Film, American history and Oliver Stone -- where do I buy tickets?!
This was my last thought just before I plunged into Showtime's Untold History, narrated by Stone himself and based on the book he co-authored with American University historian Peter Kuznick -- a crash course on how the military-industrial complex used capitalism and right-wing politics to promote war and dominate the 20th century.
Not surprisingly a radical proposal, told through a 10-part series that begins with the dropping of the atomic bomb and how its fallout has rippled through our history. One General LeMay, an "Oz-like" overseer of the Manhattan Project, seems suspicious from the start, as he is introduced pushing the buttons behind the back of President Truman; quickly we realize that we are in an Oliver Stone film. Using Hiroshima as a point of departure and a narrative style taken from the BBC's World at War series, we are launched from the end of World War II, through decades of Cold War, until we arrive at present-day Iraq and Afghanistan with the "promised" Obama.
My stance on Stone's films has evolved over time -- at first a skeptic over his lack of nuance to that of an admirer (somewhat) who has come to appreciate how sharpening the point on "the argument" leaves a deeper gash, but gains a more visceral response from the audience. Platoon, Wall Street, Born On the Fourth of July -- the list goes on. I admire Stone's courage to rouse the slumber of conventional wisdom when anesthetized by self-affirming myths. In addition, his lesser-known, Nixon, was a masterful attempt at exploring the complexity in the fallen president as tragic figure, like Shakespeare's Othello or Welles' Citizen Kane.
Stone's (and Kuznick's) premise in Untold History would be hard to deconstruct in an article of this length, but I do want to expose two flawed assumptions that underlie their master theory. First is the notion that the central conflict of the 20th century can be laid at the feet of a right-wing military conspiracy, a perspective craftily explored in Stone's JFK, a film expressed with a paranoid phantasmagoria of flash frames, black-and-white 8mm photography, military snare drums and reverb (for voice). "A riddle wrapped in an enigma," as Joe Pesci's character nervously barks -- great stuff!
Nevertheless, if there exists a "deep end" for the world of conspiracy theories, Stone and his scholarly partner Kuznick do plummet over that cliff in Untold when they address right-wing politics, in particular World War II with Josef Stalin, or as FDR referred to him, "Uncle Joe." While we don't want to dignify a "who was the worst tyrant" discussion, I want to push back on even the slight allusion that there was anything redeemable about Stalin or that he was anything but Hitler's diabolical match, if not his superior (inferior?). This is a man the filmmakers argue was not responsible for the Cold War, which was hatched instead by the United States to stage a 50-year arms race for big business!
Setting aside the sheer terror of the dictator's Gulag, torture programs, rapes of Berlin and the Eastern Bloc -- barbaric even by World War II's horrific standards -- there is no end to Stalin's murderous trail, including killing off the Catholic leadership in Poland and exterminating masses of Jews. To present Stalin as victim of Western interests, the filmmakers must ignore the tyrant's own words: "When we hang the capitalists they will sell us the rope we use." "One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic." "Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach." In his 1990 book, Lethal Politics, R.J. Rummel concludes, "Communist regime, 1917-1987, murdered about 62,000,000 people, around 55,000,000 of them citizens!" Estimates vary, but it is no secret that Stalin caused 20 to 30 million of these deaths!
Even for a fellow (at times) revisionist, this goes beyond the "shooter on the grassy knoll" mentality. Here we have reached "aliens planting pro-military facts in our brains" logic. Certainly, no one would argue that the military and the empires don't have an incentive to keep war alive. This is a fact that is part of the mosaic of power dating back to Caesar, who believed he was saving the empire from senate corruption and gridlock and was killed by a left-wing coup. But a cursory review of World War II further dispels this notion of the United States in the role of right-wing militant. General George Marshall took charge of a "depressed" U.S. Army in an isolationist America, with a force of only 174,000 up until the build-up to war, and only entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor. For the conspiracy theorists, if there was any "dirty business" behind the Pearl Harbor bombings (as was uncovered with the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam), one would need to search out the Democrat Roosevelt and his cohorts, not the right wing.
Finally, Hitler's movement does not fit Stone's right-wing, pro-or-against, military-ideological distinctions. Hitler's Nazis were a Nationalist "Socialist" party inspired by Benito Mussolini's Italian Socialist Party, which turned Fascist due to a concentration of "state" - not private capitalistic power. Hitler's meteoric rise, accomplished in part through violent street rallies in front of the Reichstag, was against the Communists, who also were using violence in the streets to try to gain political power in Germany. Violence, or realpolitik, did not have a party name, only winners and losers and the innocents who paid the price.
Stone's second flawed assumption in Untold History is that capitalism coordinated the military-industrial complex's agenda. As the documentary rightfully points out, there was U.S. support for Hitler's Nazi war machine, including J.P. Morgan and the Bush family. Joseph Kennedy, a prominent Democrat supported Hitler and wanted to meet him personally, believed him to be a "solution to Communism" -- a belief not confined to America alone. England under Neville Chamberlain (and later Churchill) signed agreements with the German Reich, hoping appeasement would spare the Allies the dirty job of beating back Communism, an ideology feared not only in Germany, but around the world. Yet, when Hitler ascended in the party by election to become "das Führer," he quickly disposed of his Capitalist opponents as just one more obstacle in the way of the totalitarian banner soon to be raised over the National Socialist party.
As early as 1927, Hitler had avowed,
We are socialists, we are enemies of today's capitalistic economic system for the exploitation of the economically weak, with its unfair salaries, with its unseemly evaluation of a human being according to wealth and property instead of responsibility and performance, and we are determined to destroy this system under all conditions.
Stone's confrontation with myth should be embraced, yet I don't think this simplistic Left vs. Right dichotomy, while making good drama, is helpful. Nor is limiting evil to capitalism, when the bloody saga of state Communism has been condemned prima facie by 20th century history. Is capitalism always bad, even when it leads to some of the world's greatest booms? And replaced by what, South American style state economies or Russian oligarchies? Is the military only employed as a murderous death squad, to gain wealth? Did the West not rebuild Germany and Japan? And what of some military thinkers, like Patton, who recognized the value that might have been realized had the West pressed through to Berlin in the spring of 1945, thus circumventing what would become a half-century of tyrannical communist rule behind the Iron Curtain. What about the ousting decades later of Milosevic in Kosovo or the peace keeping pilots dragged through the streets of Somalia, or one legged soldiers returning from Iraq, all battles where American soldiers fought to help free those imprisoned by their own despots?
In the end, Oliver Stone is a masterful filmmaker and a brave Vietnam vet who has learned critical lessons, resulting in deep conviction. Yet, if he finds the American pie old or sour, is it right to assume we all should share his bitter taste? I wonder whether the Untold series is actually a "Retold" story serving a new left-wing mythology inspired by a neo-Marxist fairy tale about bad Capitalists and good Communists? Stalin's genocide following the Nazis is a reminder that murder has no political party. And only a critical mind can judge soberly, when unfettered by myth, exactly what Stone decries as being the enemy of "the good." Furthermore, any absolute thinking or fanaticism, including ISIS, only breeds more genocide, rape and death, all in the name of a better world.
We've all seen this "world dominance" movie before -- spoiler alert: It's not a happy ending.
Fade to peace.