Friday, November 17, 2017

Open Season on Elephants

Pictures of the Dead

The summer of 2005, I was twenty-four and running a punk bar in Wuhan, the biggest city in central China. During the school year, the place was packed with expats and local kids who came to see shows and mingle. There was something darkly utopian about it—moshing and chain-smoking mixed with the innocence of flirting and practicing languages. But by June all the revellers had left town. Most nights, I sat alone behind the bar until 4 a.m., drinking cocktails of my own invention from a limited supply of Western liquor.

Wuhan is notorious for hot, humid summers. Several nights a week, my neighborhood lost power. I had to drench my bedsheet in cold water, wrap it around myself, and lie down on the tile floor if I was going to sleep at all. I didn’t have an Internet hookup, and it was often impossible to reach anyone back in New York over the phone. I should probably mention that, in addition to cigarettes and alcohol, I was subsisting on a daily diet of one melon slice and four hours of exercise. This was all I knew how to do to try to make myself feel alive.

One morning, I walked around the corner to a dirt road lined with small shops, where you could find Popsicles, concrete mix, puppies, prostitutes, and the latest pirated DVDs. I went into an herbalist’s den, and asked for a tea “to wake me up.” The herbalist, an old man, got off his stool and peered into my eyes. He got closer to me than anyone had been in months. I wanted him to hold me, rock me gently in his arms, feed me tinctures that would soothe my nerves and crystallize my vision, tell me that I would soon be in the cool and easy swing of things. Instead, he sold me a prepackaged health tea and warned that I should quit drinking iced beverages. “Or else you’ll die,” he insisted.

“That’s O.K.,” I said, then paid and left.

I walked to an Internet café up the road. My anxiety at this time was both vague and maddening. It fed on itself, and spat out words for me to obsess over. That day, I sat down at a computer and Googled “death.” The first photos I saw were of mummified corpses—bodies shrunken, masklike faces gaping in silent horror. Then I found Victorian postmortem portraits—children propped up in chairs, perfect posture, only their dry eyes and lolling heads revealing the difference between strict obedience and extinction. Why preserve the dead, I wondered. What did these people know about life that I didn’t? Could I find it if I kept looking?

by Ottessa Moshfegh, New Yorker | Read more:
Image: Rembrandt via Wikipedia

How to Give Mars an Atmosphere, Maybe

Earth is most fortunate to have vast webs of magnetic fields surrounding it. Without them, much of our atmosphere would have been gradually torn away by powerful solar winds long ago, making it unlikely that anything like us would be here.

Scientists know that Mars once supported prominent magnetic fields as well, most likely in the early period of its history when the planet was consequently warmer and much wetter. Very little of them is left, and the planet is frigid and desiccated. These understandings lead to an interesting question: If Mars had a functioning magnetosphere to protect it from those solar winds, could it once again develop a thicker atmosphere, warmer climate, and liquid surface water?

James Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, thinks it could. And perhaps with our help, such changes could occur within a human, rather than an astronomical, time frame.

In a talk at the NASA Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop at the agency’s headquarters, Green presented simulations, models, and early thinking about how a Martian magnetic field might be re-constituted and how the climate on Mars could then become more friendly for human exploration and, perhaps, communities.

It consisted of creating a “magnetic shield” to protect the planet from those high-energy solar particles. The shield structure would consist of a large dipole—a closed electric circuit powerful enough to generate an artificial magnetic field. Simulations showed that a shield of this sort would leave Mars in the relatively protected magnetotail of the magnetic field created by the object. A potential result: an end to large-scale stripping of the Martian atmosphere by the solar wind, and a significant change in climate.

“The solar system is ours, let’s take it,” Green told the workshop. “And that, of course, includes Mars. But for humans to be able to explore Mars, together with us doing science, we need a better environment.”

Is this “terraforming,” the process by which humans make Mars more suitable for human habitation? That’s an intriguing but controversial idea that has been around for decades, and Green was wary of embracing it fully.

“My understanding of terraforming is the deliberate addition, by humans, of directly adding gases to the atmosphere on a planetary scale,” he wrote in an email. “I may be splitting hairs here, but nothing is introduced to the atmosphere in my simulations that Mars doesn’t create itself. In effect, this concept simply accelerates a natural process that would most likely occur over a much longer period of time.”

What he is referring to here is that many experts believe Mars will be a lot warmer in the future, and will have a much thicker atmosphere, whatever humans do. On its own, however, the process will take a very long time.

To explain further, first a little Mars history.

More than 3.5 billion years ago, Mars had a much thicker atmosphere that kept the surface temperatures moderate enough to allow for substantial amounts of surface water to flow, pool, and perhaps even form an ocean. (And who knows, maybe even for life to begin.) But since the magnetic field of Mars fell apart after its iron inner core was somehow undone, about 90 percent of the Martian atmosphere was stripped away by charged particles in that solar wind, which can reach speeds of 250 to 750 kilometers per second.

Mars, of course, is frigid and dry now, but Green said the dynamics of the solar system point to a time when the planet will warm up again. He said that scientists expect the gradually increasing heat of the sun will warm the planet sufficiently to release the covering of frozen carbon dioxide at the north pole, will start water ice to flow, and will in time create something of a greenhouse atmosphere. But the process is expected to take some 700 million years.

“The key to my idea is that we now know that Mars lost its magnetic field long ago, the solar wind has been stripping off the atmosphere (in particular the oxygen) ever since, and the solar wind is in some kind of equilibrium with the outgassing at Mars,” Green said. (Outgassing is the release of gaseous compounds from beneath the planet’s surface.) “If we significantly reduce the stripping, a new, higher pressure atmosphere will evolve over time. The increase in pressure causes an increase in temperature. We have not calculated exactly what the new equilibrium will be and how long it will take.”

The reason why is that Green and his colleagues found that they needed to add some additional physics to the atmospheric model, dynamics that will become more important and clear over time. But he is confident those physics will be developed. He also said that the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter now circling Mars should be able to identify molecules and compounds that could play a significant role in a changing Mars atmosphere.

So based on those new magnetic field models and projections about the future climate of Mars, when might it be sufficiently changed to become significantly more human friendly?

by Marc Kaufman, Nautilus |  Read more:
Image: NASA

Thursday, November 16, 2017

What About Separating The Work From The Worker?

In late October, as I wrote columns and tweeted about this wave of stories, I discovered that a male colleague had been hired here at New York despite documented claims of sexual harassment in a prior job. I’m angry not just because New York saw fit to bring him on. It’s also the impossibility of the situation now: Should the guy (who doesn’t supervise anyone) be let go, even though no one at New York has complained about him? Mostly I’m mad that he was chosen, at all, over at least two talented women who also were in the running.
Indeed, what do you do when you know about someone’s bad behavior that predates his position at your place of employment? Serial harassers are an unusual breed of off-the-books offenders—even if, say, this person were fired for sexual misconduct in the workplace with a direct report, what’s to keep someone else from hiring them for contract work? (Should there be anything to keep them from doing so?) Does keeping them specifically away from management positions do anything except keep the misbehavior off your premises? Who’s to say they won’t just become a freelance harasser rather than a workplace one? But what if he writes really great articles and makes interesting intellectual arguments? Does it matter that he hits his wife if he’s a gadget reviewer? I seriously doubt that Louis C.K.’s sexual misconduct is only relevant because he tells so many jokes about masturbation and sex. So why do we have such a hard time accepting that someone’s conduct outside the workplace might be relevant inside it?

It’s a curious thing, the idea of redemption, or What Comes Next, because it entails a certain amount of moralizing on the part of the employer. Do nothing, and you could be part of the problem, especially if someone warned you. Do something—fire someone or terminate their contract—and well, I don’t know, can they sue for some kind of prejudice or discrimination? At least we have rules for how we treat felons and convicted criminals when it comes to workplace rights, or loss thereof. What if you learn through the grapevine that a man sexually harassed his employees at his previous place of work but was never disciplined for it? What if he swears he’s changed, what if he’s sober now? What if women come forward and tell you stories of what he did to them two decades ago? Does any of it count, and if so, how much? What is the statute of limitations on sexual harassment, a subcriminal act? I don’t know, but I think we’re well on our way to finding out.

by Silvia Killingsworth, The Awl | Read more:
Image: Bodice Rippers and Old Skool Romance Novels
[ed. I'm not going to defend sexual harassment other than to point out that in our culture (our books, our magazines, movies, music, tv, the internet, etc.), what constitutes harassment vs. what might quaintly be called 'the dance of seduction' has never been clearly defined. Here's a good example of your typical "bodice ripper" ie., Romance novel: "Ohh baby", Amy said, and read him a passage about a rugged but sensitive but tough but loving but horny but smart hero having his way with a protesting but willing but struggling but yielding tempestuous female." ~ Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson. We've been fed this junk in various forms all our lives.]

Kool & The Gang

Psychology’s Power Tools

A few years ago, while attending a conference in Berlin, I went out one evening to catch up with a friend I hadn’t seen in years. James lives in the United States and works in the field of psychology, but Berlin was the first time we’d been together in a good while. It was a beautiful evening and the city felt so alive, but James looked nervous. I knew he had something to tell me.

He started: ‘Brian is Briana.’

‘What?’

‘My son is my daughter. He is really a she.’

I didn’t need any more explanation to know what James was saying. His 18-year-old, formerly Brian, identified as a woman, and he was breaking the news to me.

‘Wow.’

‘I know. I know. He’s going to… I mean, she’s having sex-reassignment surgery in Singapore in December, and we’ve been doing hormone treatments for months. It’s been a wild ride.’

When James used the word ‘we’ to describe the hormone treatments, I knew everything would be OK. The ‘we’ in his sentence was a clue that that their family was not split apart by this news. Learning that your son is really your daughter is, for most people, life-changing news, and the few clients I had worked with in therapy around their gender identity were torn apart by how their families had responded.

James had learned so much in the past year about how to connect with his daughter as a trans-woman. Briana’s brother was turning his back on her, and James and his wife felt alone, as if they were walking on quicksand. Throughout the conversation, though, he kept saying: ‘It is what it is.’ James must have said the phrase 10 times, and it dawned on me that he was getting at something profound. With this aphorism, he could avoid getting sucked into potentially painful emotions and instead be present and available to help his daughter.

When I returned from Berlin, I was primed to hear the phrase everywhere I went. I am convinced I hear it at least once a day, and not only from my clients. I hear it from my wife, my friends, my colleagues, my students and, a few days ago, I heard it from the woman working the register at the gas station. I hear myself and others saying these words, but I hardly ever stop to reflect on their meaning. When it finally dawned on me to ask why everyone keeps using this phrase, the answer appeared quickly and with force: the phrase is a way to psychologically disarm powerful negative emotions. It’s an efficient means of distancing ourselves from difficult experiences, to create mental space and, potentially, to ignore – in a good way – percolating negative emotions. In short, this phrase represents what psychologists call an emotion-regulatory strategy.

Research in clinical psychology suggests that a key aspect of maintaining our emotional health is not deepening our connection to painful thoughts – that is, not getting ‘sucked into’ thoughts about inferiority, impossibility, or seeing the potential for bad outcomes around every corner. ‘It is what it is’ reflects the decision not to go down this road and, when we use it, we’re practising one of the best therapies around. Although there are many routes to emotional equanimity, it is the thoughts in our heads, and the words we choose to express them, that are the gatekeepers of our psychological wellbeing.

This notion is at the heart of cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT, a proven collection of techniques that help us realign our thoughts so our emotions stay in balance and we successfully navigate life.
***
Imagine you’re strolling across a lovely college campus on your way to grab lunch with a friend. You’re stopped by two students.

‘Could you spare a minute? We’re running a research study on how people perceive the natural environment. Would you like to participate?’

‘Sure, why not?’

This is when things get a little weird. The researchers have you don a backpack that weighs about 20 per cent as much as you do. Then they ask you to estimate the slant of the hill in front of you from completely flat to a vertical cliff. Can you zip up this hill with your backpack on, or did this small hill just become Mount Everest in your mind? Although I’ve glamorised it a bit, this is a real research study. Developed by the psychologist Dennis Proffitt and his colleagues at the University of Virginia, the ‘hill slant’ study is well-known, and has garnered an impressive set of findings about visual perception. It makes sense that people perceive the hill to be steeper when they are wearing a heavy backpack, relative to when they’re not wearing one (That hill with this backpack? No way!), and that they perceive the hill to be steeper if they’re tired.

A more surprising finding emerged in 2008, when psychologist Simone Schnall, director of the Mind, Body, and Behaviour Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, found that people perceive hills to be less steep when they’re with other people or when they imagine a supportive significant other alongside them. Schnall reasoned that the availability of social resources might keep people from ‘being depleted’ when they donned the heavy backpack. It is hard to overstate the significance of these findings: social support alters how we perceive the demands of the physical world.

In fact, the hill-slant study illustrates one of the most important topics in contemporary psychological science: our evaluations of situations, events and people shape how we perceive, or appraise, the world around us. These psychological evaluations are often referred to as cognitive appraisals. When we’re with others we appraise the slant of the hill differently; we evaluate that mound of dirt as less foreboding.

How do you feel about work or school tomorrow? Smooth sailing or another headache? What about that weird look a colleague gave you this morning? Your kid is talking back and being a total pain. Why does it bother you so much after dinner compared with after breakfast?

These questions capture the essence of the calculus we engage in every second of the day. We’re constantly taking our own psychological temperature and evaluating whether we need to rest or spring into action. Our emotional lives hinge in large part on this appraisal process. Whether we feel happy, engaged and full of energy is derived from the belief that we are in harmony with the world around us.

We maintain this sense of harmony by viewing ourselves, others and the events around us in a relatively benign light: things are fine, we’re safe. When we perceive the slings and arrows of life as non-events – when we can say: ‘It is what it is’ – we can face difficult circumstances and effectively disarm potential emotional landmines.

When anxiety makes our thinking disordered, on the other hand, quite the opposite happens. Hills seem insurmountable, and the world becomes a scary and impossible place. As a brief example of appraisals gone awry, stop for a moment and think about what it would feel like to believe that you are absolutely worthless. You contribute nothing to this planet. Zilch! What if you were as certain of these thoughts as you were of the fact that you need light in order to read this article? Now you have an idea about what it’s like to be depressed.

Most of the time, however, these negative appraisals are distortions; they are misappraisals of the world around us based on automatic habits of thought that have rooted themselves deep inside our minds. CBT was designed to help people break these habits, to learn new ways to evaluate the reality of their appraisals and, in general, to think more flexibly about their lives.

by David A. Sbarra, Aeon |  Read more:
Image: Ascent Media/Getty
[ed. I know CBT works, but it still seems kind of... opaque to me. Essentially, 'rewire your perceptions and think positive thoughts' (or avoid thinking disordered ones). But by suppressing some thoughts - even if they're negative ones, don't we create a sort of artificial construct of the world, even if it makes us feel better? And what if some of those negative thoughts are actually useful (e.g. for full emotional processing), or more acurately reflect reality? How to know without some future perspective? Finally, since humans are mostly bags of chemicals and water, when some of those chemicals get out of whack, no amount of positive thinking is likely to help (except perhaps as a coping mechanism).]

Vatican 2.0

“Humans are distinguished from other species”, says Peter Thiel, one of Silicon Valley’s high priests, “by our ability to work miracles. We call these miracles technology.” Thiel inadvertently touches on a pervasive paradox: we see ourselves as both the miracle-makers of technology and the earthly audience, looking on in wonder. But if the miracle was once the automobile, the modern equivalent of the “great gothic cathedrals”, in Roland Barthes’s famous formulation, now it is surely the internet: conceived by unknown forces, built on the toil of a hidden workforce, and consumed more or less unthinkingly by whole populations. The internet’s supposed immateriality masks not only the huge infrastructure that sustains it, including vast, heavily polluting data centres, but also the increasingly narrow corporate interests that shape it and, in turn, us – the way we think, work and live. Algorithms are at the heart of this creative process, guiding us through internet searches and our city’s streets with a logic steeped in secrecy, filtered down from above – namely, the boardrooms of the Big Five: Amazon, Apple, Alphabet Inc. (the parent company of Google), Facebook and Microsoft, those companies that have come to dominate the digital realm. (...)

The scale of their supremacy is remarkable. Google controls more than 90 per cent of search-engine traffic in Europe, and 88 per cent in America; YouTube, also owned by Alphabet, is the largest music-streaming site in the world; Amazon takes more than half of every new US dollar spent online; Facebook, having swallowed competition like Instagram and WhatsApp, holds 77 per cent of all mobile social media traffic, and recently reached 2 billion members. With Apple and Microsoft, these are now the five largest companies in the world – hence the group moniker – with a collective net worth of $3 trillion. Together they spend more on government lobbying than the five biggest banks or the five largest oil companies. “Not since the turn of the twentieth century,” Taplin writes, “when Roosevelt took on the monopolies of Rockefeller and Morgan, has the country faced such a concentration of wealth and power.” All this, he adds wryly, on the back of an invention that was supposed to “eliminate the gatekeepers”. Not that Silicon Valley sees anything sinister in all this. As Taplin puts it, they have “a very high opinion of their place in history”. According to Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, the company aims to be “the perfect search engine . . . like the mind of God”. Earlier this year, Mark Zuckerberg even seemed to suggest that Facebook should emulate, if not replace, the Church as the bedrock on which communities are built. “Mark Zuckerberg will never be my pastor”, one reporter wrote in Christian Today.

For all their missionary zeal, Google and Facebook remain predominantly advertising companies – and their algorithms are ordered accordingly. They give their services away free, and make billions collecting data and selling it on. And like the advertising industry itself, their aims are riven with contradictions. Claims to cultivate the unique character of the individual, with increasingly personalized products, conflict with the greater goals of consumerist conformity and capturing user attention: self-expression can run free, so long as it plays out along predictable, profit­able lines. Hence, for example, Facebook’s increasing move towards auto-play video on its newsfeed, and the auto-queue on YouTube that sends you to a song with more views. In terms of “innovation” these companies present themselves as radical pioneers – they move fast and break things, as the mantra goes – but in practice, this only veils the homogenizing effects of their services. The music industry is an emblematic case: when the algorithms of streaming services push us towards what is already popular, a trade where 80 per cent of the revenue derives from just 1 per cent of the product is the result.

As Taplin stresses, however, perhaps the most worrying side of Silicon Valley’s self-aggrandizing aspirations is neither the money the companies make nor even the consequences so far. It is their contempt for whatever stands in their way. Democratic processes, the state, the public, tax, a basic sense of social responsibility, all are seen as so much baggage on a holy quest to better the lot of humankind. Ayn Rand’s refrain in The Fountainhead – “Who will stop me?” – has become a guiding principle. The Big Five were members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a shadowy organization made up of the biggest corporations dedicated to advancing the free market, until a public outcry forced them to quit. While their founders and executives deliver sermons on, say, the need for a (tax-funded) universal basic income, the companies themselves excel in avoiding tax. In 2014, Facebook’s UK offices managed to pay £4,327 in corporation tax, less than the average British worker pays; in the same year, bonuses to its UK employees reached a total of £35 million. In 2013, Google paid £20.4 million in UK tax on a revenue of £3.8 billion. Taplin also points to a tellingly popular “sea-steading” movement, which sees Silicon Valley dream of “building an artificial island in the middle of the sea, not hosted by any nation-state” for the purpose of innovation. Thiel, one of its main funders, pictures it as an “escape from politics in all its forms” (and, one imagines, tax). They recently reached an agreement with the French Polynesian government to take over a portion of its territory instead. Meanwhile Larry Page, Google’s co-founder and Alphabet’s CEO, echoes the idea that governments should “set aside a small part of the world” for them alone – the company is now looking for land to build its own city; the venture capitalist Tim Draper has suggested that Silicon Valley become its own state. Add to this these companies’ vast, self-contained campuses, and one is left with the clear sense of something like a modern monastery, cut off from society but with the weight of humanity’s hopes on its shoulders: Silicon Vatican.

by Samuel Earle, TLS |  Read more:
Image: Google Headquarters, London © PENSON/REX/Shutterstock

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Self-Driving Trucks Are Now Delivering Refrigerators

If you live in Southern California and you’ve ordered one of those fancy new smart refrigerators in the past few weeks, it may have hitched a ride to you on a robotruck.

Since early October, autonomous trucks built and operated by the startup Embark have been hauling Frigidaire refrigerators 650 miles along the I-10 freeway, from a warehouse in El Paso, Texas, to a distribution center in Palm Springs, California. A human driver rides in the cab to monitor the computer chauffeur for now, but the ultimate goal of this (auto) pilot program is to dump the fleshbag and let the trucks rumble solo down the highway.

“This is the first time someone has demonstrated this end-to-end," Embark CEO Alex Rodrigues says. "It showcases the way that we see self-driving playing into the logistics industry.” (...)

They’ve got some good arguments. First off, making a robot that can drive itself on the highway, where trucks spend nearly all their time, is relatively easy. You don’t have to account for pedestrians, cyclists, traffic lights, or other variables. The big rig just has to stay in its lane and keep a safe distance from fellow travelers.

Better yet, the need for autonomous trucks is very real: Trucks carry 70 percent of goods shipped around the US, but truckers are scarce. According to the American Trucking Associations, the industry is now short 50,000 drivers. As current drivers retire or quit, that number could hit 175,000 by 2024. Cut down the need for the human, and that shortage stops being a problem. And a self-driving truck isn't subject to rules that ban humans from spending more than 11 hours at a time behind the wheel.

Indeed, make a truck that doesn’t tire (or text), the thinking goes, and you save lives: In the US, more than 4,000 people die in crashes involving trucks every year, crashes that nearly always result from human error. That’s why the American Trucking Associations has embraced the new tech, recently issuing its first autonomous vehicle policy, calling for uniform federal laws that could help developers and researchers make automated and connected vehicles safer than humans. (The Teamsters are less enthused, and have pushed against the inclusion of commercial vehicles in coming federal legislation.)

For now, the Embark milk runs are designed to test logistics as well as the safety of the technology. On each trip, a human driver working for Ryder (a major trucking company and Embark’s partner on this venture) heads over to the Frigidaire lot in El Paso, picks up a load of refrigerators, hauls them to the rest stop right off the highway, and unhitches the trailer. Then, a driver working for Embark hooks that trailer up to the robotruck, cruises onto the interstate, pops it into autonomous mode, and lets it do its thing. The truck mostly sticks to the right lane and always follows the speed limit. Once in Palm Springs, the human pulls off the highway, unhitches the trailer, and passes the load to another Ryder driver, who takes it the last few miles to Frigidaire’s SoCal distribution center.

by Alex Davies, Wired |  Read more:
Image: Embark
[ed. They're here. The speed of this transformation is going to be surprising to many.]

Introducing the New Firefox: Firefox Quantum

It’s fast. Really fast. Firefox Quantum is over twice as fast as Firefox from 6 months ago, built on a completely overhauled core engine with brand new technology stolen from our advanced research group, and graced with a beautiful new look designed to get out of the way and let you do what you do best: surf a ton of pages, open a zillion tabs, all guilt free because Firefox Quantum uses less memory than the competition. Your computer will thank you. 🙂

It’s by far the biggest update we’ve had since we launched Firefox 1.0 in 2004, it’s just flat out better in every way. If you go and install it right now, you’ll immediately notice the difference, accompanied by a feeling of mild euphoria. If you’re curious about what we did, read on.

The first thing you’ll notice is the speed. Go on, open some tabs and have some fun. The second thing you’ll notice is the new User Interface (UI). We call this initiative Photon, and its goal is to modernize and unify anything that we call Firefox while taking advantage of the speedy new engine. You guessed it: the Photon UI itself is incredibly fast and smooth. To create Photon, our user research team studied how people browsed the web. We looked at real world hardware to make Firefox look great on any display, and we made sure that Firefox looks and works like Firefox regardless of the device you’re using. Our designers created a system that scales to more than just current hardware but lets us expand in the future. Plus, our Pocket integration goes one step further, which includes Pocket recommendationsalongside your most visited pages.

As part of our focus on user experience and performance in Firefox Quantum, Google will also become our new default search provider in the United States and Canada. With more than 60 search providers pre-installed across more than 90 languages, Firefox has more choice in search providers than any other browser.

We made many, many performance improvements in the browser’s core and shipped a new CSS engine, Stylo, that takes better advantage of today’s hardware with multiple cores that are optimized for low power consumption. We’ve also improved Firefox so that the tab you’re on gets prioritized over all others, making better use of your valuable system resources. We’ve done all this work on top of the multi-process foundation that we launched this past June. And we’re not done yet.

by Mark Mayo, Mozilla Blog | Read more:
Image: Mozilla

Otis G. Johnson

The Pity of It All

Ken Burns achieved renown with lengthy film histories of the Civil War, World War II, jazz, and baseball, but he describes his documentary The Vietnam War, made in close collaboration with his codirector and coproducer Lynn Novick, as “the most ambitious project we’ve ever undertaken.” Ten years in the making, it tells the story of the war in ten parts and over eighteen hours. Burns and Novick have made a film that conveys the realities of the war with extraordinary footage of battles in Vietnam and antiwar demonstrations in the United States. (...)

For those under forty, for whom the Vietnam War seems as distant as World War I or II, the film will serve as an education; for those who lived through it, the film will serve as a reminder of its horrors and of the official lies that drove it forward. In many ways it is hard to watch, and its battle scenes will revive the worst nightmares of those who witnessed them firsthand.

Asked why he and Novick took on this project, Burns said that more than forty years after the war ended, we can’t forget it, and we are still arguing about it. We are all, Novick added, “searching for some meaning in this terrible tragedy.” Their aim, the filmmakers said, was to explore whether the war was a terrible mistake that could have been avoided. They might have added that some consider it no mistake but the result of a deliberate policy. Nonetheless, she and Burns do provide answers to some questions Americans may still be asking about the war. (...)

From the very start, they strongly suggest that the US could not have won the war. To prove this point, which is still disputed, mostly by military men, they cite the private statements of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and many of their top advisers, who said that the measures they were taking were inadequate. It was feared that the recommendations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for more troops and more bombing would not convince the enemy to give up its goal of reunifying Vietnam—and might in fact lead to a larger war with China. The presidents and their advisers nonetheless persisted, unwilling to give up what Kennedy called a “piece of territory” to the Communists.

Burns and Novick say the US was initially “trapped in the logic of the cold war.” As Kennedy’s phrase suggests, the war was never really about South Vietnam. Rather, Washington viewed it as a piece on a chessboard, or a domino whose fall to communism might have caused the rest of Southeast Asia to fall. Before the commitment of American combat troops in 1965, Burns and Novick make clear, there were several occasions when the US could have withdrawn without much public opposition. One was after the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, since his successor, General Duong Van Minh, favored a French proposal for a negotiated settlement and a neutral Vietnam. Another came after Johnson’s victory in the 1964 election, when the military junta that had taken power in Saigon earlier that year fell apart, leaving a vacuum of authority. “This is the year of minimum political risk for the Johnson administration,” Vice President Hubert Humphrey said. In other words, the war could have ended in 1965, if not before.

Burns and Novick suggest that the strategy the Americans adopted was primarily responsible for the enormous casualties on both sides. When General William Westmoreland took command of the first regular American troops in 1965, he knew that the NLF controlled three quarters of the South Vietnamese countryside. Although he never told the press, he had no hope for “pacification” unless his troops could kill more North Vietnamese soldiers than could be replaced, a threshold he called “the crossover point.”

Since US troops could rarely find the enemy, much less “take and hold” the vast jungles of the highlands, his strategy was to deploy small American units to serve as “bait” for North Vietnamese attacks and then kill the enemy with artillery and air strikes. The “body count”—or the “kill ratio”—became the standard measure for whether progress was being made. As a result, commanders on the ground often inflated the number of enemy soldiers killed to please their superiors, who in turn inflated the figures even more. Meanwhile many American combat troops were killed and wounded.

The “body count” did worse than mislead. It changed the nature of the war, as many American soldiers killed indiscriminately. The filmmakers show a helicopter gunner shooting a man in black pajamas running away in his rice field. They show the famous footage of Morley Safer watching as soldiers torched a village, and footage of soldiers blowing a hole in a hut where grain was stored and killing the people hiding there. Commanders designated enemy-held territories as “free fire zones” and shelled them every night, even though many civilians lived in those areas. We also see troops calling Vietnamese “gooks” or “slopes.”

The voiceover rarely editorializes, but the film suggests how the standard of the “body count” helps explain how the My Lai massacre—when American troops killed hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians in March 1968—could have occurred. In late 1968, General Julian Ewell sent troops and aircraft into the densely populated Mekong Delta, killing 10,899 people in six months and seizing only 748 weapons. (The army inspector general later estimated that roughly half of those killed were in fact unarmed civilians.) Ewell was made a three-star general and given command of the largest army field force in Vietnam.

At the heart of the documentary are lengthy interviews with a number of American veterans, taking them through their war, often with archival footage of the battles they fought. A large number of these men came from small towns; many had fathers or uncles who had served in World War II and some had gone to West Point. As teenagers, they had always aspired to military service, and they couldn’t imagine not signing up to protect their country. Generally they knew nothing about Vietnam, but they wanted to show that they were warriors, as their dads had been. They went through basic training and were transported by air to Vietnam, where they were sent into battle in a land totally unfamiliar to them. We see some of them slogging through elephant grass and triple canopy jungles, always fearing a booby trap or an enemy ambush.

All of the men interviewed were brave and decent soldiers. One gave up a Rhodes scholarship to go into active duty out of loyalty to his friends. Several tell of their fears and anger. Many were wounded. Eventually some changed their minds about the war. (“What are we doing here?” “Are we fighting on the wrong side?”) One of them began to sympathize with the antiwar protesters and joined the peace movement after he left military service.

These segments of the film are the most affecting and yet these soldiers aren’t entirely representative. Not all American troops were as honorable as they were—or as articulate. Furthermore, as the filmmakers note, eight of ten Americans sent to Vietnam never saw combat. The majority were what the combat troops called REMFs, or Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers—public relations officers, construction men, and the like—who had good food, access to swimming pools, the run of the well-stocked post exchanges, and the liberty to go to Saigon to drink and pick up girls.

by Frances FitzGerald, NYRB |  Read more:
Image: Larry Burrows

Tuesday, November 14, 2017