Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Watching American Beauty

I recently re-watched American Beauty for what is likely the tenth time or so, though it has been several years since my last viewing.  The film is a truly rewarding with an outstanding screenplay, direction, a fantastic soundtrack, and high-caliber performances by everyone involved from the smallest supporting role up to the big named stars Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening.

The film's style is a wonderful mix of drama and comedy.  Its subject matter is serious, even philosophical, but there is plenty of sarcasm and dead-pan humor to lighten the load and give the viewer a richly entertaining experience.  At bottom, American Beauty is a coming of age tale in two respects.  Most obviously, it is the awkward daughter, Jane, who discovers love for the first time and is drawn into a relationship that helps define her.  But also, both Lester (Spacey) and Caroline, his wife, (Benning) each find themselves moving along separate paths, Lester, particularly, changing his lifestyle and becoming, for the first time, who he truly is - at age 42.

The film plays with a tapestry of classic and contemporary philosophical questions.  What is the meaning of life?  How do we deal with the numbing consumerist mentality of suburban America?  How are we imprisoned by modern life and, more importantly, how do we find redemption?  What constitutes "beauty"?  What does it mean to follow the direction prescribed by American culture versus discovering and following your own unique path?  

Sexuality is a huge part of the film.  The allure of youth and the allure of power as well as the allure of misfits genuinely connecting with someone are all explored in the various character situations.  My sister-in-law once derided the film as "it's just about sex!"  Well, it isn't "just" about sex.  It is "about" the wide variety of things I just mentioned.  But sex both as an erotic well-spring of inspiration and as a perverse objectification of what is human are both front and center in this powerful film. American Beauty is a sensual and aesthetic experience but there is very little actual sex in the film (one laughable scene with Caroline and her real estate mentor in bed is the exception) .  It is more about human aspirations, fantasies, perversion, and coping with unrealized expectations than it is about the act of sex.

One of the many memorable scenes of the film is when Caroline comes home in the afternoon to find Lester leisurely enjoying the day after he has quit his job and bought a new sports car (classic mid-life crisis stuff).  They are home alone and Lester feels that the spark is not yet completely dead between them.  He starts to make out with his wife on their living room couch when, just as things look like they might heat up, it all comes crashing down.

Caroline Burnham: Lester you're gonna spill beer on the couch.

Lester Burnham: [Pauses, gets up] So what? It's just a couch.

Caroline Burnham: This is a $4,000 sofa upholstered with Italian silk! This is not just a couch!

Lester Burnham: IT'S JUST A COUCH! This isn't life! This is just stuff. And it's become more important to you than living. Well, honey, that's just nuts.[she leaves] I'm only trying to help you!

How our marketing-driven, materialist consumer culture invades our very Being is a theme that is explored repeatedly and effectively in the film.  If anything, this topic is even more timely today than it was back in 1999 when the film came out, which is one of many reason American Beauty still rings so fresh and relevant.

More than anything, however, the film strikes me on this most recent viewing as being about how different people connect with and react to beauty.  Beauty means different things to different characters in the film.  For Ricky, Jane's confident odd-ball, free-spirit, perpetually videoing, pot-pushing boyfriend, the most beautiful thing he has ever witnessed (and captured with his video camera) is simply a plastic bag whirling in the wind around and around in an empty ally way for fifteen minutes.  As Ricky describes it:

"It was one of those days when it's a minute away from snowing and there's this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. And this bag was, like, dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. And that's the day I knew there was this entire life behind things, and... this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video's a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember... and I need to remember... Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it, like my heart's going to cave in."

For Lester, Jane's hot cheerleader friend Angela, is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen.  But his erotic attraction to her ultimately breaks down into compassion and then he has a sort of catharsis before his tragic demise in the film.  Lester, who narrates the film from a post-mortem perspective, sums it up this way at the end of the movie:

"I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me... but it's hard to stay mad, when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life... You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry... you will someday."

As a viewer I actually do have some sense of what he means.  But most people never discover how to relate to the life in this fashion and are, thus, the impoverished, ignorant spectators that Lester treats with such disdain through most of the picture but more gently in the end with his attempt to articulate what might be called "mindfulness" today.

American Beauty investigates a lot of things and tries to make a statement without being overly preachy.  With the exception of Lester's narration after he has died, all the characters, including the living Lester, are stumbling around trying to make sense of things, to understand their feelings and to find contentment in a often unsatisfying and empty world.  Some enjoy a measure of success along that path, but most of the characters just continue on as usual, trapped in a cultural landscape they don't even bother to question.

The film masterfully manages this without being preachy at all.  It doesn't provide clear answers.  Instead, mimicking real life, the film addresses the nature of our private struggles, both mature and youthful, as on-going concerns.  More importantly, it reminds us that beauty is to be found everywhere, in the simplest of moments.  And each moment can be authentically precious if we just open up to the fullness and possibility or the interrelated nature of things. 

This is film a solid 9.  I'd place it in my Top 50 movies of all-time if I actually had such a list.  It received Oscars for Best Picture, Best Directors, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Spacey), and Best Cinematography.  As I said, the entire cast should have been nominated for acting and supporting awards.  I can't believe Annette Bening did not win Best Actress.  Chris Cooper also gave a remarkable performance in his supporting role as the retired USMC Colonel Frank Fitts, Ricky's overbearing, abusive, homophobic father. As I mentioned, the soundtrack is exceptionally good. American Beauty is thought-provoking, stylistically distinctive, humorous, sad, and sensual.  It feels as fresh today as when it was originally made. Few films offer to touch the viewer so deeply on so many levels and fewer still stand up so well to the test of time.  

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Sweet Shrub Redux

Sweet Shrub in bloom.
I blogged previously about the sweet shrub on my property.  Since then it has proliferated in the heart of my woods, covering about twice the space as before along a jagged ravine in the forest.  I watched the budding of the shrubs with great interest this year, visiting them every day in an afternoon or an evening.  

Last Sunday came the first few blooms.  By mid-week you could smell that unique, sweet and citrus-like aroma - but faintly.  On Friday the weather was warmer and the blossoms exploded.  You could catch a whiff of the the fragrance hanging in the air as you approached them and stood among them.  

I picked the best blooms I could find on Saturday and they refreshed my study with their presence the rest of the evening.  But they wilted during the night as it rained, washing away the thick yellow pollen and bringing a 25 degree drop in temperature from yesterday.  Checking the patch today I still found a lot of blooms but no scent of any kind.  The cool weather changed things, and sweet shrub is fickle, never lasting very long anyway.  Still, the memory of the fragrance latches on me like a vine wrapping around and not letting go.

A close up of one of the most fragrant blossoms this year.  I kept it in my study last night.  The scent gently filled the space. 

The Lady Banks Rose is robust this time of year, covering a large section of the holly bush row I planted many years ago.

Countless cascading creamy roses.

Individual blossoms are tiny and not fragrant.

It was warm but overcast yesterday.  The spirea in the back yard seemed to glow a light green light.  The back of my house is peeking through the background.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Meditations on the Vietnam War: Tet 1968


In late 1967 President Lyndon Johnson summoned General Westmoreland to Washington to address a public relations issue.  Support for the war in Vietnam was beginning to seriously waiver.  The news media, academia, and some prominent religious leaders were turning against the war.  Student anti-war protests were growing and garnering more attention.  Johnson, concerned about re-election in 1968, needed the general to work the public sphere and put a positive spin on the progress in the war.  Westmoreland's message was essentially that the US was winning the war and it would be won within about two years.

At the same time, Hanoi launched a series of attacks along the South Vietnam border with Cambodia and Laos in an attempt to draw US forces away from Saigon, Hue, and other population centers.  This was the first phase of a new North Vietnamese strategic plan.  As we have seen, after lengthy debate, the Politburo leaders felt that the time was right for a "national uprising" in South Vietnam.  For a variety of reasons, the North Vietnamese believed that a strong, nationwide attack primarily targeting ARVN forces and US military command centers would lead to a revolt among the South Vietnamese population, mass desertion in ARVN forces, and the fall of the Saigon government.

Neither side got it right.

Johnson beckoned his general to Washington in order to accentuate the positive for the American people. “Westmoreland performed perfectly throughout, never uttering a gloomy word.  ‘The ranks of the Vietcong are thinning steadily,' he assured a gathering at the Pentagon, and he promised a National Press Club audience that ‘we have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view.’  And he defied the Communists to stage a massive attack.  ‘I hope they try something,’ he told a Time interviewer, ‘because we are looking for a fight.’” (Karnow, page 514)

While the expectation for peace within the foreseeable future was promoted in America, the Politburo in Hanoi had grand expectations as well.  “[Newly elected South Vietnamese President] Thieu maintained himself in power…only by a system of ‘purchased support.’  Thieu could retain power only by holding the allegiance of the top military leaders.  These men were chosen for their political loyalty, not their soldierly competence, a practice guaranteeing corruption and incompetence.” (Davidson, page 532)    

Saigon held little loyalty or control over the country outside the major population centers; large sections of the rural population, coerced largely by family ties with the Viet Cong as well as by terrorism and bribes, supported (or at least tolerated) the VC.  Ho Chi Minh and his closest advisers believed that the people were ready to revolt against the South Vietnamese regime and that ARVN units would desert to their side if given the chance through a massive nationwide offensive.  US intelligence reported the build-up of PAVN forces in late-1967, but failed to acknowledge it politically or publicly.

“Westmoreland made a serious error in not warning the American people of the possibility of such an offensive.  He was aware of the buildup before the holiday, although the widespread attacks throughout South Vietnam had caught him by surprise.  His briefing officers at the Five O’Clock Follies often gave newsmen the idiot treatment and that did not enhance his prestige with the media.” (Morrison, page 403)

Planning for the Tet offensive began in May 1967.  The North Vietnamese called it Tong Cong Kich, Tong Khai Nghia (TCK-TKN), “General Offensive, General Uprising.”  In July Giap’s strategic adversary, General Nguyen Chi Thanh died either from a heart attack or from wounds suffered in a B-52 attack on his headquarters, depending on which side interprets the event.  By default, General Vo Nguyen Giap became the supreme military leader in North Vietnam.  As things turned out, this relatively unknown exchange of power was perhaps the turning point in America’s Vietnam War.

Giap’s plan was an evolution of phased attacks.  In Phase One North Vietnamese regular troops were to attack the border areas and remote portions of South Vietnam to draw American forces away from the population centers.  Phase Two would see the Viet Cong forces, reinforced and trained, attack the ARVN bases, American headquarters, all major towns and cities nationwide.  Main US combat forces were to be avoided.  The sheer magnitude of the attack was meant to demoralize ARVN troops and confuse the Americans, who would be tied down by NVA operations in the first phase.  Phase Two would be widespread assaults mostly by VC forces tied to a large-scale propaganda campaign designed to encourage ARVN desertion and revolt by the population. Phase Three would be a massive conventional attack upon the demoralized and disorganized ARVN and US forces.  This phase actually began before the other two were completed.  The large-scale threat to the marine base at Khe Sanh was the opening move of what was to become a nationwide set-piece battle.

But, just as the Johnson administration miscalculated how to best prepare the American people to support the war effort in 1968, Giap’s ambitious plan was based on a number of miscalculations.  “Like Napoleon and Hitler before them, the North Vietnamese had crossed a bridge of reality and were lost in that seductive but ultimately destructive, land where fantasy has become fact.  To this fantasy was added an almost mystical faith in the efficiency and power of their concept of the ‘Great Uprising.’  To Ho and the others the Great Uprising of August 1945 was a particularly Vietnamese phenomenon which in a few days saw the Vietnamese people rise up and sweep the Vietminh to total victory over the Japanese and the French.” (Davidson, page 448) 

“The Tet offensive had actually started in September 1967, when Communist troops launched a series of attacks against a string of isolated American garrisons scattered across the highlands of central Vietnam and along the Laotian and Cambodian frontiers.  Westmoreland had just told a group of American correspondents in Saigon that ‘a sense of despair’ pervaded enemy ranks as their losses mounted, but his description of them scarcely fit the facts.  Deployed in regiments and even divisions, the Communist forces were equipped with superb new Soviet automatic rifles, flamethrowers, and backpack radios as well as mortars, rockets, and big antiaircraft guns, and they struck with extraordinary precision.  Their first target was Conthien, a small U.S. Marine fire base located atop a barren hill south of the porous boundary separating the two Vietnams.  Then they hit Locninh and Songbe, a pair of American outposts near the Cambodian border north of Saigon.  And, in early November, they began the largest engagement of the war to date, a battle that raged for twenty-two days around Dakto, a dense jungle region in the mountains above Pleiku.” (Karnow, page 538)

Next came the Siege of Khe Sanh, which NVA forces attacked on January 21, 1968, some ten days before the “official” start of the Tet offensive.  Once again, according to Davidson, this was neither a primary attack nor a diversion.  The NVA attacks on the marine base were intended to set up the capture of the base as Phase Two gave way to Phase Three of TCK-TKN.  Visions of Dien Bien Phu danced in Giap’s head.  The persistent attacks on Khe Sanh were to sync up with later victories elsewhere in South Vietnam to deliver America a demoralizing defeat just as the French experienced in 1954.

“The Communist troops hammered the marine positions with rocket, artillery, mortar, and small-arms fire.  The ammunition depot and fuel supplies blew up.  There was a fierce fight on Hill 861 which the marines finally cleared with heavy casualties on both sides.  On the same day, an NVA battalion overran Khe Sanh village, which was about two miles from the base. 

“On 21 January, General Westmoreland ordered Operation Niagara to be executed.  This operation, which had been in the planning and reconnaissance stage since early January, envisioned that Khe Sanh would be defended not only by the marine garrison, but by a mighty waterfall of firepower composed of B-52’s tactical air, artillery, and mortars. This awesome striking power would be targeted by an expanded intelligence effort utilizing all intelligence collection devices, included newly arrived acoustic and seismic sensors.” (Davidson, page 558)

“On 5 February, an enemy battalion attacked Hill 861A in concert with heavy shelling of the combat base.  The NVA unit penetrated the defensive perimeter of the marine outpost on 861A, but the marines counterattacked and drove the Communists out of the position, killing over 100 of them.

“On 7 February, the Special Forces camp at Lang Vei, five miles southwest of Khe Sanh, was destroyed by an NVA battalion using Russian PT-76 light tanks, the first enemy use of armor in South Vietnam.  On 8 February, a combat outpost of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, southwest of Khe Sanh, was partially overrun by an NVA battalion.  Marine counterattacks, supported by heavy artillery fire, restored the position and killed 150 NVA soldiers.  Giap’s plan for the reduction of the marine combat base was now evident.  The 325C Division would drive in the marine outposts to the north of the base and attack the camp from the north and west.  The 304th Division would attack along the axis of Lang Vei / Khe Sanh village and then make a final assault on the base from the south and the east.

“But something went wrong with the plan.  Around 10 February, Giap began to withdraw NVA units from the Khe Sanh area and from other portions of the DMZ to reinforce his beleaguered troops at Hue.  Two battalions of the 29th Regiment of the NVA 325C Division and the entire 24th Regiment of the NVA 304th Division were moved from Khe Sanh to Hue, a total of five battalions.  From 8 to 22 February, the NVA continued their pressure on Khe Sanh using artillery, mortars, machine guns, and snipers, but there were no major ground assaults.  On 23 February, Khe Sanh combat base received the record number of incoming rounds for a single day – 1,307.  Colonel Lownds believed that a major NVA ground assault was imminent, and he was right.

“During the early evening hours of 29 February, the acoustic and seismic sensors along Highway 9 indicated a major troop movement by the NVA 304th Division toward the combat base from the east.  Immediately the fire support control center called for maximum fire against the area.  The resulting United States firepower was in truth a Niagara of explosives and steel as artillery, radar-equipped fighters, and B-52 bombers struck at the NVA attackers.  At 2130 on 29 February, a battalion of the NVA 304th Division assaulted the area held by the ARVN 37th Ranger Battalion.  Hit by the concentrated firepower, the attack was smashed before it got to the defensive wire.  A second attempt by another NVA battalion at 2330 was similarly destroyed.  A final attack launched at 0315, 1 March, met the same fate.  This regimental-size attack was the largest ground assault of the Khe Sanh siege.” (Davidson, pp. 559 – 561)

“…Giap intended Khe Sanh to be the climactic battle of his campaign, which was to follow the successful execution of Phase II (the attack on the cities).  Giap realized in early February, however, that Phase II had failed abjectly.  The necessary foundation for his climatic Phase III battle, therefore, had failed to materialize, so he changed his mind about overrunning Khe Sanh.” (Davidson, page 564)

Westmoreland was partially insightful as to Giap’s plan.  The American general thought Khe Sanh was the main attack and that all the rest of the Tet offensive was primarily an attempt to draw US marines away from Khe Sanh to respond to other North Vietnamese assaults – so that the weakened base could then be more heavily attacked and captured.  Such an outcome would have been an American disaster, a Little Big Horn for the 20th century.  Westmoreland was right to see the importance of Khe Sanh to Giap, but he did not understand that the base’s importance was not in the present but in the future and dependent upon other victories that never came as the North pursued victory in TCK-TKN.  Until the rest of South Vietnam was in chaos, Khe Sanh was a side show.  

The 6,000 marines stationed in Khe Sanh were expecting a much larger attack that never came.  From a strategic perspective this was a victory of North Vietnam.  By not reducing the size of the garrison, American troops were actually out of position and could have been better used against other, more threatening, attacks.  But, as it turned out, this did not matter.  The Tet offensive would go down as a brutal strategic military defeat for North Vietnam.  General Giap’s plan failed on almost every account, making Khe Sanh superfluous.  

The failure of Tet in 1968 was far from obvious in the first few days of its execution.  The sheer size of the offensive surprised everyone, including Westmoreland.  The American public was disturbed by the nationwide impact of the PAVN forces.  They had been told repeatedly the last few weeks that victory was at hand, that North Vietnam was suffering grievously.  And yet here they were, attacking literally everywhere.  It was shocking to middle America.

NLF and North Vietnamese units fought the Americans and ARVN for control of forty-four provincial capitals, five of six major cities, and sixty-four district capitals.  The most intense fighting lasted about two weeks, and most areas the Americans and the South Vietnamese repulsed the attackers.  The fighting lasted longest in the old imperial capital of Hue.  Vietcong troops captured Hue and held it for more than three weeks.  For the first ten days the U.S. commanders gathered reinforcements to retake the city.  During that time the pro-government citizens of Hue lived in terror.  After raising the NLF banner over the ancient citadel in the center of town, the revolutionaries released all of the inmates of the city jail, many of whom had been held for secretly helping the Vietcong.  The victors also went on a rampage of vengeance, gunning down more than two thousand civic leaders, policemen, and ordinary citizens whose neighbors turned them over to the revolutionaries.  When the American marines and ARVN forces finally retook the city on February 23, they found a moonscape of charred remains of wooden buildings, rotting corpses, and starving abandoned animals.” (Schulzinger, page 259)

For the first few days of February 1968, South Vietnam was up for grabs.  The entire country was under massive PAVN pressure.  Soon enough, however, the attacks were squelched by US and ARVN forces.  Only in Saigon and at Hue did heavy fighting continue after the first week.  These cities became the main events for the Tet offensive, with Hue taking center stage.  If Hue fell and Saigon remained under siege then Giap would have unleashed a far greater assault on Khe Sanh and win the war through the utter demoralization of American willpower.  As it was, the Viet Cong in Saigon and Hue were eventually wiped out, the assault on Khe Sanh never occurred, and yet, absurdly, America’s willpower to continue the war nevertheless dissolved at the precise moment when Giap’s plan was decisively beaten.

“The Vietcong achieved total surprise everywhere.  Even President Thieu took no significant action when he first learned the news because he did not believe his own intelligence reports.  At the time he was holding a reunion with his wife’s family in My Tho.

“Saigon’s early risers could not believe their eyes when Vietcong troops in palm-leafed hats and black rubber sandals established themselves in some of the city’s vlocks.  Few had believed the communists would launch an offensive against the cities and towns during the Tet holiday.  Urbanites were perfectly shocked because they had not seen much of the war.” (Morrison, page 389)

“A major battle was fought in Saigon February 11.  With the support of one United States unit, the South Vietnamese Rangers wiped out a high-level command post the Phu Lam communal temple.  After this battle, that cost the lives of six high-ranking communist officials, fighting in the city declined.

“Fighting resumed February 17, however, as a new series of attacks erupted.  Rockets caused heavy destruction at Tan Son Nhut and the nearby Military Assistance Command headquarters.  This fighting lasted until early March and was highlighted by bitter fighting inside Saigon and Cholon.

“In Washington, the Joint Chiefs urged President Johnson to authorize air strikes against Hanoi and Haiphong.  They also pressured him to call up the reserves, but McNamara approved only a 10,500 increase for Vietnam and refused to call up the reserves.  In early March, Westmoreland was still seeking 206,736 more men, but only got 22,000.

“After March 7 there was relative calm in Saigon that lasted until May 5 when fighting broke out again.  Countrywide the situation was greatly improved except in Hue where fighting still raged.  There the loss of civilians was high, including the massacre of approximately four thousand people who became victims of communist atrocities committed during the twenty-five days the city remained under their control.” (Morrison, page 393)

The most successful aspect of the PAVN Tet Offensive was the capture and control of large sections of the traditional imperial city of Hue.  “The Lunar New Year’s day passed without incident amid traditional celebrations.  But the North Vietnamese struck at 3:40 A.M. the following morning with fierce preparatory fire of rockets and mortars.  By the morning of the next day, despite desperate resistance, Hue had practically fallen under enemy control with the exception of the key military and governmental headquarters.  By 8:00 A.M. the flag of the National Liberation Front flew on the Midday Gate’s flagpole.

“The commander of the Vietnamese 1st Division ordered his troops to retake the city, and his forces were joined by available U.S. forces.  In addition, Brigadier General Ngo Quang Troung ordered the 9th Airborne Battalion back from Quang Tri.  With a United States airlift they landed at Mang Ca while others were brought in.  Tay Loc airfield inside the Citadel was retaken after two days of heavy fighting as United States Marines were placed on full alert.

“The communists had overrun the principle prison and had freed 2,000 prisoners. Some of whom were used as laborers while the others were given arms to replace combat losses.  The Vietcong quickly consolidated their control of the city.  They divided it for defense purposes, placing each section under control of a Revolutionary Committee.  Civilians were required to register with the committee and turn in weapons, ammunition and radios.  Many civilians were asked to report again and evidently were murdered, including those on the Vietcong’s black list.” (Morrison, page 395)

“The stubborn resistance of the communists inside the Citadel lasted until February 21 when their situation became desperate.  Three United States Air Cavalry battalions made a concerted drive against the La Chu area northwest of Hue and occupied it, thus severing all communications and re-supply activities between the Citadel and the outside.

“Two South Vietnamese Ranger battalions increased the strength of the attackers and the Imperial Court was retaken February 24 and the National Liberation Front’s flag was brought down, ripped to tatters and the Republic of Vietnam’s flag run up in its place.  For the first time in twenty-five days the yellow and triple-red-striped flag fluttered triumphantly in the breeze.  This battle ended the communist’s occupation of Hue.  It had been the most fierce, bloody and destructive of all battles during the offensive.  The communists had committed sixteen battalions or almost the equivalent of two infantry divisions.  They lost more than 2,000 killed in Hue alone.” (Morrison, page 396)

“In large part the allied victory at Hue was due to the men of the South Vietnamese 1st Division who held on to their headquarters in the Mang Ca compound and from there continued to direct operations from the outside.  The compound proved a vital base to receive reinforcements and an excellent staging for counterattacks.  The South Vietnamese troops, although few in number, had demonstrated high morale and fought superbly despite repeated calls from the communists to surrender.  The gallant fight put up by the 81st Ordnance Company, with only eighty men, fought off repeated attacks for fifteen days as the enemy sought to obtain their stock of 1,400 M-16 rifles.  They even moved their stock before the compound was overrun.” (Morrison, page 397)

“If the Americans and their allies were napping before the Tet upheaval, the Communists also blundered.  ‘We have been guilty of many errors and shortcomings,’ their initial appraisal of the campaign confessed, deploring such deficiencies as their failure to inspire the South Vietnamese population to rebel or their inability to rally Saigon government soldiers and officials to their banners.  Many North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops were plainly disenchanted by the realization that, despite their enormous sacrifices during the campaign, they still faced a long struggle ahead.  Official reports expressed alarm at the erosion of morale among those who had ‘lost confidence’ in the Communist leadership and had become ‘doubtful of victory, pessimistic, and display shirking attitudes.'” (Karnow, page 544)

The desertion rate among the Viet Cong soared, essentially ending it as a cohesive threat to South Vietnam for months to come.  Yet, this fact was immaterial.

“The communists had lost every battle in Vietnam but they had won a resounding psychological victory in the United States.  On April 3, 1968, they agreed to discuss an armistice and immediately took advantage of the peace talks to improve their military position while they pushed their political warfare through propaganda. Thus the United States missed a golden opportunity to deal a death blow to an enemy in agony.” (Morrison, page 402)

“…most Americans were dispirited because they felt that President Johnson was not prosecuting the war dynamically enough.  Their attitude, summed up succinctly, seemed to say: ‘It was an error for us to have gotten involved in Vietnam in the first place.  But now that we’re there, let’s win - or get out.'

“A survey conducted in November 1967, for example, indicated that while 44 percent of Americans favored a complete or gradual withdrawal from Vietnam, 55 percent wanted a tougher policy – and they included a handful who advocated the use of nuclear weapons.  In February 1968, while the Tet offensive was raging, 53 percent favored stronger military operations, even at the risk of a clash with the Soviet Union or China, compared with only 24 percent who preferred to see the war wound down.  Interestingly, much the same sentiment prevailed after the war: a study carried out in 1980 found that 65 percent of Americans believed that ‘the trouble in Vietnam was that our troops were asked to fight a war that we could never win.’

“During the six weeks following the initial Communist attacks, public approval of [President Johnson’s] overall performance dropped from 48 percent to 36 percent – and, more dramatically, endorsement of his handling of the war fell from 40 percent to 26 percent.  The country’s trust in his authority evaporated.  His credibility – the key to a president’s capacity to govern – was gone.

“More important, perhaps, Johnson was abandoned by the vocal elements of the population – the media commentators, business executives, educators, clergymen, and other ‘elites,’ whose voices resonated more forcefully in Washington than did those of Middle America.” (Karnow, page 546)

Walter Cronkite made a hurried tour of Vietnam in February 1968 and shortly thereafter on national television dolorously called Tet an American defeat, saying on 27 February that ‘the only rational way out will be to negotiate, not as victors but as honorable people.’  President Johnson watching this program lamented to his press secretary, George Christian, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.’

“There is an interesting epilogue to Cronkite’s broadcast of 27 February, 1968.  During his preparation of the broadcast, Cronkite visited one of the senior American field commanders.  After the customary briefings on American and South Vietnamese successes, Cronkite told the general that he would not use any of the material just presented to him.  He went further, saying that he had been to Hue and seen the open graves of the South Vietnamese civilians murdered by the NVA troops and that he (Cronkite) had decided to do everything in his power to see that this war was brought to an end – a peculiar and reverse reaction to an enemy atrocity.” (Davidson, page 486)

In light of the pervasive defeatist mindset suddenly strengthening throughout the nation, President Johnson soon unexpectedly announced he would not seek reelection, something that seemed to reinforce the feeling of defeat throughout America.  The anti-war protests in America were emboldened by the carnage of the Tet offensive.  The fact that Giap’s strategy had failed completely, and that, with the exception of Hue, all the fighting throughout South Vietnam was quickly contained at horrific cost to PAVN forces simply did not register either with America’s cultural elites or with Middle America.

It is ironic that the North Vietnamese agreed to peace talks after TCK-TKN, something Westmoreland’s search and destroy operations and McNamara’s graduated pressure failed to do.  It was only in the face of massive defeat that Hanoi sought negotiations, not to end the war but to buy time to regroup.  McNamara’s disillusionment and Cronkite’s pessimism peaked at precisely the moment when PAVN was the most demoralized and disrupted.  In what is perhaps the ultimate absurdity of the war, the United States reduced pressure on its badly wounded adversary and pursued negotiations when North Vietnam was at its weakest point since the war began.  America did not possess the willpower to intensify the war effort, to drive the wounded NVA/VC completely out of South Vietnam.  The Viet Cong were largely destroyed, the United Sates was emotionally exhausted.  Despite horrific casualties and utter defeat across the entirety of South Vietnam, it was the Battle for Hue that most affected the understanding of the American public.  And it was in this fact that Hanoi saw its chance for rest and recuperation.

“Basically, the Vietnamese armed forces did most of the fighting and most units fought well.  Not one army unit broke under intensive pressure, or defected to the North Vietnamese.  In the first phase of the attacks the communists lost 32,000 killed and 5,800 captured.  By the end of the second phase in May another 5,000 died.  The communists failed to hold any city except for Hue and that was only for twenty-five days.  The general uprising which they had confidently counted upon to achieve success did not occur.  It was a military defeat for North Vietnam and even the Vietcong headquarters admitted that they had failed to seize a number of primary objectives and had to been able to destroy any South Vietnamese units.  Most galling of all was the fact the people of South Vietnam had refused to join in the uprising.  The fighting did disrupt pacification in the countryside, however, generating 600,000 new refugees.” (Morrison, page 403) 

PAVN forces launched another “mini-Tet” in May and again in October.  These were smaller scale versions of the January 31 offensive and were equally ineffective, though these attacks were indicative of the amazing resilience of the Viet Cong.  They also managed to create about 200,000 more refugees, however.  Perhaps it was here, in the area of “hearts and minds,” that North Vietnam staved off total defeat.  The mixed efforts by Washington and Saigon to pacify the countryside were disrupted by the offensives.  Saigon lost even more control than it possessed before Tet due to the failure of the pacification efforts, which were negatively impacted by the large scale destruction wrought while defeating PAVN initiatives.  

The simple fact remained that most of the Vietnamese people felt disassociated from President Thieu’s government.  That was something killing tens of thousands of NVA/VC in 1968 didn’t solve. To that extent America’s military triumph at TCK-TKN was meaningless, the war was about something else entirely. 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Full Moon Sets at Sunrise

It's April Fools Day...and Easter Sunday.  While many of my neighbors were off to sunrise services, I was in my front yard catching the full moon set.  It was a cool but comfortable 42 degrees this morning.  There was a lot of song bird action in my woods to herald the day.
It was still March last night, which means this is the second Blue Moon of 2018.  For the first time since 1999, the month of February had no full moon at all.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Watching "the end" of the X-Files

Scully and Mulder in the final scene of "My Struggle IV"
Note:  This post contains a lot of spoilers.

I was wrong.  I blogged about the return of The X-Files to TV two years ago.  The abbreviated Season 10 (6 episodes) of the series' reemergence after a 15 year absence was highly anticipated by me.  There were a couple of good episodes and I enjoyed what the show's creator, Chris Carter, did overall with the main narrative.  But it was not great television compared with the high standards and originality of The X-Files in its heyday.
  
In that season finale, "My Struggle II," it appeared that Carter had finally brought the show's primary narrative to fruition.  A global contagion was unleashed upon humanity.  I thought, at last, Carter had quit playing the endless and increasingly frustrating games with his audience and began resolving unsettled issues that were the backbone of the series from the beginning.

But I was wrong.  In Season 11 the previous season's ending was cleverly re-contextualized and given deeper significance to Dana Scully and Fox Mulder, the show's primary characters, while simultaneously introducing, William, the character believed to be Mulder and Scully's now teenage son, born back in 2002's Season 9.  "My Struggle III" was bizarre, stylistically distinctive, it almost didn't feel like an X-Files episode at all.  That was because, in my opinion, the central force for the narrative switched away from Mulder and Scully to the son, who has some sort of psychic abilities and is somehow plugged into (or causing) the same anxious hallucinations that his mother is experiencing.  The contagion isn't happening at all.  Rather, that is a premonition of the future.  In this way, Season 10, surprisingly, is partly an epilogue for Season 11. 

So the games Carter is so perpetually fond of continued albeit in a muted form.  Only three of the 10 episodes were devoted to the "alien conspiracy" mythology of the series.  The other seven were a mix of classic, mostly stand-alone "monster of the week" shows with a couple of "off-beat" funny and just plain weird episodes thrown-in. 

In Season 10, the cast and crew seemed to be searching for their footing after being away from these characters and this narrative for so many years.  There were flashes of the good old X-Files, but it was more of a stumbling reboot than of fresh creative invention.  That season managed to reestablish the characters in their contemporary, more mature selves, but it only marginally improved upon the challenges the series faced in overblown and overextended Seasons 8 and 9 so many years ago.

I thought Season 11 was an improvement, though many former X-Files fans would disagree with me.  Judging by the dramatic drop in the show's weekly audience (it only garnered about 20% of the show's original wider audience) many lifelong fans decided the shocking revelation in "My Struggle III" (and perhaps the morphed longevity of the original narrative) was too much and irreparably damaged the show's primary story line.  Personally, I like the surprise that Mulder is not the father of William.  Rather, the boy is a product of rape through the artificial insemination of human-alien DNA into Scully by the infamous Cigarette Smoking Man (CSM), who is, in fact, Mulder's father too.  The magnitude of that fact cannot be overstated.  And many fans viewed it as unacceptable.   I think it is the most wickedly twisted aspect of the show, ever.

Whatever.  Season 11 showed those 3.5 million of us who hung in there a better dynamic between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson's characters.  The writing was often playful and fun between them, implying a much deeper relationship than had only been alluded to before.  I enjoyed learning how this relationship matured over the missing years since Season 9 and the hastily rushed feel of Season 10.  In "This" we saw the domestic aspect of their now older lives together.  The off-beat episode "Rm9sbG93ZXJz" shows their closeness in the context of separate living quarters - as the world of automation gone wrong ridiculously engulfs them.  Mulder wonders why Scully has a better home than he does in that episode.

The show took time to satirize itself, which it managed to do so brilliantly in earlier seasons, giving us some of the best X-Files installments of all time.  "The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat" (directed by the ever-capable fan favorite Darin Morgan) was a splendid example of the show not taking itself too seriously while delivering a truly funny episode that was one of the season's highlights for me.

Forays into the "monster of the week" style episodes were a mixed bag.  "Plus One," "Familiar," and "Nothing Lasts Forever" all were true, classic X-Files.  You could have dropped any of these three into the earlier seasons and, but for their age, a viewer would assimilate them seamlessly into the 160-170 other episodes of this type.  They were not distinctive but they did offer the devoted fan a comfortable feel of the well-trodden path that makes up the majority of the series, outside of the mythology narrative.

"Kitten" gave actor Mitch Pileggi an opportunity to reveal more about the backstory of FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner, dealing with some unresolved issues from his Vietnam War days.  It was nice to see an episode establish more character depth among the supporting members and Pileggi has been crucial to the show for many seasons - a sub-narrative linchpin almost as important as CSM (played by William B. Davis).

But, for me, the show has always been about the alien conspiracy, one of many meta-themes threading the series together, which is more or less a metaphor for the abuse of power.  In the 1990's this was a very effective theme.  We didn't know it then, of course, but those times were innocent compared with today. The conspiracy seemed both mysterious and surprising in its nature back in the day.  It was compelling.  

In the Trumpian universe of today, the conspiracy had to be amped up a bit.  We are no longer shocked by the abuse of power.  It has become rather commonplace compared with some 25 years ago.  This metaphor had to be tweaked to shock us.  Chris Carter managed to do this very effectively, although the aliens turn out to be the alienation felt by a good portion of the audience itself who could not accept how events turn out for our heroes.

Season 11's three mythology episodes ("My Struggle III," "Ghouli," and "My Struggle IV") are all about the consequences of events that took place in the X-Files universe as far back as Season 7.  They deal with the complex interrelationship between the mythology itself and the characters of Mulder, Scully, CSM, Skinner, and, for the first time, the teenage boy William. 

Of the three, "Ghouli" was the best and probably the strongest episode in season 11, maybe the strongest episode since Season 7.  Although in "My Struggle III" we get a vague sense of William (the coming worldwide contagion is an intuition in his mind), it is with "Ghouli" that we get properly introduced to the character. Though headstrong and highly intelligent, William lacks a full understanding of himself, but he knows someone is after him because of his unique "abilities."

Like several of the best previous mytharc episodes, "Ghouli" encapsulates the entire central X-Files narrative in a single chapter.  After 11 seasons through many twists and turns and false-starts, everything has been distilled down to Mulder and Scully's search to find William before the CSM does.  Skinner, as always, is an ally to our heroes but he keeps his line of communication open to CSM, somewhat playing both sides.

William, in the meantime, is shown to be a troubled teenager with a couple of girlfriends who is gradually coming to understand his alien-hybrid capabilities and how to control them.  In "Ghouli" he has mastered the ability to project fear into the minds of others in the form of grotesque but illusory monsters.  He has also mastered the power of "shape-shifting," assuming virtually any form he chooses, including exact imitations of human beings.  This was a power explored fully in several earlier seasons of the show before William was ever conceived.

Now, thanks to CSM's alien DNA insemination of Scully, these previous manifestations of the top secret alien-hybrid project have reached their pinnacle.  William is the summit of decades of dark scientific research.  But, in a desperate attempt to protect him as a baby, he was given away for adoption by Scully back in Season 9.  No one knows who adopted William nor where he is.  In "Ghouli," however, everyone is starting to catch up to him.  There are deep state operatives attempting to capture him while another group of operatives want to destroy him.  All the while, Mulder and Scully are on the hunt for him.

Trapped by all this, fearful for his life and knowing he must avoid capture, William (played superbly by Miles Robbins) fakes his own death.  Scully has a mother's intuition about the body, however, and feels there is a good chance he is her son.  In one of the most powerful X-File scenes ever, Scully chooses to confess to William's corpse her sorrow and her sadness for missing the boy's life and not being there for him.  It is a touching and profoundly emotional monologue, an excellent job of acting by Gillian Anderson.

"I don't know if you are who I think you might be. But if you are William this is what I'd say. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry that I didn't get a chance to know you. Or you get a chance to know me, or your father. I gave you up for adoption, not because I didn't want you, or because you were any less loved. I was trying to keep you safe. I hope you know that. Uh, and maybe maybe I should have had the courage to stand by you. But I thought I was being strong, because it was the hardest thing I've ever done. (SNIFFLES) I mean to let go. And to know that I was gonna miss your whole life. But it turns out that this is the hardest thing. To see the outcome. And how I failed you.(CRYING) I need you to know that I never forgot you. And I thought, I felt that even recently, that we were gonna somehow (SNIFFLES) be reunited.(CRYING)  I wish I could have been there to ease your pain. Oh, my God, this is so inadequate."

But, when left alone in the autopsy room, William manages to escape.  Now that he knows who is mother is, he shape-shifts into an Asian man who comes into contact with Scully twice.  Their conversations are short, causally in passing, but friendly and even philosophical.  The man seems vaguely familiar to Scully but she cannot place him.  After the second encounter, Mulder gets the idea to watch the surveillance video of the gas station where their interaction occurred.  The video reveals the Asian man is William (apparently shape-shifting is an illusion projected into specific minds and not a physical manifestation at all.)  For the first time, Scully knows that she has interacted with her son, even though she did not realize it at the time.  "You seem like a nice person.  I wish I could know you better," the Asian man says.  Watching the video of William saying this to her gives Scully a small sense of relief even if his physical presence still evades her. 

The story is wrapped up (for now at least) in the season (series?) finale, "My Struggle IV."  While there is plenty that is cheesy and overblown about this episode, I thought it did a good job of handling all the remaining fundamental characters: Mulder, Scully, CSM, Skinner, and William, all of whom are involved in the heart-racing, final 15 minutes.

William is starting to truly harness his powers.  The result is nothing short of shocking for the audience and for Mulder who witnesses the boy who he thinks is his son make, with his mind, the bodies of a half dozen agents trying to kill him explode into bloody pieces.  It is a scene of mega blood and gore that surpasses all but a few other shows or movies I have ever seen.  In that moment Mulder's perspective changes. For the first time he realizes that he cannot help or protect William.  "No one can protect him," he tells Scully, unable to even articulate what he has just witnessed.  Scully refuses to believe that and continues to search for her son.

The final five minutes brings this narrative to a reasonable stopping point.  The door is definitely left open for the future.  Mulder and Scully are still around.  Miraculously, so is William.  The series ends with the possibility of more - though it is unlikely that the original alien conspiracy mythology of the show will survive in its previous form.  That long, twisted and often frustrating part of the series is over - I think. 

In the end, however, The X-Files Season 11 was fundamentally about what it has always been about, the relationship of Mulder and Scully.  They are both older now.  They fall asleep on the couch with the TV still on.  They both struggle to make sense of social media and contemporary technology.  Mulder has begun wearing (a very nerdy pair of) reading glasses.  Mulder is even nostalgic about how the whole spectrum of horror has changed in postmodern times: "Yeah, this is my problem with modern-day monsters, Scully. There's no chance for emotional investment. You know, like Frankenstein and the Wolfman. Not only did they inspire bowel-clenching fear, but there was pathos. You know, Frankenstein he was afraid of fire and he just wanted a friend," he says at one point in "Ghouli."

But, beyond all that, the superb chemistry between actors Duchovny and Anderson, their playful banter, their debate on what is and isn't possible, between science and belief, remains solid to the end.  They are more flirtatious now, obviously more mature and more secure in their relationship.  Through 218 episodes these two characters have grown in respect and admiration for each other without compromising each one's personal beliefs or inclinations.  After all this time, they are two different individuals that have learned to accept each other for who they are and find something greater in the themselves by being together.  If a tad sentimental and if not the most original of outcomes for two television characters of considerable longevity, it is nevertheless a most hopeful outcome for what might very well be in the end of the series.

Gillian Anderson says she isn't coming back.  Chris Carter says he won't go on without her (but has since backtracked on that).  David Duchovny is comfortable whether this is the end or not, saying "I've tried to say good-bye to Fox Mulder many times and failed." We remaining fans all thought it was over back in 2002 and it wasn't.  Will there be more?  Maybe, but not likely for awhile.  And even if there isn't, the original primary narrative of the series has been left largely resolved.  It might not satisfy a lot of lifelong X-Files fans but it felt right to me in terms of where each major character ends up, even if that very last shot made me wince from the unnecessary pandering of it all.  Chris Carter just can't seem to leave well-enough alone.  But, in the long run, maybe that's a good thing.  It makes that final embrace between our heroes hopeful anyway, even if I could have done without the last few lines of dialog.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Down, Up, Down, Up

The Dow shrugged off worries over Trump's new tariffs and the resignation of his chief economic adviser last week and returned to the 50-day moving average.  This is a sign of strength, in part driven by a generally positive jobs report.  Amazingly, the Dow seems reluctant to test the 200-day moving average during what now might be just a 'mini-correction.'  This is an extraordinary 9-year bull market.  Only the markets of the 1990's under Bill Clinton surpass the present bullish streak.  It looks like this bull is clearly range-bound in a symmetrical triangle at the moment.  Such a triangular pattern will result in either a new upward or downward trend.  Notice also that volume continues to be lackluster.  Investors don't know what to make of all the conflicting signals and are not too excited one way or another.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Orbiting the 50-day Moving Average

The Dow was down some 1200 points last week, ending a 10-month winning streak for rising markets, closing at 24,530.  A healthy correction would take us down to the 200-day moving average which is currently at 23,076.  So we have much further to fall from that perspective.  The Dow seems range-bound at the moment between 26,000 and 24,000.  Notice the small pop in volume indicating a mild sell-off, nothing drastic, nothing clear yet.  By rising all day on Friday (though it was still down for the day because it opened so low, hence the hollow red candlestick at the end) the Dow seems to remain in the orbit of the 50-day moving average.  A sign of strength not weakness at this point.   
The great irony of the so-called Trump economy is that, while the US economy as a whole is strong and the news is largely positive, even as Trump attempts to boost economic growth further with tax cuts and other stimulus, the actions by the president may threaten to derail America's success.

This week the Dow and the other markets all reacted negatively to Trump's amateurish trade policy.  Trump has done nothing to prompt stability in the nation's economic growth.  The record-setting rise in the markets after his election seemed to be a harbinger for an unprecedented things for the president.  But with each passing week recently the behavior of Trump and his policies has created more uncertainty than anything else.


Uncertainty combined with fear of higher interest rates and concern of bond yields have created a hesitant Dow.  February marked the end of the longest month-over-month winning streak since 1959 for both the Dow and the S&P 500. The crazy upward acceleration of the markets also left many would-be investors worried about markets rising too far too fast.


Bottom line:  Last week, the Dow lost its footing at the 50-day moving average, which remains the level of resistance to this unconfirmed bull market.  


It would seem that the long win-streak of remaining above the 200-day moving average is finally in jeopardy.  It is unhealthy for the Dow to go so long without testing this important moving average.  The question is not if it will touch the 200-day moving average but when.  There are few historical precedents for the Dow remaining aloft in this fashion.  Markets just don't work that way.  A return to the 200-day MA would not necessarily be a bad thing.  The question will be can it hold at that average once it is tested.  We'll see.