Spanish Civil War

Comparing The Year of Living Dangerously with The Killing Fields

I've fallen out of the habit of cross-posting my articles from, but I think it's necessary in this case because what I wrote about The Year of Living Dangerously goes to the heart of what I didn't like about The Killing Fields.

I'm going to assume by now that you've checked out the article and move on with my critique of The Killing Fields.   The films are of course quite similar, being about the spread of Communism in Asia during the Cold War.

In fact, they films bookend Vietnam, with The Year of Living Dangerously taking place in 1965 while The Killing Fields begins in 1973.

Both center around Western journalists striving to get the truth out to the larger public.  However, the portrayal of them is profoundly different.

The journalists in Indonesia are, as I've noted, a bunch of heavy-drinking perverts.  They may be good at their craft, but they are hardly role models.

By contrast, Cambodia's press establishment is remarkably noble and altruistic, particularly Sam Waterston's Sam Schanberg.  The only hint of criticism he gets his how failed to ensure the safety of his translator/friend Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor, who is amazing) and reaped the benefits of the subsequent publicity.

In fact, while approving of the subject matter, I found the presentation of The Killing Fields to be heavily at odds with the facts.  I get that by 1984, there was still a lot of Nixon hate out there, but it's obvious that the production team has let it completely cloud their judgement.  Late in the film Schanberg admits that the Khmer Rouge were worse than he thought, but then tries to blame Nixon for radicalizing them!

Uh, no.  Every single time Communists take control of a country they kill off huge numbers of people. (In Spain, they couldn't even wait until they won the civil war.)

The Khmer Rouge were just really good at it.  The notion that the Communists would have been peaceful and inclusive if only those pesky Americans weren't there is nonsense on stilts.

It;s possible that his answer isn't an attempt to preach but instead shows how far removed from reality his thought process has become.  I suppose there's also implied criticism in how Schanberg sits in his comfy chair talking about mailing photos while his dear friend eats lizards and climbs over corpses.

Even understanding the difficulty of the logistics at the time, I can't wonder why Schanberg didn't go to the refugee camps and write about them personally, maybe mount a vigil for his friend there rather than rage-watching Nixon administration footage while listening to his high-fidelity stereo.

The most tone-deaf moment in the film is when Schanberg is reunited with Pran and the production team plays of all things John Lennon's "Imagine."  Seriously?!

The Khmer Rouge was the embodiment of everything in the song!   They denied God, wiped out family ties and literally made everyone live for the day, every day.  The fact that their "brotherhood of man" was a nightmare only illustrates the inevitable outcome of nihilistic fantasies.

My resulting rage stroke almost wrecked the movie for me.

I will re-watch The Killing Fields at some point, looking for greater detail.  Also, the dialog wasn't very clear in places, so I'm sure I missed things.

Even so, The Year of Living Dangerously is a much better film.  The characters are more fully developed and the moral questions are presented with greater skill and complexity.  The Killing Fields gets very preachy at times, which it doesn't need to be.  The story speaks for itself, we don't need Waterston's sermonizing to make the point for us.




Sudden military collapse

If one looks purely at the strategic position and numbers of troops under arms in early 1939, the Republic's fate appeared far from sealed.

True, the Ebro offensive had failed, but the losses for each side were roughly equal.  Economic conditions were deteriorating in the Republic, but the burden of attack remained on Franco and the Nationalists.  Whether they chose to strike at Madrid or Barcelona, the fighting was sure to be slow and costly.

The subsequent Republican collapse took everyone by surprise.  There was tough fighting at first, but then the Republicans fell back in total disorder.  The Nationalists advanced as fast as they could march.

Despite having multiple prepared defensive lines in place, Barcelona was yielded without a fight. 

This once again demonstrates how important - and fragile - morale can be.

My analysis of the war in Long Live Death puts great emphasis on fighting spirit and the factors that sustain it, but the importance of morale is featured to one degree or another in all of my books.  People rarely fight to the death - particularly if they know it won't make a difference in the ultimate outcome.

We tend to think of battle fronts moving gradually and incrementally, but just as often they slip only a little before coming completely apart.  Once that happens, it's very hard to turn things around.

The blow to prestige can also be catastrophic.  Even unengaged troops can be affected by a rout.

That's also what happened in Spain.  Even though the forces on the Madrid front were fully intact, watching their comrades in Catalonia flee to France destroyed their fighting spirit as well.  The Republic lost the will to fight and Franco's victory was complete.

Stanley G. Payne's Civil War in Europe, 1905-1949 is a very useful book

Without a doubt, Stanley G. Payne is an invaluable source of information on the Spanish Civil War.  This book (titled, like all the other ones on the topic, The Spanish Civil War) is a badly-needed corrective to the prevailing leftist narrative on that conflict.

Payne's expertise extends beyond Spain, and in his book, he dropped tantalizing hints of his research in other civil conflicts.  His Civil War in Europe, 1905-1949, fleshes out his references and gives the reader a quick and accessible study of war and revolution during the period in question.

With a title like that, one might expect a massive Hugh Thomas-sized doorstop, but in fact it is a slender volume with less than 250 pages.  It is densely-packed with information, however, and Payne peppers his book with footnotes pointing the reader to more detailed accounts of the various topics he touches on.

In a sense, this book serves a similar purpose to Long Live Death, which is to say it serves an accessible bridge to other, more comprehensive sources.  Of course, it's more than just a bibliography or reader's guide to the topic - Payne traces common themes that connect the various revolutions (or attempted rebellions) and does so in a fair-minded way, free of bias.  As with his biography of Franco and The Spanish Civil War, this sometimes makes him appear an apologist for fascism or the right.  He is not.

His is honest.  He doesn't flinch from noting that leftist atrocities are almost always worse than those on the right and he also notes that a great many historians are willing to downplay Communist crimes while highlighting (and often exaggerating) those done by their enemies.

His examination may be brief, but he's thorough, and touches on subject often ignored, such as the religious aspect of the conflicts.  He is one of the only sources to note the feebleness of the Eastern Orthodox Church in resisting Communism, which contrasts sharply with the Catholic response to it, particularly in Spain.

For those who were wondering, Spain does get a detailed treatment in the book, largely because the conflict was a culmination of the other civil wars.  Even if you know quite a bit about that topic, it's useful to see it brought into direct comparison with the other wars.

I have but one minor quibble with Payne's analysis.  In his introduction he notes that the American Civil War wasn't really a 'civil war' at all, but an attempted war of liberation by the South.  Such wars almost always succeed, which makes the conflict unique.

I believe Payne is only partially correct.  Yes, the war was about preventing secession, but this issue of slavery (particularly emancipation) added a moral aspect to the conflict, and that was ultimately what sustained the Union war effort.  I would therefore characterize the US Civil War as a hybrid of the two, mixing religion and liberation and this was why the South was defeated.

Other than that, it's a great book, and worth reading. 

I've noted before that the current situation reminds me of Spain in 1936, but Spain itself hearkened back to earlier crises.  It's good to have them all brought together in a single place.


Battle of the Bulge is objectively awful

My survey of war movies brought me into 1965's Battle of the Bulge and it's a terrible film.

Setting aside the fact that the whole story is fictionalized, there's simply a point where so many technical details have been compromised, the movie loses any historical relevance or feeling.

I was pretty sure I saw it before, but re-watching it, the first thing that struck me was that it was filmed in Spain.  The Germans are using Patton M-47 tanks and the Americans M-24 Chaffee light tanks.

So none of the equipment is accurate.

The terrain is also wrong - the Ardennes is heavily forested and the Battle of the Bulge took place in deep snow, but the climatic tank battle of this movie is resolved on a dusty, open plain.

In Spain.

Don't get me wrong, I'm really into Spain for some reason, and that's why the locations were like a giant red blinking light telling me that this movie was wrong wrong wrong.

The wrongness is just pervasive.  The German HQ is like a Bond villain's lair, complete with doomsday clock. 

Don't get me wrong, I know that sometimes period films (especially war movies) have to make do.  For example, I went easy on Tora! Tora! Tora! precisely because so few Japanese aircraft survived World War II and likewise the available ships for live-action shooting are more modern.

But if one shot a Pearl Harbor movie with jets and set it in the desert, people might complain.  And that's the big issue with Battle of the Bulge.

The acting is also really weak.  In fact, the whole thing's weak.  It's the kind of movie where if you don't know history and watch it hoping to learn something, you'll end up dumber than before you started.  Even the voiceovers get stuff wrong. 

Given that there were three people credited for the script, you'd think at least one of them would know that the British Eighth Army was in Italy, not France.

You'd think that, but you'd be wrong.

Humphrey Bogart's "Sahara": a loveletter to the M3 Lee/Grant

The M3 Lee/Grant (there were two variants) is a truly strange-looking vehicle.  It's so asymmetrical, utterly impractical and just steampunk overall, that one has a hard time believing such a thing could ever see wartime service.

It was truly an interim design, a placeholder for a better vehicle that would displace it.  It was also the price the Western Allies paid for completely neglecting tank design during the 1930s and then fumbling wartime development.  The British in particular made a botch of their tank forces and by 1942 were still consistently outclassed by better-performing German machines.

By the way, I'm not falling into the traditional trap of assuming that because something looks better on paper, or is more beloved by civilian historians that it is in fact objectively superior.  British tanks had some good points, but they were few and far between.  German tanks tended to be (like everything else they made) overly complex, filled with fiddly gadgets whose breakdowns hampered their reliability.  The British managed to be worse.

The US knew it had a good design with the M4 Sherman, but ramping up production took time, so they cranked out the M3, which was tall, spacious and bizarre.  The Russians (who knew good tanks when they saw them) derided it as a "coffin for seven brothers" (the number being the amount of crew).

Sahara prominently features an M3 because that's what was in use when the film was being made. You see them climb all over one, open up the engine compartment, start it, re-start it.  Lots of detail for the true tread-head.

The movie itself is a wonderful piece of wartime propaganda, chock full of slogans and stereotypes to get the home front fired up.  The setting (as the title implies) is North Africa and the time is 1942.  The prologue tells us that a small detachment of American GIs have been sent to learn the art of desert warfare. 

Almost immediately we begin the classic Assembling The Heroes.  First we have Bogart, a career American soldier and senior NCO.  He's backed up by a Texan and a New Yorker.  His depleted crew is in retreat along with the rest of the British 8th Army, and soon they will add a smattering of Commonwealth troops picked up at a field hospital: English, Australian, Irish, South African.  They also find a Free French soldier and subsequently add a Sudanese sergeant (serving with the British) and his Italian prisoner of war.  Rounding out the core cast is a downed German aviator who plays the Evil Nazi role to the hilt.

With the exception of Luftwaffe pilot (who is a dead ringer for David Bowie), these bedraggled warriors will learn to set aside their differences in the name of fighting the common foe.  There's a nice scene where the Italian explains that Mussolini duped the Italian people, but they still kept their souls.  Nazis have none.  A fight naturally follows.

This sounds all by-the-numbers and cynical, but the performances are really good and done with considerable sensitivity.  The presence of a black man in the Allied cast is noteworthy, and given that the US Army was racially segregated at the time, would have been a bit fraught, so introducing the Sudanese soldier is a wise decision, being both plausible and interesting.  He clearly not only can appeal to American blacks but also British Colonial troops.  He's also a Muslim, and he is (naturally) the most experienced in dealing with desert survival, being a third-generation soldier for the Crown. 

With the war still in its early stages, there aren't a lot of successes to celebrate, and so the story of the film is a stubborn (and seemingly useless) stand against all odds, because that's all the Allies had done to that point.

Lots of ignorant people assume that propaganda movies don't have any friendly casualties, but that's absolutely not the case.  Our team of heroes gets all but wiped out (starting with a very young Lloyd Bridges playing a Brit), but they do so in a noble cause.

The Germans are uniformly portrayed as vicious and treacherous, which may seem cartoonish, but the Nazis earned every bit of it. 

But let's get back to the tank!  Okay, not just the tank, but the equipment.  Because this made in wartime, authentic gear is in short supply, so both Allied and German gear is recycled from World War I.  The Commonwealth troops are using SMLE-pattern rifles, not the Rifle No. 1 Mk IV which was then in current use.  The Germans are likewise using WW I surplus, particularly their helmets, which still sport the lugs for the extra (and rarely worn) front plate used in trench fighting.  

Oh, and the Germans don't have any MG 42s (or even MG34s), but are using Maxim guns.  I wonder if they raided the prop department from All Quiet on the Western Front?

Usually when the gear is wrong, that's a sign of sloppy prop work, but not here.

One final note that I can't leave out: when the Free French soldier comes face to face with the Italian, he wants to kill him because he's been fighting "that type" since 1936.  When asked how that could be (the European war didn't start until 1939) he mentions Spain.

So here's yet another example of Hollywood linking the Republican cause in Spain with the Allies of World War II.

Stanley G. Payne and the Road to Revolution

If you've read my ongoing discussion of the Spanish Civil War, you know one of my favorite authors is Stanley G. Payne.

He now has a article up at First Things which provides an excellent and concise account of Spain's slide into civil war.

It is a serious read, but well worth your time.

It also dovetails with the misgivings I expressed in November, which have not in any way been assuaged. 

In one sense, it is comforting that a historian with Payne's stature seems to share my sense of deja vu, but it is also deeply alarming.  I don't know Payne's politics, but his work has always been scrupulously neutral, carefully noting the excesses of the Spanish Right but also providing appropriate context within the environment and balancing them with the behavior of the Spanish Left.

This isn't false equivalence, but necessary information.  Similarly, his article offers no analogies, draws no modern parallels because it doesn't have to.  The modern left is purposefully using the exact same slogans and tactics.  To merely quote them is to expose this.

Maybe my book was driven by a premonition or subconsciously intended as a warning.  In any event, it's uncomfortably relevant.

Music to write by

Last night I was bit by the writing bug, and cranked out 500 words on a new project, but I have no idea if it will go anywhere.

I seem to do a lot of that lately.  It isn't exactly writer's block, since I'm not under any obligation to write anything at the moment.

A big part of writing is mood.  With each book, I've had something of a soundtrack to facilitate creativity.

Battle Officer Wolf was written while listening to Enya's Amarantine album, over and over again.

For much of A Man of Destiny, I had a Star Wars mix of the darker ("imperial") pieces playing.

I had a special mix as well for Vampires of Michigan, which drew heavily from the Blood and Chocolate soundtrack.  (Yes, I know that movie was about werewolves, so sue me.)

Long Live Death didn't really have a soundtrack.  I just wrote it in a manic frenzy perhaps sensing the parallels between the faltering Second Spanish Republic and our own.

As for my other books, there was nothing specific, though Three Weeks with the Coasties sometimes caused me to look up the music that was popular at the time.

In any event, 2020 is winding down and so it will soon be time for me to start my 2021 book. 

Perhaps instead of thinking about topics, I need to think about music?

This Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for all the corrections

The title of this post may seem ironic, but I'm completely sincere. 

I know some authors are very sensitive about their work (and I can be at times), but what we all want is reader engagement, and nothing I've written has gotten a response like Long Live Death.

Much of that comes from people noting errors or typos, and I'm fine with that because it means people are paying attention.

It's a wonderful thing.

This is a strange year in many ways, not the least of which our family had our 'feast' three days ago so that we could all be together (one of my kids has to travel), so today we'll eat turkey soup and finish off the leftovers.

For all that, I'm grateful for so much, and I hope you and yours enjoy this day in a spirit of true gratitude.

I'm getting a very 1935 vibe

Back in August I talked about how my research for Long Live Death led me to see some uncomfortable similarities between Spain and the current situation.

That feeling is now all-consuming.

I am deeply troubled by the way things are moving.  I'm old enough to remember the contested election of 2000 very clearly, and the media was much more scrupulous about not outrunning events or trying to force the issue.

Add in the increasing attacks on Catholic churches and religion in general, and I see dark times ahead of our nation.

If one examines the lead-up to the Spanish Civil War, there were multiple opportunities for things to de-escalate, but the Spanish Left was uninterested in them. 

I fear their ideological heirs have not learned their history, and may make the same mistakes.

Let us pray that this is not the case.


Memories of elections gone by

Eight years ago I ran for my local school board.  It was an interesting experience, because while I had worked in politics for many years, I'd never actually been a candidate before.

Perhaps the strangest thing was being the one in charge.  I got to decide what I said!  That sounds a bit odd, but if you work in politics, most of the time you're either asking people to say something or repeating what they said to someone else.  It was weird being in charge and able to say whatever I wanted.

I didn't win, but that was fine with me.  The entire reason I ran was to get rid of the school board president, and in that respect I was successful.

I've come to cordially despise politics and for those new here, I am officially A Man of No Party.  I've been a Democrat and a Republican and now I'm sick of them both.  How I vote is my business, and I haven't given a penny to a political cause since I got out of "the game" in 2006.

Politics seems to intrude everywhere these days, and everything from the food you eat to the car you drive is now held up to a political lens.  It's exhausting.

I like to think that when the election is finally over this will go away, but I'm afraid it won't.  I've said before that everything happening now seems like a replay of Spain in 1935-36.  I pray that I'm wrong.