Thoughts on Great Centennials

With 2017 drawing to a close, it strikes me that the centennial of the First World War will end next year. It’s a strange feeling, because 2014 doesn’t feel that long ago. I’ve long felt that the most important lessons anyone can learn about the broader impact of warfare are best learned from studying this one.


Apologies for my bad phone camera. Memorials like these are all over France and the UK, commemorating the local dead of the Great War.

Which is why I feel like it’s a shame that, despite the efforts of isolated attempts, it wasn’t. What I mean is that there didn’t seem to be a broader cultural discussion of the legacy and impact of the Great War, which just seems to increase the risk of repeating similar mistakes. The only big Hollywood historical war film of the last few years was Dunkirk, which was yet another Second World War film. Whether you follow Hollywood or not, no one can deny the impact it can have. “Saving Private Ryan” basically made the Second World War a household topic of awareness for practically 20 years after it released.

The problem with the Second World War is that, from the way it’s popularly portrayed and understood, it fits a traditional narrative. It’s possible to simplify the story down to good and evil, democracy against autocracy. The tragedy of the Holocaust is supposed to teach us not to turn a blind eye to genocide, but this is mixed with the perception that evil is easy to see or that the solution to it is easy. Thus, telling another story about “Dunkirk,” even if it was somewhat more historical and dispelled some of the popular myths, still paints a story of righteous struggle.

The Great War was not as large, long, or complex a war, but the absence of a clear narrative is precisely why it should be studied or at least examined in popular culture. One of the biggest videogame franchises, Battlefield, released Battlefield 1 last year, set during the Great War. But by all appearances the game portrays the war more like the Second World War. This is acceptable in terms of trying to still create an exciting, fast paced experience for gameplay, but horribly misrepresentative of the war and what it was like. Being mustard gassed is not an adventure. Even so, I can’t think of any other mainstream and broadly popular portrayal of the war in any media, which is the litmus paper of culture overall.

This is truly a missed opportunity, because war should be understood to be wasteful and tragic. The war destroyed three major empires, destroyed the concept of monarchy as anything but symbolic, and essentially created the modern world. The contrast of worlds before and after the Second World War is not nearly as extreme as before and after the First World War. Thus, one of the lessons from it should be that such widespread devastation prompts broad societal change, which is messy to say the least. People forget that once the war was over, multiple other wars were fought in its aftermath: Greco-Turkish, Romanian-Hungarian, Polish-Soviet. Russia descended into bloody civil war, and there are potent arguments that Germany essentially did as well. Italy, despite being on the winning side, had such dramatic societal upheaval that Fascism was born just a few years later.

These consequences are important. The way we talk about nationalism, self-determination, righteous use of violence, and many other aspects of modern humanity, get broadly defined by this conflict. These past few years have been the best time to spread awareness and create debate, but it’s still only a relatively small number of people, mainly those already inclined to talk about it anyway, not a broad cultural discussion.

But if you’d like to find out more, one of the best initiatives is The Great War YouTube channel. Covering the events of the war, week by week 100 years ago, it goes into more detail than any other documentary can using the new media that makes it possible. It is easily the most accessible way to start learning about it.

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Thoughts on a Barrelmaker’s Thoughts on War

I just finished reading “Poilu: The World War 1 Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918” as translated by Edward M. Strauss. It’s a book I can’t recommend without some historical interest and context. Barthas was a common soldier in the First World War who wrote about his experiences while there. He is thus seen as representing the Poilu (“hairy one” in French, common slang for French soldiers at the time), unlike more grandiose portrayals. Despite being 35 at the start, he was at most of the big French battles but mostly writes about being cold, tired, hungry and frustrated with his officers. My French isn’t good enough for the original text, and English translations of non-English war memoirs are somewhat rare, so this makes it worthy on its own already.


I appreciate that the cover photo makes clear that they lived in terrible conditions.

It’s always struck me as unfortunate that despite how important the First World War is to the history of the past 100 years, it isn’t remembered nearly as well as the Second. Obviously, the Second was much bigger and featured such dramatic totalitarian personalities as Hitler and Stalin, so it’s not surprising, but sad. Regardless, this means that it’s hard to recommend the book for casual reading. You have to already be interested.

Barthas also wrote these memoirs during his active time as a soldier. Thus, he describes events as he saw them, and this was his worldview and to the best of his understanding. It is therefore rather subjective, and assumes you know what he means. So he assumes you know in general that Verdun was a terrible battle. I know many people who’d never heard of it, so this book isn’t for them. It helps to be generally aware of the big events of the war. It also helps to be generally aware of French cultural geography, since Barthas strongly identifies as a southerner from the Midi and feels a little alien when mixed among Bretons or Parisians.

He also has a distinct voice. The blurb on the back and the various quotes in support of the book talk about its authenticity, and in general “If you wanted to know what it was like, you should read this.” War memoirs in general focus on the experience of combat, and yes, Barthas does write about this, but I don’t find it the most compelling part of his narrative. This is because Barthas is a self-described Socialist and pacifist, and this was a position he took even before the war began. He already hates authority figures that exploit people, heroic figures whose only talent was how to get people killed, and the lies that societies perpetuate to also get people killed. This attitude permeates his work, and according to his accounts, was also a widespread one among his fellow soldiers. He approaches all this with a delightful talent for irony and sarcasm in his writing, making it clear that the situations are simultaneously funny, terrible, and depressing.

And you know, if he wasn’t already a Socialist and anti-Militarist, he fought in a war that would easily make you one, indeed being a Socialist was a bit of a minority thing before the war but it made a lot of veterans into them. On multiple occasions, French and German soldiers bond over their mutual tortures and danger, and he dislikes the idea of poor people on both sides being sent to die by rich people. One of the consistent points made by many soldiers during this war was that politicians and officers seemed to be the ones causing a lot of death, not the enemy. In a million myriad ways, officers found petty injustices and cruelties to inflict upon their soldiers, some of which was unintentional because the going military thinking of the day was that officers were a different class above common soldiers, and some of which is exactly what happens when some people are elevated over others and wield their minor petty authority just because they can.

He has numerous examples of this. After three and a half years of putting up with mud and cold rain without any protection and just having to endure it, the army issued a few first distributions of waterproof coats and rubber boots. On taking them back to his company, the officers grab them first despite generally having better shelters and never having to stand hours in a rain-flooded trench at a listening post. He talks about a major who was the medical officer of his company who lacked any empathy, complaining that they only sent him dead men and it wasn’t worth trying to cure any of them. He talks about lots of attacks and raids which were only made so that officers could send reports taking credit for killing their own men in futile assaults on prepared German defenses. He talks about the soldiers desperately looking for shelter from rain, snow and mud, and being denied them by officers who had their own heated shelters further back.


World War I French Soldiers

French leaders believed for over a year that the big victory was really just about to happen, so that being the case, why bother building proper living quarters for soldiers? As a result, French trenches and infrastructure were much less comprehensive and the Poilus basically had to live in filth. Barthas wrote about one situation where the cold and rain were so bad they huddled in bunches in a mine shaft and put up with being stepped on by miners, but were kicked out by officers for bothering them.

It’s important to note that many generals, though not all, were educated to believe high casualty numbers as a good thing because it showed you really meant it. It wasn’t a really good attack unless both your men and their men died a lot for it. This is the sort of culture which can develop when war and glory are celebrated too much, a culture called Militarism which Barthas was already aware of. This is also what made the war an education for such people, because it took all the glory out of it, and success finally had to be measured by what those deaths had achieved.

Barthas makes clear that the military turns free men into disposable slaves. He points out multiple times that there are crimes against mistreating work animals, but no crimes about abusing soldiers to near-death. In civilian life you may be a free thinking individual and worthy as a human being, but in wartime you’re faceless and one of thousands to be sacrificed for the ambitions of politicians and generals.

And I don’t think we’ve learned that yet. People still romanticise it today.

Would I recommend it? You’d have to be interested in the real human experience of war at the very least. And then you’d have to learn about the First World War. Both, I think, are worthy things to learn about, and if you do, then you should read this.


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Thoughts on Independence Movements

I wonder why independence is seen as a solution to all sorts of regional political problems. It’s a very square peg applied to lots of strangely shaped situations. But first, some context.

I lived in Indonesia during a very interesting time. In 1997 we had a financial crisis, and I experienced hyper inflation for the first time. In 1998, the dictator Suharto stepped down, among riots and so on. The next several years followed a very rocky democratisation process.

The circumstances of a military dictator stepping down provided an opportunity for secessionist movements to flare up again, most significantly in East Timor and Aceh.

Continue reading

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Thoughts: Disaster Art

The film adaptation of “The Disaster Artist” is releasing in December, and while I really enjoyed “The Room” and heard good things about the book, I had never gotten around to reading it. Reading that the audiobook version was read by Greg Sestero himself, I thought there couldn’t be any better format.

I haven’t read the print version. I don’t really know if I have to anymore, though I’d like to own it. The over 11 hour audiobook of the memoirs of Sestero working on the film, novelised by Tom Bissel, is wonderful, and the emotionality of the story being told by Greg, in his own words and from his own voice, is extremely compelling. Plus, his imitation of Wiseau’s peculiar voice is uncanny.

Maybe some context is necessary.

For those not in the know, “The Room” is perhaps the most celebrated bad movie ever. Written, directed, starring, and produced by Tommy Wiseau, it is a fascinating garbage fire. The film is a beautiful, beautiful mess from start to finish and attained cult classic status after its release in 2003.

There are a lot of fascinatingly bad movies, but the best of them are the passion projects made by talentless or crazy eccentric people, usually a combination of both. This is why Sharknado is uninteresting, since it’s intentionally made to be bad, but why “The Room” or “Troll 2” are so entertaining. They have pure and real passion behind them, just horribly misplaced. While it’s genuinely funny to laugh at their incompetence or their bizarre choices, the true enjoyment of the film is also to watch a dream come true, even for people as horribly incompetent or purely mediocre as these filmmakers.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a story that captures that as much as Greg Sestero’s story of his experience with Tommy Wiseau. Superficially, we can laugh at Tommy, as everything about him is bizarre and outlandish, and the sheer confidence with which he champions his terrible acting and writing is fascinatingly weird. But he, strange as he may be, is very very human. That’s what the book does: it humanises all these people involved in the film and makes them more than just a hilariously bad performance of terrible lines.

The book describes both Sestero’s and Wiseau’s paths toward each other, the history of their friendship, and the story of how “The Room” actually got made. What really struck me about the story was also Sestero’s earnestness and more importantly his sheer empathy. First encountering Wiseau during an acting class, while most of the class was entertained or frustrated by Wiseau’s performances, Sestero saw something genuine and likeable about Tommy’s seemingly impenetrable confidence in the talents he didn’t really have.

Over the course of both their attempts to enter Hollywood, their friendships had ups and downs, and the story of their struggles is heartfelt and real. Listening to his words, you can’t help but ask yourself what you would do if you came across someone like that. Certainly not approach him to be your acting partner, or help him every step of the way through making his own movie. But Sestero did, and I can’t help but find that empathy and dedication inspiring. We so often hear about the cutthroat nature of business, especially in Hollywood. “La La Land” might be a mostly romantic tale of pursuing your dreams in Hollywood, but is obviously romanticised. The story of “The Disaster Artist” is far more compelling because their struggles are real and they made a real dream come true.

And now that dream is regularly screened to sold out audiences, who all love the film both ironically and genuinely. Bad as it may be, it has brought true joy to the people who appreciate it and made Tommy a celebrity in strangely more endearing ways than most Hollywood stars.

And that’s damn inspiring.

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Thoughts on Southern Heritage

There seems to be a debate in America today about what it means to be American. Is it the past heritage that defined the country today, or is it what it is today and will become? A typical answer would be: both. They aren’t mutually exclusive, despite what people may think.

At the moment this debate is made manifest in the events in Charlottesville over the weekend. For those not in the know, the controversy is over whether or not statues commemorating either Confederate generals, heroes or just the Confederate soldier should be taken down. There are a lot of levels to the debate, which is what makes it interesting.

The arguments for dismantling them are that they commemorate people who fought, either directly or indirectly, for maintaining slavery as an institution, that they chose to be traitors to the United States, and that anyway, most of them were erected in the 50s and 60s during the Civil Rights movement in reaction to it, and many statues stand in states which weren’t part of the Confederacy.

The arguments against dismantling them are in a large part due to heritage, which is hard to quantify because it’s just how people feel. The South, for all its qualities, gets a bad reputation. For a lot of people it’s a joke, where rednecks, Bible Belters, obese people and racists hang out. This is unfortunate, because there’s a lot more to the South than that, but you can imagine how someone from the South, being laughed at by other parts of the country and the world in general, might grasp strongly onto whatever sources of pride they can have, and resent the people who look down on them. I was born in Texas, and while I’m probably one of the least Texan people out there, people still make faces or laugh when they hear it. I don’t take it personally, not really personally identifying as Texan, but I can understand why people would be tired of it.

The Civil War, itself, is a fascinating conflict, and it’s one where a culture has sprung up honouring the losers of the war. I have an image from the 1993 film “Gettysburg” featured on this article for that reason, and if I’m being honest, I’m pretty sure it had a big impact on the way the South sees itself today.

Indeed, Joss Whedon was inspired enough by that, that the whole theme of “Firefly” centered on its protagonist being a survivor of a losing war, looking to live free outside of central government authority. In the most romantic of terms, one could argue that was what the Confederacy stood for. Of course, “Firefly” is fiction and the protagonists quickly place themselves in opposition of slavery early in the show. Regardless, “Gettysburg” resonated in terms of its portrayal of noble Southern gentlemen in a tragic war.

Personally, I think there’s room for acknowledging that people who fought on the wrong side of history were still interesting people. I can acknowledge that people see a pattern of progressive society destroying what little they they feel have to be proud of. You can see why they feel like their sense of society and tradition is under attack in a cultural sense, how both popular and broad culture seems to be rejecting the things they took for granted as part of their identity. And maybe that seemed helpless before Trump made them feel like they could actually fight back against this.

But that’s human pattern recognition. I think there’s a real debate that can be had which doesn’t tap directly into people’s defensive emotions and backfire effects. The South will always be interesting for so many other things than just the Confederacy. The region actually has the highest economic growth in the US, last I read, so hopefully the depressing demographics will eventually improve and not make people feel desperate enough to cling to outdated symbols. I think, and I imagine most Southerners agree, that Southern culture and heritage is stronger than a few statues. I do think Confederate history is a big part of American history but more in terms of its national identity crisis being worked out. The decades after the war involved a lot of reconciliation projects to heal the wounds and unite the people, and that’s the same kind of spirit people should be embracing. You don’t need statues for that. Confederate generals and soldiers weren’t heroes in the traditional sense, but tragic actors in a story of how America became what it is.

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Thoughts on lack of Perspective

In the past few years or so, I’ve met a lot of people with, shall we say, underdeveloped attitudes to things. They don’t have a problem of lack of knowledge, but a lack of perspective, and possibly the open-mindedness necessary to correct their lack of knowledge. After all, if you’re already set in your views, no amount of new knowledge will change that. Indeed, the backfire effect might lead you to reinforce your views.

“I’m not sure that Trump is worse than Clinton because Clinton would have started a war” is something I’ve heard multiple times in Switzerland. There are many facets to this statement which are problematic, but the underlying one is that military action is thrust onto the American president regardless of who is sitting in the chair. Nevertheless, this view is usually championed by people whose perspective on American interventionism is limited to the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. They are the most current examples of American military involvement and thus get the most attention, but are only a small part of a much larger picture. One cannot assume that American military policy in Iraq is the same as it is in Korea, or South East Asia, or Europe. Generalising a specific case is, honestly, highly problematic, even within the MENA region. Libya is not the same as Iraq, or Syria, or Afghanistan. It’s just as problematic if you’re an American generalising about Muslims as if you’re a Muslim generalising about Muslims.

There are a lot of Tumblr bloggers who are mostly young Americans discovering their opinions about race in America. There is, indeed, a systemic problem of racism there and it’s an important fight. The problem is that “race” as a term implies global, human characteristics and people are therefore inclined to generalise that of course, the rest of the world also suffers from the heavy thumb of the white man. I lived in Malaysia for 6 months and racism there is a completely different picture, just as problematic but totally different and very little to do with white people. You cannot transcribe American race problems on other countries. Doing so creates a gross injustice by oversimplifying the problems of other peoples.

What people need is an open perspective, and a desire to learn. We’re so often wrong, even about ourselves, and growing up is an endless process of learning for ourselves what we can bend our principles on, and what we stand firm about. Experience teaches you what that is, and those experiences should be challenges to your worldview which help you to mould yourself.


All this is a result of the human talent for pattern recognition, which likes to build patterns. It’s generally a good thing and was an early human survival skill, but sometimes it makes us see things which aren’t there. Just because you’re black in America and you have problems, it doesn’t mean they’re the same problems for black people in the Caribbean, or sub-Saharan Africa. Just because US military intervention is problematic at best in the MENA region, doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a net benefit in others, and just because it was a relative success story in Japan doesn’t mean there weren’t many problems.

Pattern recognition is handy, but it needs testing, just like the worldviews of people need challenges. Wanting to believe in something is childlike behaviour regardless of your age, and part of the process of becoming and being an adult is understanding that everything is a lot more complicated and doesn’t necessarily care what you think. If you’re too easily convinced by something, there’s probably something wrong with it. You can take a side on an issue, but you have to recognise the realities of it.

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My Thoughts on the Concept of a Trump Presidency

Many of my American friends, and even some who aren’t, are venting their emotions on social media. Honestly, I was initially more emotionally affected by the results than I thought I would be, but my sober analytical side won out.

This isn’t my first election nor is it my first disappointment. Every election I’ve personally experienced is hyped up as the most important election ever and the message does start to wear thin. There’s often a sense of reassurance that it’s never as bad or as good as people think it will be.

And that’s probably going to be true. Obama wasn’t as good as people hoped. Trump won’t be as bad as people think. It is not the end of the world. I’m not going to be hyperbolic here. The system isn’t broken, but it has a lot of problems.

The fact that Trump is a fairly terrible person doesn’t bother me as much as it seems to offend most people. What bothers me is that he was made the voice of so many suffering people. All those uneducated white voters who supported him have real troubles and real concerns. And honestly, no one’s going to fix them, least of all him. He doesn’t represent the traditional Republican, he’s not a revolutionary; he’s a demagogue who changes his policy ideas to whatever gets the most attention and not even in the normal way of a politician. Normal politicians chase votes. He chases crowds. The comparison to Hitler is entirely unfitting because Hitler did what he believed in. He wrote a book in the 1920s and did exactly what he said he would do 10-20 years later.

So my problem with his success is that all those suffering people, insecure in their jobs and lives, terrified of where they see the country going, just got conned. And not even by a very good con-man.

American liberals have been doing mostly great work in being inclusive to minorities of all kinds, whether they be racial or religious, but tend to forget that American conservatives are also, well, American. You can’t just disregard people as “white trash” and think they’ll just die off. They have agency too, and they wanted to show that they still matter. It’s foolish to write them off.

So let’s start with the very real concerns. Republican majorities in basically all of Congress, with a Republican president who likely will have to cave in to a Republican cabinet, with a Supreme Court which will likely continue to be conservative… means that the Affordable Care Act, aka. Obamacare, will be repealed. This is something they’ve been trying to shoot down since before it began and it seems likely that, given the first opportunity, they’re going to cut off millions of people from the medication they need. This is a tragedy and it pains me to think of it.

Americans also tend to have heroic expectations of their presidents. It’s like they’re voting a damn Superhero. They want them to be family men, eloquent but also relatable, and seem to always want them to save the country. The irony is that the Executive branch, namely the President and their cabinet, doesn’t have that much influence on domestic issues. Congress does that. The president’s job is much more to do with foreign policy, and that is a tremendous worry.

There’s a backlash in America right now, from both extreme Right and extreme Left, against globalisation. It’s become popular to trash free trade deals. I find it ironic that people do their bitching from smartphones made relatively cheap and accessible by the global supply chain, but I digress. There have been winners and losers from globalisation, and the whole Western would could do a much better job spreading the benefits… but that doesn’t make it worth closing borders and trade. The costs are much higher than people seem to realise.

No, it would be a terrible thing to shut down NAFTA and the Trans Pacific Partnership. It’s horribly selfish to just think of American jobs. The negotiations for the TPP have been taking place for years, and in the words of the South Korean president, you can’t just abandon it now because it’s unpopular at home. All those countries in Asia also had to sell these trade deals domestically. But, you know, Americans and international awareness don’t entirely coincide.

What most people seem to worry about though, is the idea of a victory of hate over love. I dislike this notion because it’s a gross oversimplification and, again, denigrates all those suffering rural voters to haters, racists and misogynists. That said, it still is a symbolic victory.

Now, I’m pretty damn sure they aren’t going to repeal gay marriage. Issues like this are a shitstorm nobody wants. What it does do, however, is legitimse the problematic people and their problematic views. Lots of people who supported Trump weren’t racists… but racists did support him. Just like after the Brexit vote, racists have had their views legitimised by victory. This means their voices and actions will be more open. It won’t just be YouTube comment sections anymore.

This doesn’t make discrimination legal though. It just makes it more likely to happen.

I’ve always felt that, in a rather “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” sense, the main job of the President, as far as the world is concerned, is actually just being the face of America. Whatever hard work they do behind the scenes, they are held responsible for everything during their term in office. Thanks Obama.

So in a way, Trump is representing America in a somewhat suitably perverse distortion of the American dream and, in that way, all the problems with that dream. He’s rich by none of his own efforts, has a supermodel trophy wife, and apparently gets away with everything. In that sense you can feel that the trappings have finally come away from how false the dream is.

All in all, I’d say that most things people are worried about, they shouldn’t. What they should do, if they’re American, is write their congressman and implore them not to repeal Obamacare. Millions of sick people are the first, and real, casualties. Everything else depends on how things go.

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