of the field is “prone to give short shrift to IR theories he clearly disagrees with [citing social constructivism], and to softpedal on those with which he sympathizes just a bit.”

While those are significant concerns about the book, they are likely not sufficiently unconventional to satisfy Vikash’s critique. Indeed, he suggests a potentially more critical approach — by thinking about the central role of threats in the discipline, especially ultimate “worst case” threats.

I would hypothesize that apocalyptic thinking functions to reassert the relevance of dominant modes of theorizing; apocalyptic thinking disciplines the discipline. Apocalyptic thinking is deeply conservative; it reasserts the relevance of theories which protect the status quo.

This is an especially important concern given some empirical evidence Drezner arguably misinterprets in his book — the meaning of a couple of comedic zombie films, Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland.

Some readers may know that my ongoing sabbatical project is about “the comedy of global politics.” As I have previously explained at the Duck, numerous realist and other IR theorists have long argued that the discipline is explained in tragic terms. Tragic stories traditionally focus on doomed heroic nobles who find themselves constrained by their situation. The stories tend to be set in the Great Hall or on the battlefield and end in death.

By contrast, comedy potentially provides an important alternative narrative perspective on the discipline. Comedies typically focus on ordinary people and emphasize their regular lives — the human security agenda, if you prefer that language. The stories end happily, perhaps in a marriage. Comedies focusing on elites typically satirize and critique those characters, revealing them to be self-interested buffoons. Satire, farce and black comedy can be subversive, reflecting critical rather than entrenched understandings.

Arguably, the makers of the recent comedic zombie films have both the concerns of ordinary people and subversive ideas about elites in mind. The threat from zombies is mostly played for laughs (Zombieland was criticized for its failings as a horror film) and the lives of the (ordinary) main characters provide alternative narratives that are not centrally focused on apocalyptic threats. The zombies seem relatively easy to slay — though, granted, their large numbers are somewhat worrisome. The lead characters spend a fair amount of screen time thinking about their love lives and families. Both Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland end relatively happily, suggesting romance, family, and a return to (a new) normalcy.

Elite characters in these films, by contrast, are often lampooned and criticized. Obviously, the zombie outbreaks in both films reflect a failure of established order — and the characters in these movies are thus left to construct their own rules and understandings in order to cope with their situations. While Shaun of the Dead relies upon the military to save the lead characters from their situation, the story’s final resolution remains nonetheless focused on the relationships among the ordinary people at the center of the film.

Bill Murray appears as himself in Zombieland , living essentially alone in his mansion and disguising himself as a zombie so that he can have a life outside his dwelling. He plays golf, an elite sport, thanks to his zombie disguise. This way of life proves unsustainable.

Comedic zombie films, despite Drezner’s take (rom zom com?), offer a meaningful pathway to discuss critical theory in IR.


Film review: Godard’s “Made in U.S.A.”

Made in U.S.A (Jean-Luc Godard)

“We were in a political movie … Walt Disney with blood.”

I generally do not discuss films unless I enjoy them and intend to recommend them without hesitation. Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in U.S.A. is an exception, worth mentioning in part because it has so rarely been viewed in the US. Godard made the film in 1966, during an incredibly prolific period of his career. Ostensibly, the film pays homage to “The Big Sleep,” a Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall detective story based on a book by Raymond Chandler. That earlier film classic is well-known for the sizzling chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, as well as the convoluted plot and ambiguous resolution of the murder mystery.

For his source material, Godard used a book (The Jugger) by Donald Westlake. It is one of Westlake’s Parker novels, penned pseudonymously as Richard Stark. Since Westlake did not authorize the use of his book and was not paid for his ideas, he sued successfully to prevent the film from being distributed commercially in the United States. The film premiered briefly at the New York Film Festival n 1967, but was not then shown again stateside until 2009 — very soon after Westlake died. TCM recently broadcast the movie and I recorded it.

Artistically, the film is interesting, colorful, and quite odd.
Westlake’s Parker, a ruthless killer and efficient criminal in the book series, is renamed Paula Nelson and played by the beautiful Anna Karina (Godard’s soon-to-be ex-wife). As the film’s colors and ideas are clearly embedded in the 1960s, this bit of gender-bending is obviously just one element of the broader social and cultural commentary addressed in the film. At one point, Paula says advertizing is fascism. On another occasion, she explains her cartoon-like experiences as if she is in a “film by Walt Disney, but played by Humphrey Bogart–therefore a political film.” A dirty cop twice talks in the voice of Tweety Bird and many of the colorful pop images in the film certainly add a cartoonish quality to the film.

As the New York Times explained in April 2009:

…while this film is far from a lost masterpiece, it is nonetheless a bright and jagged piece of the jigsaw puzzle of Mr. Godard’s career.

…There is, for one thing, a pouting and lovely Marianne Faithfull singing an a capella version of “As Tears Go By.” There are skinny young men smoking and arguing. There are the bright Pop colors of modernity juxtaposed with the weathered, handsome ordinariness of Old France, all of it beautifully photographed by Raoul Coutard. There are political speeches delivered via squawk box.

And of course there is a maddening, liberating indifference to conventions of narrative coherence, psychological verisimilitude or emotional accessibility.

As assaultive as “Made in U.S.A” can be, it also seems to have been made in a spirit of insouciance, improvisation and fun.

The Times does not devote much attention to the film’s explicit and implicit political agenda. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the disappearance and presumed murder of a young communist writer — the former lover of the film’s protagonist. Various characters in the film compare murder to war and the cold war to hot war. One ticks off a list of past battles, culminating in Hanoi, and suggests that all these wars have been essentially the same. Overtly leftist themes and slogans are woven into the dialogue and some characters seem to see a “vast right-wing conspiracy” almost everywhere.

Some critics interpret a strange bar scene as an example of Hegelian dialectic and the communist slogans emanating from the squawk box might suggest a Marxist dialectic at work. Whatever the preferred method, the title “Made in U.S.A.” almost certainly has a double meaning and arguably suggests the need for a double reading.

First, Godard’s homage to “The Big Sleep” says that American artists deserve credit and praise for the genre of film noir. And hard-boiled detective fiction as well — one character, a writer, is named David Goodis. These dark stories cover important themes often ignored in the mainstream. Of course, the mainstream is represented by Disney cartoons and advertizing and Godard speaks fairly explicitly and critically about these elements of pop culture. Even in “The Big Sleep,” the murderer’s identity is made ambiguous (and other important plot points are changed) because Chandler’s original story would not have been compliant with Hollywood morality codes of the time.

The second meaning of the title suggests that then-contemporary cold war conspiracies, whether overt like Vietnam or covert like a real mystery referenced in the film, were literally “made in America.” Again, the criticism is not especially subtle. Young thuggish characters named Robert McNamara and Richard Nixon briefly appear towards the conclusion of the main story. One proclaims that he enjoys killing and the other clearly assents.

Keep in mind that McNamara was Secretary of Defense at the time of this film serving under one of the most progressive Democratic administrations of the last century. LBJ’s “Great Society” produced important civil rights legislation, Medicare, Medicaid, new environmental laws, anti-poverty efforts, etc. But, of course, Johnson and McNamara also prosecuted and escalated the war in Vietnam.

Nixon was technically just a former Vice President (under Dwight Eisenhower), private citizen and corporate lawyer at the time this film was made. However, Nixon was an active party leader in 1966, meeting with foreign leaders while traveling abroad and campaigning for Republicans in midterm elections. Nixon had been a notable cold war hawk for some time and was a key figure on the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In his first campaign, he defeated a female incumbent by implying she was a “pink lady” harboring “communist sympathies.”

In the ending shot, Paula tellingly opines that “The Right and the Left are the same. We have years of struggle ahead, mostly within ourselves.”

This film remains important because the struggle against pervasive commercialism is far from over and the cold war’s end failed to kill the national security state.

Cross-posted from my personal blog on this Nerd Friday because I have not been adding anything here this summer. Sorry about that.




Cross-posted from my personal blog, by suggestion of a Vikash Yadav tweet.

I’ve now watched the first two parts of “Carlos,” a three-part French-produced television miniseries that was broadcast on Sundance this past month. Édgar Ramírez is terrific in the title (star-making) role, though his character is hardly sympathetic. The notorious terrorist is portrayed as an unusual killer — part playboy, part-diplomat, and part-frustrated middle-manager. Carlos is shown meeting with prominent international leaders and is called a celebrity by his fellow terrorists after the 1975 kidnappings at the Vienna OPEC convention. That event takes up a good portion of part 2.

Part 1 of the film opens with a statement warning that it is a fictionalized account and that only certain specific crimes were factually confirmed at trial. Thus, I was not sure of what to make of an alleged meeting in Baghdad involving Yuri Andropov (then-head of the KGB), Carlos and other desperadoes (one actor looked like Tariq Aziz). Allegedly, Andropov put a price on Anwar Sadat’s head at this meeting.

Indeed, one important element of “Carlos” is the relatively clear state sponsorship the terrorist and his various organizations enjoy throughout most of his career. Support from Libya, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, East Germany and the Soviet Union all figure into the terror incidents portrayed on screen. It is no wonder that the Bush administration, circa 2001, believed that state sponsorship was the key element of its anti-terror campaign (despite facts suggesting a completely different kind of threat). This was not a matter of IR theory privileging states.

As a movie, the Golden-Globe winning production is quite unusual:

The film’s scope, range and ambition are incredible; it’s set in at least 16 countries over a 21-year period, and at all times features the characters speaking the languages they would have spoken in the relevant situations—Carlos himself shifts effortlessly among Spanish, English, French, German, Russian and Arabic. An untold number of supporting and bit players pop vividly to life for however many moments they’re onscreen, and the film maintains an exceptional balance between a relentless forward movement and a certain artistic stability…

…the film is so convincing that it persuades you this is essentially the way it was. There are few so completely transporting historical movies, in that it drops the viewer down in another world and time without evident artifice, doctoring, nostalgia, revisionist thinking or overt political agenda. Those with a continuing stake in the causes involved or their own memories of the times can be counted upon to dispute this or that, but as a time machine “Carlos” functions brilliantly.

I can’t wait to watch part 3 — the decline and fall of Carlos, apparently.


Dr. Strangelove’s Mineshafts

What would the world be like after a nuclear attack of some type? That’s the question answered by the President’s National Security staff in the June 2010 second edition of the Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation.

I haven’t read the entire 130 page document, but I did read a chunk of it, as well as an interesting article about it by Ira Chernus, a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Here’s the provocative opening paragraph that got me to click on his piece:

Good news! You’ve got a pretty good chance of surviving a terrorist’s nuclear blast in your city — especially if you’re a rich white man.

Chernus seems particularly interested in the fact that the Obama administration has produced this report — even though the first edition (available here) was issued on January 15, 2009, just before Barack Obama’s inauguration. Moreover, the original report noted that a future edition would do “additional work” on “relevant topics” such as “psychological impacts to the population.”

What does the second edition of the report say about psychiatric disorders — and why will rich white men inherit the world?

According to the latest report, attack survivors will realize they have severe ARS (“acute radition syndrome”) and many are doomed to develop psychiatric disorders as well. Among the “risk factors” listed, the National Security staff (pp. 95-6) includes female gender, ethnic minority, and lower socioeconomic status. In Chernus’s words, “once they [women, minorities and the poor] start going crazy they’re less likely to survive.” Here’s how the report (p. 96) phrases that last claim:

The social, psychological, and behavioral impacts of a nuclear detonation will be widespread and profound, affecting how the incident unfolds and the severity of its consequences.

Chernus compares the report’s frequent optimism about survival rates to Eisenhower-era policy discussions about civil defense. “The big problem, in his [Ike’s] view, was ‘how you get people to face such a possibility without getting hysterical.’”

Though the report concerns the likely aftermath of even a single terrorist nuclear use, the discussion of psychological response and potential survival rates reminded me instead of the prescient film Dr. Strangelove –made not long after Ike’s presidency ended.

Near the end of the film, President Merkin [a-hem] Muffley asks the title character the following question:

But look here doctor, wouldn’t this nucleus of survivors be so grief stricken and anguished that they’d, well, envy the dead and not want to go on living?

The nuclear strategist Strangelove largely dismisses this particular psychological concern and asserts that the privileged white men in the room should be protected as priority survivors in the post-apocalyptic world:

Mr. President, I would not rule out the chance to preserve a nucleus of human specimens. It would be quite easy… heh heh…at the bottom of ah… some of our deeper mineshafts. The radioactivity would never penetrate a mine some thousands of feet deep. And in a matter of weeks, sufficient improvements in dwelling space could easily be provided…

A quick survey would have to be made of all the available mine sites in the country. But I would guess… that ah, dwelling space for several hundred thousands of our people could easily be provided.

…a computer could be set and programmed to accept factors from youth, health, sexual fertility, intelligence, and a cross section of necessary skills. Of course it would be absolutely vital that our top government and military men be included to foster and impart the required principles of leadership and tradition.

By Dr. Strangelove’s reckoning, the female-to-male ratio in the mineshafts should be about 10-to-1 — and “women will have to be selected for their sexual characteristics which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature.” That’s a different post-war psychological concern, eh?

Indeed, the gender politics in the film are obviously quite provocative, essentially equating male sexual fantasies with war and nuclear planning. The latest Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation suggests that absurd nuclear fantasies continue to influence today’s security policymakers.


The Hurt Locker, again

Duck of Minerva bloggers have already written quite a bit about “The Hurt Locker,” which won the Best Picture prize at this week’s Academy Awards ceremony. I saw the movie on DVD a few weeks ago and have been digesting some of the reactions to the film.

Like many critics of this film, Michael Kamber of the NY Times offers a list of serious errors in “The Hurt Locker.” Viewers see the bomb disposal team leave on missions without much other military support. The team members clear buildings by themselves, become skilled snipers and spotters when they stumble upon some British mercenaries, and operate alone in the desert for no apparent reason. He concludes that these are much more than minor technical mistakes:

The film is a collection of scenes that are completely implausible — wrong in almost every respect…it’s not just minor details that are wrong.

Perhaps most inexplicably and implausibly, Staff Sgt. William James, the lead character portrayed as a reckless showboat, has supposedly managed to disarm hundreds of bombs without killing himself! In one key scene, he runs around Baghdad alone at night without suffering injury. His unbelievable exploits are emphasized and reemphasized throughout the film.

So, why did I like “The Hurt Locker” and find it a viable candidate for the canon of IR-related films?

As I read the film, the story of Sgt. James is a metaphor for the story of post-cold war U.S. military intervention — primarily in Iraq, but elsewhere as well.

For James, the war in Iraq is a narcotic. He thrives on the adrenaline-inducing experience, even though he cannot talk to his wife on the telephone, nor really endure his ordinary post-war experience at home with wife and child. His bomb disposal techniques are so disturbing that his fellow team members talk of killing him. He returns to Iraq because his participation in that war has become an integral part of his identity. Sure, he’s been incredibly lucky in the past, but his personal image is embedded in his wartime experience.

As some critics point out, this film has been lauded because domestic audiences appreciate its apparent wartime “realism,” even though the storyline and characters seem completely unrealistic to experts who give them serious thought.

The U.S. too has a long and mostly successful military record — and it too has been incredibly lucky. Like James, the U.S. returned to Iraq after a successful first effort in 1990-91, though many of its friends decided to sit this war out — and some worked actively to try to stop it. Most IR experts found the rationale for U.S. participation in Iraq fairly implausible back in 2003, though I suppose the mass public supported a certain rationale at the time it was originally offered.

To its critics, the U.S. too is a reckless showboat, willing to take incredible risks with other peoples’ lives, even as it claims to be “saving” them. As Vikash has argued at the Duck, the film makes very little effort to explore the perspective of the Iraqis in the film. “The Hurt Locker” is a narrow portrayal of one small unit’s experiences with death and destruction.

This too could be read as an important element of the film. In political debates, Americans focus on U.S. forces, casualties, and experiences. Foreign policy experts debate the meaning of the Iraq war for preventive war doctrines, counterinsurgency tactics, present and future budgeting, etc. Few consider the implications for Iraqis and the wider Middle East.

At times, their technology and ability make the bomb disposal team members seem like Supermen, saviors of the world. However, the film makes no effort to argue that these super-human efforts are actually doing any greater good — or even improving the security of the United States. The film was set in 2004, which means that the U.S. had not yet officially given up on the search for WMDs, the Downing Street Memos had not been disclosed, the Samarra mosque had not been bombed, etc. “Shock and awe” had not prevailed, however, proving that America’s technological prowess didn’t lead to the type of victory many war proponents predicted in advance of the conflict.

In other words, the bad news was bad…but it got worse.

In sum, while the storyline of “The Hurt Locker” often seems detached from realistic war-time experience, that FUBAR narrative works pretty well to explain the actual U.S. experience in Iraq. The lead character’s addiction to war, recklessness, luck, inexplicable behavior, and need to “save the day” reflect an unsavory, but nonetheless viable, portrayal of American identity.


ISA: Renewing my call for comedy

I’m just back from the 2010 ISA conference in NOLA, but I don’t have time for a full convention report right now. Among the highlights: First, I attended a panel on blogging featuring the Duck’s Charli Carpenter on a stage with Dan Drezner, Rob Farley and Steve Walt, among others. Later, over drinks, I got to meet a few of the newest Duck bloggers.

These events motivated me to blog more frequently. We’ll see, eh?

In any case, in addition to networking, a major purpose of ISA is for scholars to exchange ideas in a somewhat formal setting. Ideally, panel members present their latest research and then receive useful feedback from other academics. Since I wouldn’t mind getting more feedback on my latest projects, I’m using the rest of this post to highlight my two ISA papers. Sorry for the shameless self promotion — but I’m in a bit of a panic as I saw something at the conference that made me think that I should work faster.

Loyal readers may recall my 2007 ISA paper and related Duck post on “The Comedy of Great Power Politics.” At this ISA, I presented two papers related to my ongoing “comedy project.”

One was fairly directly on point: “Teaching Global Politics Through Film: The Role of Comedy.” Here’s the abstract:

Popular films can be employed very effectively to teach international relations theory. Indeed, film creates learning opportunities that are not readily available in more typical formats. As a mass medium, film provides potent access to viewers’ imaginations, even as it serves as a unique alternative text and mode of learning within the classroom. The paper first reviews the traditional realist concern with tragedy to cement the importance of dramatic narratives in the field and to stress the contours and limits of the typical story. The second section develops the case for studying comedy in world politics, emphasizing the importance of the concerns of ordinary people and highlighting the critical value of farce and satire. This section brief discusses the storylines or other cinematic elements of several specific films that illustrate each of these comedic forms.

I’m pretty sure that anyone can download the pdf, but let me know if you have difficulty and I’ll email it. The paper borrows a bit from my Duck series of posts on my film class, mixes in a bit of my 2007 paper, and provides something of a critique of IR theory and the way it is ordinarily taught.

My other paper (“Is Nuclear Deterrence as Dead as the Dodo?”) views nuclear deterrence as a long-established norm that is currently in the midst of an increasingly heated “norm contest.” For decades, some scholars have argued that deterrence is irrational, illogical, or contradictory, but a few have gone even further — arguing that the inconsistencies reveal nuclear strategy to be absurd, fantastic, ridiculous and far-fetched. You know, “not a tragedy but a ghastly farce.”

Since at least the early 1980s, many prominent political figures and former military leaders have taken up these points as well–calling often for nuclear disarmament based on the framing developed by the academics. When I teach Global Politics Through Film, I assign my students a speech by former SAC Commander General Lee Butler, who offered one of the strongest statements against nuclear deterrence in 1998 (perhaps poorly timed in a year of Indian and Pakistani proliferation). Butler noted SAC planning that “defied reason” and reflected “complete absurdity.”

My primary concern in the paper is whether the growing recognition of the contradictions, irrationalities, and even absurdities of nuclear deterrence might usher in the strategy’s demise—and potentially create the conditions for, and/or provide the impetus to, a world free of nuclear weapons. Critical theorists often argue that serious contradictions between public justification and policy action are logically unsustainable and suggest an opening for alternative, perhaps emancipatory, possibilities. Of course, it is possible that the death of deterrence might merely assure the life of preventive war and counterproliferation strategies like the “Bush Doctrine.” The paper looks at that too.

Before ISA, I posted the full abstract and link to the paper on my personal blog. Again: I’m trolling for feedback, so please let me know if you need an emailed copy.


Everyone’s a Critic

There’s been a lot of discussion about the Movies and IR, and I couldn’t resist a list. Plus, there’s a Bond movie on TCM—Goldfinger and now Thunderball—and I think Walt is crazy for leaving out war and spy movies, as that’s as much the stuff of IR as anything else.

I’m not a film critic. A lot of the movies I love aren’t “brilliant” by film critic standards but are nonetheless fun to watch, and are very illustrative of particular concepts or moments that make them tremendous fodder for moments such as in-class discussion.

This is a very incomplete list. Its an off-the top of the head list, overly influenced by what I’ve seen on TV recently or talked to people about. Given all that, here goes…

The Hunt For Red October
Read Schelling, Fierke, and then watch this movie. Its all about understanding the Cold War as an elaborate game with rules that allow for a sophisticated signaling process. The two subs know the game, play it to perfection (flood tubes 1 and 2, but do not open outer doors!), and in doing so, recreate the rules of deterrence and the Cold War.

War Games
I have yet to find a better and easier way to explain deterrence and the madness of MAD. Interesting game. The only way to win is not to play.

Red Dawn
Such an insane movie. And yet, look how many of its cast members would go on to further success! The key to understanding this movie is to realize that it is, explicitly, neoconservative propaganda. Its what they fear—more so from weak kneed, cowardly liberals who would not stand up to communists. Really—the Cubans and Nicaraguans parachuting into Colorado? No grasp of reality. But then again, the fears of Red Dawn drove US policy in Central America for the entirety of the 1980’s.
Rodger had a similar reason for teaching this movie.

From Russia With Love
I love James Bond movies. Possibly the two things I on which I feel most comfortable asserting real, legitimate expertise are the Cleveland Indians major league roster and the James Bond films. I think this is perhaps the best of the Bond films. A fantastic job of exploring Cold War tensions in Europe, but also revolutionary for the introduction of SPECTER. An international terrorist organization playing great powers off one another? Not so far fetched, now is it? I find the parallel amusing…

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
A nice exploration of the difficulties for Cold Warriors in dealing with the end of the Cold War. No wonder we stuck with the “Post-Cold War” era for so long, unable to let go of that which had defined us for so long. No wonder the military is still looking to replace the USSR in its procurement plans….

Top Gun
The myth of invincible American air power really begins here.

The Transformers (2007 version, although the 86 animated version was fun at the time…)
Perhaps better than any contemporary movie, shows how incredibly powerful and deadly the post-Iraq US military has become. The scenes of the special forces team attacking the Decepticon, calling in fire support, are just awesome, as its vastly underappreciated how much devastation the modern combined arms force can unleash.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
Some days, I really think that it could happen, with a nod to PW Singer.

I largely agree with the consensus picks of Strangelove, Casablanca, and Wag the Dog and for pretty much the same reasons—I have nothing new to say about that.


Walt, Walt, don’t tell me….

At one time, I kinda almost liked some of Stephen Walt’s work. At another point, I found works such as Origins of Alliances useful pivots in making an argument to move from explanations based on realism to explanations based on constructivism. But to still call Walt a “good” or “eminent” IR theorist worthy of a job at Harvard…

Walt thought it would be fun to list the top ten IR films. Outsourced to Fred Kaplan:

The most jaw-dropping pick of all, though, is Independence Day, which “makes my list,” Walt writes, “because it is balance-of-power theory in action: an external threat (giant alien spaceships) gets the world to join forces against the common foe.” Here’s the thing. Walt is a classic International Realist, the author of such gravitas-beaming books as The Origins of Alliances, Taming American Power, and Revolution and War. Yet this is his view of “balance-of-power theory in action”—the one-worlder’s wet-dream cliché about how all the nations join forces to beat back monsters from outer space? A much more cogent portrait of balance-of-power theory is the scene in The Godfather where the five families agree to get into the heroin business and divvy up the territory. (That’s nearly a metaphor for the Congress of Vienna.) Better still is the scene in The Godfather Part II in which Hyman Roth, Michael Corleone, and the chiefs of various U.S. corporations, standing on a hotel balcony in Havana, slice up a birthday cake that’s decorated with the map of Cuba.

I’ll leave the film commentary to Rodger. I’ll just say that Kaplan is dead on–if Independence Day is what counts as “Realism” these days, then Realism and Realists are in Real trouble. To call Walt’s Independence Day realism a degenerative research program might be too kind!


Neorealists as Critical Theorists: Film Edition

On Monday, neorealist IR scholar and Foreign Policy blogger Stephen M. Walt posted his top ten list of “movies that tells (sic) us something about international relations.” He was looking for broad insights, beyond what might be offered in genre war films or spy flicks. He also excluded documentaries and overt propaganda exercises.

Long-time Duck readers may recall that I previously wrote a series of blog posts about an IR film class I taught in fall 2006. Since that semester, I’ve taught the course another time (and changed a few film selections). I’m also scheduled to teach it during fall 2009. While other Duck bloggers have occasionally posted about film, I have a ready list to assess Walt’s choices. For now, I’ll ignore Dan Drezner’s list. Drezner agreed with only 2 of Walt’s suggestions — and mine — in his own post on this topic.

In my class, I select a few films that reflect relatively standard IR theory. However, most of the films viewed in the class are fairly critical of these theories and some films offer alternative critical perspectives on IR that are arguably missing from mainstream scholarly debates. After all, I am a critical theorist working on a project entitled “The Comedy of Global Politics.”

What else would you expect from me, right?

Here’s an interesting tidbit, however: Walt’s ranked top 10 list includes 5 films from my class and nearly all offer critical (comedic) readings of IR: #6 “Wag the Dog,” #4 “Gandhi” (yes, a comedy by ordinary standards), #3 “The Great Dictator,” #2 “Dr. Strangelove,” and #1 “Casablanca.” Drezner included “Dr. Strangelove” and “Casablanca.”

Allow me to reiterate this point for emphasis. When selecting films that say something important about IR, the neorealist Walt picks a number of critical and comedic movies. Perhaps the overlap between Walt’s list and my class is not surprising — I suppose it depends upon whether you buy my argument about “neorealists as critical theorists.”

Walt includes some other fine films, but my top 10 list would probably include some different choices: “Twelve O’Clock High,” “The Quiet American,” “Breaker Morant,” “The Whale Rider,” and “V for Vendetta.” Additionally, I’d have to think long and hard about omitting “Missing” and “Lord of War” from a top 10 list.

Neither Walt nor I have included films with many characters who do not speak English, which is obviously a major shortcoming. However, these choices reflect the discipline’s biases as well and thus serve as a critique (or as a jumping off point for a critique). My students are required to watch additional films outside class for a review assignment and their list of choices includes a number of non-English language films.


Post-Holiday Bleg

Not to remind everyone enjoying their holidays that Spring Semester is right around the corner, but I need to ask for help with my World Politics 101 syllabus. I’ll be traveling on research early in the semester and need a film I can show one day while I’m away. At that point in the term, the only thing really appropriate will be a short film intended to excite students about global affairs, sort of a recruitment-into-the-major film on careers in global affairs, the way globalization affects us all, the value of a global outlook, that sort of thing. 50 minutes or less.

I’m having a harder time than I expected finding something. Any suggestions?


Dark Knights

I know Dan and Charli have been diligently (and quite helpfully) blogging about war, but it’s the weekend and I went to see “Dark Knight” yesterday.

After it ended — and if you’ve seen it, you probably already know why — I kept thinking that every Batman and his villain antagonist(s) simply reflect their times. In their own way, they are social constructs.

If this is true, what, exactly, is this latest Batman film trying to say about post-9/11 America?

If you want to read about Russia’s latest war, skip this post. You might also want to skip over the remainder if you haven’t yet seen the movie (spoiler alert!!).

Otherwise, make the jump. Note that I originally posted a similar entry on my blog, but decided it might be fun to have a few additional readers.

In the “self-reflexive” campy 1966 “Batman” movie and TV series, Batman was a good guy and Joker was a criminal, but both seemed fairly harmless. The “clown prince of crime” declared

A joke a day, keeps the gloom away!

The too-serious Batman always saved the day and stopped the Joker and his criminal pals, but he was typically captured first and was almost always dependent upon some chemical antidote to a poison or some other modern invention.

Why was Joker a comical character and why did Batman depend upon what then passed for high tech? Well, the entire “Batman” TV series and movie was a parody of the era:

Batman incorporated the expressive art and fashion of the period in its sets and costumes. It also relied excessively on technological gadgetry transforming the show into a parody of contemporary life.

Remember the scene in “The Graduate” when young Benjamin is offered one word of advice? “Plastics.”

That was essentially what “Batman” was saying about America in the mid-1960s. I’d add fake. Cheap. Disposable. Oil-based.

In the 1989 “Batman,” by contrast, both Batman and the Joker were far more serious. Joker made modern life unlivable for the residents of Gotham City, but that’s because he threatened individual lifestyles. Joker invented and distributed a toxic chemical additive that convinced people to give up their hair gel, deodorant, and makeup. Indeed, this Joker was born from a vat of toxins. His crime revealed the colorless and unappealing reality beneath the veneer of 1980’s opulence and chemical dependence.

Batman was needed to clean up the mess. He was like Rudy Giuliani prosecuting high-profile mafia dons and insider traders — and later closing down porn shops and graffiti artists. This is a line spoken by Joker, from IMDB:

Now, I can be theatrical, and maybe even a little rough – but one thing I am not, is a *killer*. I am an artist. I *love* a good party. So, truce. Commence au festival!

Batman closed down Joker’s party and made it safe for citizens to enjoy their city’s official and commercial adornments.

Today, in the latest “Dark Knight,” Batman is deadly serious and the joker is an Über-terrorist. Joker is not motivated by money; he sets fire to millions of dollars even after he has stolen it from the mob. Joker wants to disrupt and destroy the fabric of modern civilization — not merely expose its underbelly. The results are predictably loud and explosive. Some innocent people are casualties, but there’s nothing especially personal about the deaths. The most personal killing is turned into a provocation, which is a typical terrorist goal in any case.

IMDB has this choice Joker monologue to bed-ridden and badly burned district attorney Harvey Dent:

You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it! You know, I just, do things. The mob has plans, the cops have plans, [Police Commissioner] Gordon’s got plans. You know, they’re schemers. Schemers trying to control their worlds. I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how, pathetic, their attempts to control things really are. So, when I say, ah, come here, when I say that you and your girlfriend was nothing personal, you know that I’m telling the truth.

It’s the schemers that put you where you are. You were a schemer, you had plans, and uh, look where that got you. I just did what I do best. I took your plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did, to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets. Hm? You know what, you know what I noticed? Nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that like a gang banger, will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all, part of the plan. But when I say that one, little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!

Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos.

The most unsettling aspect of the movie comes in the resolution of the story. Batman can only stop the Joker by employing secrecy, extrajudicial means, and rendition of foreign nationals. An important public servant becomes an outright criminal and the public is tempted to tolerate mass killing to preserve their own safety.

In the end, however, director Christopher Nolan seems to be at least somewhat hopeful about post-9/11 America. An oversized convict in an orange jumper seizes a bomb detonator away from a jail warden and tosses it out a window before the public official can kill 100s of innocent people to save his own skin.

That’s something you should have done 10 minutes ago, the prisoner tells the warden.

Batman is still around at the end of the movie to continue his personal war on terror, but his reputation is scarred. Presumably, neither his high tech toys nor his strong personal will can restore his public standing.

Presumably, the sequel will reveal how he seeks redemption.


Film class — week 15

Film #15: “Hotel Rwanda” (2004). We viewed it Tuesday.

Reading for Thursday: Gareth Evans, “The Responsibility to Protect: Rethinking Humanitarian Intervention,” Address to The American Society of International Law, 98th Annual Meeting, Panel on “Rethinking Collective Action”, Washington DC, 1 April 2004.

The class returned to the question of humanitarian intervention (HI) in this final week of the semester. Back in week #5, we viewed “Black Hawk Down,” which was the story of a military mission in Somalia gone horribly wrong.

The Battle of Mogadishu featured in the movie actually followed a successful mission to feed starving people, but the take-home lesson for America and much of the west was quite different: Nation-building and peacekeeping are impossible during a period of internal violence and civil war.

Rwanda is a case of western non-intervention, and some characters in the film specifically reference the Somalian experience. In this instance, however, the failure to intervene was incredibly costly. Hutu militias killed hundreds of thousands of Tutsi civilians. This massacre was followed by attacks on the Hutu by armed Tutsi factions. In all, the film notes that Rwanda faced a million corpses.

Gareth Evans, former Australian foreign Minister, argues that the international community had a “responibility to protect” innocent people in Rwanda — and in other places where states fail to provide basic human security for their own citizens. During class, we recalled our previous discussion of Tilly’s essay — and discussed what it might mean if some states are unable to work the “protection racket.”

The dilemmas are obvious. On the one hand, great powers might feel obliged to help innocent victims of genocide or other crimes against humanity. On the other hand, intervention is risky and is not costless. Even superpowers like the US can be forced to pay unacceptable costs (which may seem ridiculously low to critics).

While Evans says that states fail to act because of concerns about sovereignty (and many states in the South certainly do), for great powers the real problem is their potential failure to identify sufficiently with the victims. In the film, Nick Nolte’s UN officer very strongly implies that the west exhibited racism by failing to act.

Perhaps the biggest problem, however, is the great power commitment to longstanding traditions of national, rather than human, security. The hero of this film, the Hutu hotel manager, clearly prioritizes human security over the political interests some other characters try to push on to him. He embraced a “responsibility to protect” more than 1200 Rwandans, Hutu and Tutsi alike.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton briefly visited Rwanda and apologized for failing to do anything to stop the genocide. President George W. Bush often very strongly implies that the U.S. has a responsibility to provide basic security for Iraqis.

Yet, the current sitation in Darfur illustrates the magnitude and ongoing nature of the HI problem. Secretary of State Colin Powell first used the word genocide in September 2004 in describing the situation in Darfur. President Bush agreed in June 2005.

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Film class — week 14

Film #14 “The Whale Rider” (2002). We viewed it Tuesday.

Reading: Ann Tickner, “Man, the State, and War: Gendered Perspectives on National Security,” Chapter 2 of Gender in International Relations; Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security (NY: Columbia University Press, 1992). (CIAO subscribers only)

Ann Tickner’s book is perhaps the best-known feminist treatise in the field of international relations. In the assigned chapter, she describes how classic levels of analysis studied by scholars in the field — man, the state and war (for individual, national and systemic) — reflect and reinforce gendered notions about security politics.

For example, Tickner discusses the importance of the so-called “warrior citizen” in classic realist theorizing:

In Politics Among Nations, Hans Morgenthau describes “political man” as an individual engaged in a struggle for power. In my book I take this construction of “political man” and link it to a militarized version of citizenship which has a long tradition in western political theory and practice. Feminist political theorist Wendy Brown suggests that for the Greeks, manly virtue was linked to victory in battle. The association of manly behavior and war was also important in Machiavelli’s glorification of the warrior prince. Machiavelli’s concept of virtu was equated with might, energetic activity, effectiveness and courage — for Machiavelli, these were all explicitly masculine characteristics. Virtu must struggle against its opposite, fortuna, described by Machiavelli as female. Machiavelli is quite explicit in his belief that women posed a danger to soldiers and therefore to national security more generally.

Today, citizenship continues to be tied to soldiering….The privileged position of citizen warrior carries over into civilian political life where politicians with war records are especially valorized.

At the national level, Tickner argues that states are essentially warrior states, which require warrior citizens.

The ultimate purpose of Tickner’s work is to suggest and advocate for an alternative concept of security — dependent upon the elimination of unjust social relations (including gender inequality) as well as physical violence. Ideas and identities are socially constructed, so prevailing ideas and identities have to be re-constructed if they are to be transformed.

“The Whale Rider” is a film about a 12-year old girl named Paikea, the only living child in the line of a Maori family that directly descends from a heroic figure named Pai, who rode atop a whale from Hawaiki. Paikea’s mother and twin brother died during the childbirth and her grandfather, the current chief, is desperate to find a successor. By tradition, the tribe’s leader should be a first-born son and his own first-born son has abandoned the tribe to become an artist in Germany.

How feminine, eh? Ultimately, the grandfather decides to instruct all the tribe’s boy children so as to identify a potential successor. He teaches them sacred chants, use of a fighting stick, and other important skills. By Tickner’s reasoning, he is teaching them to be warrior citizens. Paikea is not welcome in these classes.

Secretly, however, Paikea observes many of the sessions and trains herself. She readily learns the chants and her uncle teaches her to use the fighting stick. She even defeats one of the most promising boy students in an impromptu fight.

From the title and my description, you can probably guess what happens in this film of female empowerment. The interesting academic question, of course, is whether Paikea succeeds only because she becomes a warrior citizen — or does she offer something genuinely new and transformative?

In other words, does Paikea destroy old myths, or simply reinforce them in a subtle way — like “iron lady” Margaret Thatcher?

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Film class — week 13

Film #13 “Gandhi” (1982). We viewed it Tuesday.

Reading for Thursday: Sharp, Gene, There Are Realistic Alternatives (Boston: Albert Einstein Institution, 2003).

Photo credit: U.S. Department of State

“Gandhi” is an outstanding film about the public life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, often called Mohatma for “great soul.” The work won 8 Academy Awards, including Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director. Unfortunately, at 188 minutes, it is difficult to use in a classroom setting. The Tuesday section of my class meets for 150 minutes, plenty of time for almost every film this semester, but insufficient for this one.

Nonetheless, I selected the film because of the unique perspective it offers on global politics.

After all, Gandhi was the key figure in the mass movement leading up to Indian independence and is best known for his advocacy and use of nonviolent noncooperation. Gandhi’s beliefs, teachings and practices constitute the “text” of this film. It is essentially impossible to separate his ideas and life from the action on the screen.

The struggle for independence was difficult. It took years for civil disobedience to evict the British from the Indian subcontinent, many thousands of Gandhi’s followers died in the various related struggles, and his desire for a unified India failed when the independent and separate Muslim state of Pakistan was created.

Nonetheless, the film tells a story of inspirational success — and focuses on actors and ideas that are rarely discussed in the mainstream of the international relations field. Unlike the discipline, this film centers upon the nonviolent noncooperative strategies employed by ordinary people in places — for the most part, at least — far removed from the Great Hall or battlefield.

Arguably, the film belongs to the genre of comedy, which allows me to place it within the broader theme of this class. Comedies, recall, typically focus on the day-to-day successes of ordinary people. While Gandhi’s accomplishments ultimately proved to be sweeping in scope, and certainly changed the identity of those sitting in the Great Hall, the film emphasizes the prolonged incremental progress achieved by his “constancy of purpose.

Gene Sharp’s monograph, which the author has placed in the public domain, puts noncooperative nonviolence in a broader context. On the macro-level, he develops ideas about nonviolent grand strategy. On the micro-level, Sharp identifies nearly 200 tactics for implementing nonviolent action.

I encountered Sharp about 20 years ago in a workshop in Mexico sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation and Social Science Research Council. He is a founder of the Albert Einstein Institution and continues to produce interesting work for that organization. His CV is lengthy and impressive, but includes few publications in IR journals.

The students and I discussed a number of reasons why the field pays so little attention to nonviolent strategies of noncooperation. Given core assumptions traditionally embraced by IR scholars, the answer is perhaps unremarkable.

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Film class — week 12

Film #12 “Network” (1976). We viewed it Tuesday.

Readings for Thursday: Michael Massing, “Now They Tell Us,” 51 The New York Review of Books, February 26, 2004.

PIPA (Program on International Policy) and Knowledge Networks Poll, “Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War,” October 2, 2003.

I selected this film for a number of reasons. First, it highlights the power of transnational corporations in global politics. Arthur Jensen, head of a conglomerate that owns the television network highlighted in the film’s title, eventually lectures anchorman-turned-prophet Howard Beale:

You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West! There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, Reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds and shekels. It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today.

…You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen, and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and A T & T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.

…We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale! It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there’s no war and famine, oppression or brutality — one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.

That speaker uses hyperbole, of course, but it is not all that far removed from some of the points made by globalization cheerleaders in the past decade or so.

The second reason I selected the film is that it emphasizes the role of the media in highlighting violence in the world — particularly terrorist violence. Ultimately, the UBS network executives hire a terrorist group to commit and film acts of terror so that the footage can be usedly in a weekly scheduled program. Unsurprisingly, this choice proves to be a ratings bonanza.

Before 9/11, terror experts in the social sciences argued that terrorists did not want to kill large numbers of people — and that their primary goal was to gain attention for their political cause. As Brian Jenkins wrote in 1987, “Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.” In this film, perhaps as in real life, television and terrorists work synergistically, with insufficient discussion of the societal implications.

The readings selected for this week addressed the media’s role in manipulating information used to promote war. Massing’s much-discussed piece elaborates the failure of the New York Times and Washington Post to investigate Bush administration claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Even when the papers did identify and cover dissent, they tended to place these stories well within their pages, rather than on the front page where hawkish administration claims were typically found.

The PIPA study, however, found that people were far less likely to have been misled about the Iraq war if they relied upon print media rather than television for their news. Unfortunately, 80% of the people they surveyed primary relied upon TV. Viewers of Fox and CBS were particularly likely to think (erroneously) that WMD had been found in Iraq, that Iraq had participated in the 9/11 attacks on the US, and/or that most of the world supported the US attack in March 2003.

The least likely members of the public to suffer the misperceptions? Viewers of PBS and listeners of NPR. While 80% of Fox viewers believed one or more misperceptions about the war (along with 71% of CBS’s audience, 61% ABC, and 55% NBC and CNN), only 23% of the PBS-NPR audience had these beliefs. For readers of print media, the corresponding figure is 47%.

In “Network,” every UBS programming decision is made with an eye toward achieving higher ratings and increasing advertising revenues. The executives find a way to avoid potential roadblocks from their own legal affairs advisors, standards and practices offices and FCC regulators.

As critic Roger Ebert pointed out in a 2000 review, “the movie has been described as ‘outrageous satire’ (Leonard Maltin) and ‘messianic farce’ (Pauline Kael),” but “a quarter-century later, it is like prophecy.”

My students have seen Osama bin Laden’s home movies and viewed the twin towers being hit by commercial aircraft — and then falling. Like the rest of us, they saw these images again and again and again. They have seen the shocking images from Abu Ghraib, heard the rants of Bill O’Reilly, and watched Jerry Springer’s guests scream and fight with one another. What was nearly over-the-top in 1976, a live on-air assassination, seems almost like regular programming now.

After viewing “Network,” I wanted the students to think about why they have repeatedly seen all these images. Who makes those decisions? Why do they make those decisions? Who benefits? What are the social and political costs? Does it make certain threats seem overblown? Does it make all of us vulnerable to manipulative leaders? What is the public interest?

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Film class — week 11

Film #11 “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964). We viewed it Tuesday.

Readings for Thursday: Lee Butler, “The Risks of Nuclear Deterrence: From Superpowers to Rogue Leaders” National Press Club, February 2, 1998.

Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006.

“Dr. Strangelove” is one of my all-time favorite films and its powerful 40-year old critique of American nuclear deterrence strategy continues to resonate today — even though the cold war is over and contemporary nuclear delivery technologies are much more accurate and deadly.

In the 1998 speech noted above, retired Air Force General Lee Butler — who served as commander-in-chief of the Strategic Air Command — argues that the comical and absurd premises of “Dr. Strangelove” were all too real throughout the cold war:

I was present at the creation of many of these systems, directly responsible for prescribing and justifying the requirements and technology that made them possible. I saw the arms race from the inside, watched as intercontinental ballistic missiles ushered in mutual assured destruction and multiple warhead missiles introduced genuine fear of a nuclear first strike. I participated in the elaboration of basing schemes that bordered on the comical and force levels that in retrospect defied reason. I was responsible for war plans with over 12,000 targets, many struck with repeated nuclear blows, some to the point of complete absurdity.

Butler adds that American nuclear retaliation against post-cold war threats is “inconceivable;” deterrence itself “serves the ends of evil.”

Given the “stakes of miscalculation” or “of crisis spun out of control,” some of which are emphasized in the film classic, Butler arrived at “a set of deeply unsettling judgements” about nuclear deterrence:

That from the earliest days of the nuclear era, the risks and consequences of nuclear war have never been properly weighed by those who brandished it. That the stakes of nuclear war engage not just the survival of the antagonists, but the fate of mankind. That the likely consequences of nuclear war have no politically, militarily or morally acceptable justification. And therefore, that the threat to use nuclear weapons is indefensible.

Butler’s call for a “reasoned path toward abolition” of nuclear weapons was affirmed by 60 retired generals and admirals, as well as more than 100 current and former heads of state and other senior civilian leaders. See the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons for a report in defense of this conclusion.

Lieber and Press make an argument about nuclear strategy that has been discussed previously here at the Duck of Minerva. Essentially, these scholars warn that the American force posture has nearly achieved nuclear primacy against both Russia and China, which is political science jargon that means a viable first-strike capability.

In the film, of course, General Buck Turgidson makes an argument for launching an “all out and coordinated” nuclear attack against the Soviet Union in the midst of the crisis featured in the film. He considers 20 million dead Americans, killed in response to this action, “modest and acceptable civilian casualties.”

Lieber and Press note that the original US nuclear primacy ended about the time “Dr. Strangelove” was made. But because of American techological advancements as well as deterioration in Russian capability, the US may now be able to “think the unthinkable” again.

In “Dr. Strangelove” and in Butler’s account of the cold war, the risk of any nuclear war is doomsday. Lieber and Press worry that American nuclear primacy might invite “crisis instability,” which means that Russian and Chinese leaders might be forced to use their limited nuclear arsenals in any crisis situation. It would be a case of “use ’em or lose ’em,” as was often discussed during the cold war.

A relatively small nuclear strike launched by Russia or China might not invite the doomsday scenario of mutual suicide feared (and perversely, revered) during the cold war, but it would trigger an unprecedented catastrophe.

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Film class — week 10

Film #10 “Wag the Dog” (1997). We viewed it Tuesday.

Reading for Thursday: Jane Kellett Cramer, “‘Just Cause’ or Just Politics? U.S. Panama Invasion and Standardizing Qualitative Tests for Diversionary War,” 32 Armed Forces & Society, Spring 2006, pp. 178-201.

The students and I are in the midst of watching a number of comedies about global politics in order to consider various critical perspectives. After all, among other virtues, comedies amplify the ridiculous and help one identify hypocrisy.

The biting satirical film “Wag the Dog” was made in 1997, but it resonated powerfully throughout the political year 1998. In January of that latter year, the Drudge Report broke the Monica Lewinsky story — though President Bill Clinton quite famously and publicly denied the nature of the relationship. In late July, the former White House intern testified to Ken Starr’s Grand Jury under immunity. On August 17, President Bill Clinton went before that same panel to give his side of the story. Clinton gave a speech later that night admitting publicly that he had had an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky.

On August 20, American cruise missiles struck in Afghanistan and Sudan.

By December, impeachment proceedings against Clinton were well under way in the House of Representatives. The impeachment votes were held on December 19.

From December 16 to 19, the US conducted a major air bombardment campaign against Iraq (Operation Desert Fox) because Saddam Hussein was failing to comply with UN Security Council resolutions concerning weapons inspections.

Clinton critics charged that both these uses of force were diversionary. However, the scholar Ryan Hendrickson has developed four propositions for identifying diversionary wars and concludes that these two 1998 cases failed to meet the tests.

After all, missing from the above chronology are a couple of important facts from August. On the 7th, al Qaeda terrorists bombed American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing over 250 people and wounding thousands. The armed US response came less than two weeks later.

Also that month, Iraq terminated its cooperation with UN weapons inspections. The Republican-controlled Congress later passed the Iraq Liberation Act, which Clinton signed on October 31. In November, under US and British pressure, Hussein allowed weapons inspectors to return, but continued to play cat-and-mouse games with them — perhaps to give Iran the false impression that he had weapons of mass destruction. In any case, Clinton had briefed leaders of Congress about the possibility of armed response three weeks prior to the attacks — and publicly declared that the US needed to strike before Ramadan.

These events did not merely provide Clinton with a good cover story; rather, they suggest that he was using force in response to the international context.

Cramer, in contrast, concludes that George H.W. Bush did undertake a diversionary war against Panama in 1989. As I’ve previously noted, Bush the elder certainly used that odd occasion to declare an end to the “Vietnam syndrome.”

During class, the students and I discussed Hendrickson’s proposition’s (as modified by Cramer) in the context of the current Iraq war. I had asked them each to investigate at least two of the propositions vis-à-vis the current war. Given the lengthy public debate and buildup to war, it is very difficult to argue that Iraq was was a diversionary war. Plus, political scientists seldom find evidence for diversionary wars. It was easy to find evidence for a couple of the propositions — the diplomacy was seemingly cut short, the use of force seemed premature and there was great international criticism of the war.

Finally, we discussed the well-known “rally ’round the flag” effect and wondered if Presidents might be tempted to use force to build support for an otherwise unpopular political agenda — or perhaps as a means to consolidate political power. These may seem like scenarios from 1984, but sometimes it seems as if these are Orwellian times.

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