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kottke.org posts about war

The Secret Pigeon Service

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 22, 2019

This short piece in the London Review of Books about pigeons is fascinating. I learned many new things about pigeons and now hold them in higher esteem than I did previously.

Pigeons are more intelligent than we give them credit for, one of the few animals — along with great apes, dolphins and elephants — able to pass the mirror self-recognition test. If you mark a pigeon’s wing and let it look in a mirror it will try to remove the mark, realising that what it sees is a reflected image of its own body. Pigeons can recognise video footage of themselves shown with a five-second delay (three-year-old children find it difficult to comprehend a two-second delay). They are able to recognise individuals from photographs, and a neuroscientist at Keio University in Japan has trained them to distinguish between the paintings of Matisse and Picasso. ‘Modesty,’ Marianne Moore wrote, ‘cannot dull the lustre of the pigeon.’

Pigeons move through a human world. They stay close to the land, often flying at street level, below the height of the rooftops. Recent studies have suggested that they navigate using human structures as well as natural ones: they follow roads and canals, and have been observed going round roundabouts before taking the appropriate exit. They can fly extremely fast — up to 110 miles per hour — and with a following wind can cover 700 miles in a single uninterrupted flight (pigeons don’t like to fly at night but can be trained to do so). There are faster birds — peregrine falcons, the pigeon’s main predator, can reach 200 miles per hour on the stoop — but none can fly horizontally, under its own power, as quickly as a pigeon.

This bit, about the role of pigeons in developing the telecommunications networks of today, is terrific:

During the 19th and early 20th centuries they became important auxiliaries to the technological networks that were springing up across the world. Reuter’s News Agency was established in 1850 with a flock of 45 pigeons, which were used to cover a gap in the telegraph network between Brussels and Aachen, giving Paul Reuter a monopoly over all telegraph traffic between Belgium and Germany. The five sons of Mayer Amschel Rothschild used pigeons to stay in touch as they travelled around Europe consolidating their father’s banking dynasty. During the Siege of Paris in 1870, pigeons were taken out of the city by balloon and returned carrying thousands of letters stored on microfilm and sewn into their tail feathers.

Pigeon Secret Service

The bulk of the piece is a review of Gordon Corera’s book, Operation Columba - The Secret Pigeon Service: The Untold Story of World War II Resistance in Europe, which is about a British campaign that used carrier pigeons to gather intelligence from German occupied territories during WWII.

Between 1941 and 1944, British intelligence dropped sixteen thousand homing pigeons in an arc across Nazi-occupied Europe, from Bordeaux, France to Copenhagen, Denmark, as part of a spy operation code-named Columba. Returning to MI14, the secret government branch in charge of the “Special Pigeon Service,” the birds carried messages that offered a glimpse of life under the Germans in rural France, Holland, and Belgium. Written on tiny pieces of rice paper tucked into canisters and tied to the birds’ legs, these messages were sometimes comic, often tragic, and occasionally invaluable-reporting details of German troop movements and fortifications, new Nazi weapons, radar systems, and even the deployment of the feared V-1 and V-2 rockets used to terrorize London.

Photos of the Women Clearing One of the Largest Minefields in the World

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 12, 2019

Sri Lanka Deminers

Sri Lanka Deminers

Photographer Allison Joyce has been in Sri Lanka photographing the women clearing one of the biggest minefields in the world. The mines were left over from the Sri Lankan civil war and the women are employed by NGO HALO Trust.

Landmines were used in vast quantities by both sides at different stages of the fighting in the north. From 2010 to 2012, HALO deminers removed over 30,000 mines a year. By 2014 the total had fallen to 16,000 annually, but those remaining threaten the most economically vulnerable people in the country. Mines present an obstacle to the safe return of internally displaced people (IDPs) and prevent access to paddy fields, fishing jetties and grazing land affecting the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people.

HALO remains the largest international mine action operator in the country. Our 830 staff, including a large proportion of former IDPs, work in the Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts. Fifty percent of our deminers are women, many of them war widows with children to support.

In Focus and The Guardian have photo essays about the women and their work.

100-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor Helen Fagin on How Books Save Lives

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 08, 2019

Starting when she was 21, Helen Fagin was imprisoned by the Nazis in the Radomsko and Warsaw ghettos in Poland. Her parents were sent to Treblinka and murdered there, but Fagin and her sister eventually managed to escape and, after a long journey around Europe, made it to the United States. Fagin has offered lengthy testimony about her experience of the Holocaust (for the USC Shoah Foundation and US Holocaust Memorial Museum), but in this short video, she reads a letter she wrote about how reading and stories gave a spark of hope to those under the Nazi boot in Warsaw.

Could you imagine a world without access to reading, to learning, to books?

At twenty-one, I was forced into Poland’s WWII ghetto, where being caught reading anything forbidden by the Nazis meant, at best, hard labor; at worst, death.

There, I conducted a clandestine school offering Jewish children a chance at the essential education denied them by their captors. But I soon came to feel that teaching these sensitive young souls Latin and mathematics was cheating them of something far more essential — what they needed wasn’t dry information but hope, the kind that comes from being transported into a dream-world of possibility.

One day, as if guessing my thoughts, one girl beseeched me: “Could you please tell us a book, please?”

I had spent the previous night reading Gone with the Wind — one of a few smuggled books circulated among trustworthy people via an underground channel, on their word of honor to read only at night, in secret. No one was allowed to keep a book longer than one night — that way, if reported, the book would have already changed hands by the time the searchers came.

The full text of the letter is here and is also collected in the book The Velocity of Being. (via open culture)

They Shall Not Grow Old

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 29, 2018

Earlier this year, I wrote that director Peter Jackson was working on a documentary about WWI that would feature film footage cleaned up and colorized with the same special effects technology used to produce massive Hollywood films like Jackson’s own LOTR movies.

The footage has been stabilized, the grain and scratches cleaned up, and the pace slowed down to from comedic to lifelike. Jackson’s also planning on using colorization to make the people in that old footage seem as contemporary as possible.

The brief glimpses of the cleaned and colorized footage in the initial trailer were tantalizing, but the newly released trailer above is just breathtaking or jaw-dropping or however you want to put it. I’ve watched it three times so far…some of those scenes are so vivid they could have happened yesterday! That what viewing early color photography and film does to you:

Until recently, the color palette of history was black and white. The lack of color is sometimes so overpowering that it’s difficult to imagine from Matthew Brady’s photos what the Civil War looked like in real life. Even into the 1970s, press photos documenting the war in Vietnam were in B&W and the New York Times delivered its news exclusively in B&W until the 90s, running the first color photograph on the front page in 1997.

Which is why when color photos from an event or era set firmly in our B&W history are uncovered, the effect can be jarring. Color adds depth, presence, and modernity to photography; it’s easier for us to identify with the people in the pictures and to imagine ourselves in their surroundings.

Jackson talked to the BBC about how the film was made:

Check out this post at Open Culture for more about the making of the film.

They Shall Not Grow Old just became my #1 most-anticipated movie for the rest of 2018. It’s only showing in the US on Dec 17 and Dec 27…I just got my ticket here.

Peter Jackson is remastering old WWI film footage

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 19, 2018

Working with the 14-18 NOW project, Peter Jackson is making a film about the experience of the soldiers fighting in World War I. As part of the process, Jackson and his special effects team (who have worked on the LOTR films, etc.) have been remastering and reimagining film footage from the collection of the Imperial War Museums. Here’s Jackson talking about the project and showing some of the remastered video:

The footage has been stabilized, the grain and scratches cleaned up, and the pace slowed down to from comedic to lifelike. Jackson’s also planning on using colorization to make the people in that old footage seem as contemporary as possible. Here are some split-screen stills comparing the old footage with the remastered video:

Peter Jackson WWI

Peter Jackson WWI

Peter Jackson WWI

The finished product will be shown in theaters and schools around the UK in the fall and also on the BBC. (via open culture)

The color photographs of World War I

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 28, 2018

Color WWI

Color WWI

Color WWI

Color WWI

When World War I started, color photography was still in its experimental stage so most of the imagery of the war is in black and white. But a few photographers managed to capture color views the battlefield, military operations, and scenes of daily life during the conflict. You can check out a bunch of the WWI color photos here, here, here, and here. There’s even some color film footage from the war:

As I’ve written before, early color photography is a form of time travel, connecting long-ago events to the present.

Until recently, the color palette of history was black and white. The lack of color is sometimes so overpowering that it’s difficult to imagine from Matthew Brady’s photos what the Civil War looked like in real life. Even into the 1970s, press photos documenting the war in Vietnam were in B&W and the New York Times delivered its news exclusively in B&W until the 90s, running the first color photograph on the front page in 1997.

Which is why when color photos from an event or era set firmly in our B&W history are uncovered, the effect can be jarring. Color adds depth, presence, and modernity to photography; it’s easier for us to identify with the people in the pictures and to imagine ourselves in their surroundings.

Lots more early color photography in the archives.

Update: From 2006, a song called The War Was in Color by Carbon Leaf. Here are the first two stanzas:

I see you’ve found a box of my things:
Infantries, tanks and smoldering airplane wings
These old pictures are cool. Tell me some stories
Was it like the old war movies?
Sit down son. Let me fill you in

Where to begin? Let’s start with the end
This black and white photo don’t capture the skin
From the flash of a gun to a soldier who’s done
Trust me grandson
The war was in color

(thx, adam)

The Confederacy lives on in several official US state flags

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 14, 2018

According to Whose Heritage?, a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center on public symbols of the Confederacy, progress over the past two years on removing statues, flags, and other symbols from public places has been slow.

The 2015 massacre of nine African Americans at the historic “Mother Emanuel” church in Charleston sparked a nationwide movement to remove Confederate monuments, flags and other symbols from the public square, and to rename schools, parks, roads and other public works that pay homage to the Confederacy. Yet, today, the vast majority of these emblems remain in place.

In this updated edition of the 2016 report Whose Heritage?, the SPLC identifies 110 Confederate symbols that have been removed since the Charleston attack — and 1,728 that still stand.

Still very much standing, for instance, the Mount Rushmore of the Confederacy in Georgia, a massive stone carving featuring Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

And perhaps even worse, not represented on this map are Confederate symbols that are part of the official identities of many Southern states. Did you know Mississippi’s official state flag still contains the Confederate battle flag?

Mississippi Flag

As of the 2010 Census, ~37% of Mississippi’s population is African American and due to the relative youth of the state’s African Americans and the wealth of the state’s whites (who are able to send their kids to private school), most of the state’s public schools are majority black. That percentage would be much higher had not so many African Americans left the state during the Great Migration. The pledge to this flag, which is taught in public schools, reads “I salute the flag of Mississippi and the sovereign state for which it stands with pride in her history and achievements and with confidence in her future under the guidance of Almighty God.” Could you imagine being the descendant of a former slave being made to pledge allegiance to a symbol used by people who fought a war to deny the personhood of your ancestors?

Mississippi’s flag contains the most familiar reference to the Confederacy, but many other state flags have Confederate references. Georgia’s flag contained the Confederate battle flag from 1956 to 2003 and the current flag is modeled after the first national flag of the Confederacy. The flags of Florida and Alabama contain St. Andrew’s Crosses, thought to be references to the stars and bars of Confederate battle flag. The Arkansas state flag contains four stars on a white background, one of which represents the Confederacy, along with a deconstructed stars and bars pattern. North Carolina’s flag is based on a design adopted shortly after the state seceded from the United States. Residents of many states can also get official state license plates with Confederate symbols on them and some state seals have Confederate references.

Lots of progress still to go on that journey towards a post-racial America I guess…

Update: A new Confederate monument was just erected last week near Mobile, Alabama. Here’s what the plaque says about the Confederacy:

The northern Union aggressively prosecuted its war to subjugate the Confederate States. Union forces continued invading and waging war in the field, on cities, and on homesteads in the Confederacy causing more American deaths in both countries than the combined totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. About two-thirds of these deaths were Union military sent to kill Confederate Americans. The Union’s army was about 3 times larger and it possessed about 20 times the industrial arms capacity of the CSA. It succeeded in militarily prevailing over the Confederate forces after four years. The last major land battle occurred in April of 1865 here and at Ft. Blakeley. The elected government of the CSA was scattered, the American States of that country occupied by northern forces, and the citizens’ rights suppressed.

In April 1865, the Union President was shot watching a comedy play in his capitol of Washington City — almost exactly four years after he sent his warships into the CSA initiating the War Between the States. The Confederacy’s President was seized and imprisoned in May 1865 after he had to flee his capitol of Richmond, Virginia, due to the approach of invading Union forces.

For many, the Civil War never quite ended.

Recommendation: Caliphate, the NY Times podcast about ISIS

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 12, 2018

For the past several weeks, I have been listening to the NY Times’ fantastic and unsettling podcast series Caliphate. The series follows Times foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi as she attempts to figure out the inner workings of ISIS. Callimachi and her producer & fellow reporter Andy Mills talk to an Islamic State member from Canada about how he was recruited, investigate the group’s organization, and dig through documents left behind by ISIS as they were driven out of Mosul in July 2017. The podcast is quite upsetting and tough to listen to at times, but I highly recommend doing so.

Here are a few things I kept thinking about while listening:

1. The recruitment process is fascinating. As Callimachi and the recruit talk about how he was persuaded to join up, you can see how young people are enticed by the promise of an Islamic state, of living an ideologically pure life according to one’s religion. What the ISIS recruiters tell them makes sense, it’s logical. (It’s all the things they don’t tell them…therein lies the rub.)

2. The eerie parallels between ISIS and an American business. They’ve got the onboarding process and the rapid expansion plan of a startup like Uber (down to the “ask forgiveness, not permission” tactics). They use tools like YouTube, Tumblr, and Twitter to market themselves with professionally produced videos and marketing materials. When they seized power in an area, ISIS kept much of the existing bureaucracy in place and set about winning hearts and minds by improving services for the people living there.

The world knows the Islamic State for its brutality, but the militants did not rule by the sword alone. They wielded power through two complementary tools: brutality and bureaucracy.

ISIS built a state of administrative efficiency that collected taxes and picked up the garbage. It ran a marriage office that oversaw medical examinations to ensure that couples could have children. It issued birth certificates — printed on Islamic State stationery — to babies born under the caliphate’s black flag. It even ran its own D.M.V.

The documents and interviews with dozens of people who lived under their rule show that the group at times offered better services and proved itself more capable than the government it had replaced.

In the podcast, they talked to residents living in ISIS-controlled areas who say that garbage collection and availability of electricity improved after ISIS took over.

As the group grew, they diversified their income:

One of the keys to their success was their diversified revenue stream. The group drew its income from so many strands of the economy that airstrikes alone were not enough to cripple it.

Ledgers, receipt books and monthly budgets describe how the militants monetized every inch of territory they conquered, taxing every bushel of wheat, every liter of sheep’s milk and every watermelon sold at markets they controlled. From agriculture alone, they reaped hundreds of millions of dollars. Contrary to popular perception, the group was self-financed, not dependent on external donors.

More surprisingly, the documents provide further evidence that the tax revenue the Islamic State earned far outstripped income from oil sales. It was daily commerce and agriculture — not petroleum — that powered the economy of the caliphate.

ISIS was in some ways a model business: adept at PR and marketing, focused on the financial bottom line, sweated the details, and they wanted to keep their “customers” happy.

3. The stated goal of ISIS in establishing a caliphate — to turn back the cultural clock to the time of Muhammad — reminded me slightly of similar efforts here in the US: MAGA, etc.

The podcast is available at Apple or on Spotify. If you are a NY Times subscriber, you get early access to episodes.

See also a 5-minute history of the war in Syria and the rise of ISIS and my past recommendation of the Slow Burn podcast.

RIP Johan van Hulst, who saved 100s of Jews from the Nazis

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 03, 2018

The NY Times reports on the death of Johan van Hulst, who was principal at a Dutch teachers college during WWII and helped smuggle ~600 Jewish children to safety.

Mr. van Hulst is credited with helping to rescue as many as 600 children, yet he was haunted by what he could not do. With up to 100 children still in the nursery as it was about to be shut down that September, Mr. van Hulst was asked how many more he could smuggle out.

“That was the most difficult day of my life,” he told Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem, which in 1972 named him one of the Righteous Among the Nations, a designation for non-Jews who rescued Jews. He is one of 5,595 Dutch people given the honor.

“You realize that you cannot possibly take all the children with you,” he said. “You know for a fact that the children you leave behind are going to die. I took 12 with me. Later on, I asked myself, ‘Why not 13?’”

van Hulst lived to 107. See also Nicholas Winton, who also saved hundreds of children from the Holocaust and died at 106.

The price of the US invasion of Iraq

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 20, 2018

Fifteen years ago, the United States invaded Iraq. In the NY Times, Sinan Antoon laments what has become of his country since then: Fifteen Years Ago, America Destroyed My Country. This is a damning final paragraph about George W. Bush and the Republican hawks who used the events of 9/11 to manufacture a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

No one knows for certain how many Iraqis have died as a result of the invasion 15 years ago. Some credible estimates put the number at more than one million. You can read that sentence again. The invasion of Iraq is often spoken of in the United States as a “blunder,” or even a “colossal mistake.” It was a crime. Those who perpetrated it are still at large. Some of them have even been rehabilitated thanks to the horrors of Trumpism and a mostly amnesiac citizenry. (A year ago, I watched Mr. Bush on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” dancing and talking about his paintings.) The pundits and “experts” who sold us the war still go on doing what they do. I never thought that Iraq could ever be worse than it was during Saddam’s reign, but that is what America’s war achieved and bequeathed to Iraqis.

How 90s WWII nostalgia turned the US response to 9/11 into The Good War

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 11, 2018

The Good War is a comic (graphic novella?) by Mike Dawson and Chris Hayes that argues that 90s nostalgia for World War II — Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation — led the US to wrongly associate 9/11 with Pearl Harbor and the “War on Terror” with WWII, leading to all kinds of disastrous consequences.

Good War Comic

The comic is based on The Good War on Terror, a piece Hayes wrote in 2006.

On September 11, 2001, George W. Bush wrote the following impression in his diary: “The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today.” He wasn’t alone in this assessment. In the days after the attacks, editorialists, pundits and citizens reached with impressive unanimity for this single historical precedent. The Sept. 12 New York Times alone contained 13 articles mentioning Pearl Harbor.

Five years after 9/11 we are still living with the legacy of this hastily drawn analogy. Whatever the natural similarities between December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001, the association of the two has led us to convert—first in rhetoric, later in fact—a battle against a small band of clever, murderous fundamentalists into a worldwide war of epic scale.

As Hayes hints at in the essay, the Vietnam War might have been a better model for how Americas should have reacted to 9/11. (via daring fireball)

The music of The Vietnam War

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 02, 2017

I’m about two-thirds of the way through Ken Burns & Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War on PBS. Much like the war itself, the series is epic and complicated and weird and perhaps even too long.1

NY Times TV critic James Poniewozik says that The Vietnam War “is not Mr. Burns’s most innovative film”, but I would argue that doesn’t apply to the music. Half of the music is what you would expect: rock and folk music from 60s & 70s groups and musicians like Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, CCR, The Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, etc. More than two hours of songs used during the series have been released on this album:

Even The Beatles were part of the soundtrack:

Then there’s all that popular music from the 60s and 70s: more than 120 songs by the artists who actually soundtracked the times, such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Animals, Janis Joplin, Wilson Pickett, Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, the Rolling Stones, and even the ordinarily permissions-averse and budget-breaking Beatles. Of the Beatles, Novick noted, “They basically said, We think this is an important part of history, we want to be part of what you’re doing, and we will take the same deal everybody else gets. That’s kind of unprecedented.”

But an original score was also provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that sounds a lot like their work on The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Seven episodes in, I’m used to the mix of music, but the effect is definitely discongruous; the transitions pulled me out of the narrative more than once. Not sure that’s the effect they were going for…

  1. The whole series starts off on a wrong note. Literally the first thing you hear in the first episode is a shout-out to the sponsors: “Major support for the Vietnam War was provided by…”, which my brain quickly filled in as “Robert MacNamara, Dow Chemical, the American military industrial complex, etc etc”

W.E.B. Du Bois on Robert E. Lee’s legacy

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 05, 2017

In 1928, the writer and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois wrote a short piece about the legacy of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

Each year on the 19th of January there is renewed effort to canonize Robert E. Lee, the greatest confederate general. His personal comeliness, his aristocratic birth and his military prowess all call for the verdict of greatness and genius. But one thing — one terrible fact — militates against this and that is the inescapable truth that Robert E. Lee led a bloody war to perpetuate slavery. Copperheads like the New York Times may magisterially declare: “of course, he never fought for slavery.” Well, for what did he fight? State rights? Nonsense. The South cared only for State Rights as a weapon to defend slavery. If nationalism had been a stronger defense of the slave system than particularism, the South would have been as nationalistic in 1861 as it had been in 1812.

No. People do not go to war for abstract theories of government. They fight for property and privilege and that was what Virginia fought for in the Civil War. And Lee followed Virginia. He followed Virginia not because he particularly loved slavery (although he certainly did not hate it), but because he did not have the moral courage to stand against his family and his clan. Lee hesitated and hung his head in shame because he was asked to lead armies against human progress and Christian decency and did not dare refuse. He surrendered not to Grant, but to Negro Emancipation.

See also W.E.B. Du Bois on Confederate Monuments.

French Resistance spy Jeannie de Clarens dies at 98

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 30, 2017

WWII spy Jeannie de Clarens died last week in western France at the age of 98. While working as an interpreter for a group of businessmen in occupied France during World War II, de Clarens passed information about German V1 & V2 rockets to the British government.

Getting wind of a secret weapons project, she made it her mission to be on hand when the topic was discussed by the Germans, coaxing information through charm and guile.

“I teased them, taunted them, looked at them wide-eyed, insisted that they must be mad when they spoke of the astounding new weapon that flew over vast distances, much faster than any airplane,” she told The Washington Post in 1998. “I kept saying, ‘What you are telling me cannot be true!’ I must have said that 100 times.”

One officer, eager to convince her, let her look at drawings of the rockets.

Most of what she heard was incomprehensible. But, blessed with a near-photographic memory, she repeated it in detail to her recruiter, Georges Lamarque, at a safe house on the Left Bank.

In London, intelligence analysts, led by Reginald V. Jones, marveled at the quality of the information they were receiving from Paris, notably a startling document called the Wachtel Report. Delivered in September 1943, it identified the German officer in charge of the rocket program, Col. Max Wachtel; gave precise details about operations at the testing plant in Peenemünde, on the Baltic coast in Pomerania; and showed planned launch locations along the coast from Brittany to the Netherlands.

Relying on this information, the British organized several bombing raids against the plant, which delayed development of the V-2 and spared untold thousands of lives in London.

As punishment for her resistance, de Clarens was held by the Germans in camps until near the end of the war. Total hero. (thx, kathryn)

The Vietnam War documentary series by Ken Burns

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 09, 2017

Together with Lynn Novick, filmmaker Ken Burns, who has previously made long documentary films on The Civil War and World War II, has made a film about perhaps the most controversial and contentious event in American history, The Vietnam War. The film runs for 18 hours across 10 installments and begins on September 17 on PBS.

David Kamp interviewed Novick and Burns for Vanity Fair and proclaims the film a triumph:

I watched the whole series in a marathon viewing session a few days before meeting with the filmmakers — a knock-you-sideways experience that was as enlightening as it was emotionally taxing. For all their unguarded anxiety about doing the war justice, Burns and Novick have pulled off a monumental achievement. Audiovisually, the documentary is like no other Burns-branded undertaking. Instead of folksy sepia and black-and-white, there are vivid jade-green jungles and horrific blooms of napalm that explode into orange and then gradually turn smoky black. The Vietnam War was the first and last American conflict to be filmed by news organizations with minimal governmental interference, and the filmmakers have drawn from more than 130 sources for motion-picture footage, including the U.S. networks, private home-movie collections, and several archives administered by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The series’s depiction of the Tet offensive, in which the North Vietnamese launched coordinated attacks on the South’s urban centers, is particularly and brutally immersive, approaching a 360-degree experience in its deft stitching together of footage from various sources.

The sound and music promises to thrill as well. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who did the scores for The Social Network, Gone Girl, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) provided original music to supplement popular music contemporary to the time. They even got The Beatles.

Then there’s all that popular music from the 60s and 70s: more than 120 songs by the artists who actually soundtracked the times, such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Animals, Janis Joplin, Wilson Pickett, Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, the Rolling Stones, and even the ordinarily permissions-averse and budget-breaking Beatles. Of the Beatles, Novick noted, “They basically said, We think this is an important part of history, we want to be part of what you’re doing, and we will take the same deal everybody else gets. That’s kind of unprecedented.”

I’m very much looking forward to this.

Why the mayor of New Orleans had Confederate statues torn down

posted by Jason Kottke   May 23, 2017

New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu recently gave a speech about why the city chose to remove four Confederate monuments. Here’s a snippet from the transcript…it’s worth reading or watching in full.

The historic record is clear: the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.

First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy.

It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.

These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.

The presence of the monuments became something that was impossible for Landrieu and the city to ignore for any longer:

Another friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it?

Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too?

George W. Bush’s book of paintings of US military veterans

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 02, 2017

Profiles In Courage

After leaving office in 2009, George W. Bush famously turned his attention to painting. That pursuit has now resulted in a book of portraits of post-9/11 US veterans painted by Bush called Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors.

Growing out of President Bush’s own outreach and the ongoing work of the George W. Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative, Portraits of Courage brings together sixty-six full-color portraits and a four-panel mural painted by President Bush of members of the United States military who have served our nation with honor since 9/11 — and whom he has come to know personally.

The author proceeds from the book will be donated to the George W. Bush Presidential Center, “a non-profit organization whose Military Service Initiative works to ensure that post-9/11 veterans and their families make successful transitions to civilian life with a focus on gaining meaningful employment and overcoming the invisible wounds of war”. There’s a certain — I don’t know, let’s call it irony — in Bush honoring those whom he personally caused to be put in the harm’s way in the first place, under false pretenses no less.

Meet America’s Oldest Living Veteran

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 09, 2017

Richard Overton fought in the South Pacific in World War II, is 109 years old, still drives, sometimes drinks whiskey with breakfast, smokes 12 cigars a day (but doesn’t inhale), and still lives in the house he built himself in 1945. In this video from National Geographic, Overton talks about his military service, his faith, his long life, and soup. Overton’s short summary of World War II:

It wasn’t good, but we had to go.

I don’t really care to live to 100, but if I had Overton’s spirit and attitude, perhaps I’d consider it.

Update: Ryan Holiday recently visited with Overton and learned a thing or two about life.

The most animated Richard ever got was when he told me a story about the enormous pecan tree in his front yard. It seemed like an ordinary tree to me, until he told me his dog planted it seventy years ago. They had a pecan tree in the back, and the dog would grab the nuts and bury them in the front yard. With glee, Richard told me how eventually the tree grew and now it’s so big it’s nearly pushing up the foundation of his house. He loved the absurdity of it — a dog planting a tree! He was laughing at it still, seven decades later.

And then there’s this, about another instance of The Great Span:

It’s fascinating to think that when Richard was born Theodore Roosevelt was president. Overton is the oldest living American veteran now, but when he was born, Henry L. Riggs was still alive. Riggs was a veteran of the Black Hawk War (1832) and he was born in 1812…and Conrad Heyer, the Revolutionary War veteran and the oldest and earliest person to be photographed (born in 1749) was still alive when Riggs was born. Three overlapping lives, that’s all it took to get back to before even the idea of founding the United States. Richard’s brother fought in the first World War. He told me he remembered seeing Civil War veterans around when he was a kid. Not many, but they were there. It was Texas — those men fought to keep his mother in slavery. How long ago all that horribleness seems. How recent it is at the same time.

Update: Overton died last week at the age of 112.

Timeless tips for “simple sabotage” from the CIA

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 16, 2016

Simple Sabotage Field Manual

In 1944, the OSS (the precursor to the CIA) produced a document called the Simple Sabotage Field Manual. It was designed to be used by agents in the field to hinder our WWII adversaries. The CIA recently highlighted five tips from the manual as timelessly relevant:

1. Managers and Supervisors: To lower morale and production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.

2. Employees: Work slowly. Think of ways to increase the number of movements needed to do your job: use a light hammer instead of a heavy one; try to make a small wrench do instead of a big one.

3. Organizations and Conferences: When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large and bureaucratic as possible. Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.

4. Telephone: At office, hotel and local telephone switchboards, delay putting calls through, give out wrong numbers, cut people off “accidentally,” or forget to disconnect them so that the line cannot be used again.

5. Transportation: Make train travel as inconvenient as possible for enemy personnel. Issue two tickets for the same seat on a train in order to set up an “interesting” argument.

Ha, some of these things are practically best practices in American business, not against enemies but against their employees, customers, and themselves. You can also find the manual in book or ebook format. (via @craigmod)

The biggest war in animal history

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 10, 2016

According to theoretical biologist Suzanne Sadedin, the biggest war in animal history (humans included) is happening right now.

Once upon a time there was a tiny brown ant who lived by a swamp at the end of the Paraná River in Argentina. Her name, Linepithema humile, literally means “humble” or “weak”. Some time during the late 1800s, an adventurous L. humile crept away from the swamp where giant river otter played and capybaras cavorted.

She stowed away on a boat that sailed to New Orleans. And she went to war.

Update: And bang, here’s the supporting science in the form of a 2010 study.

Here, we perform inter-continental behavioral analyses among supercolonies in North America, Europe, Asia, Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia and show that these far-flung supercolonies also recognize and accept each other as if members of a single, globally distributed supercolony. Furthermore, populations also possess similar genetic and chemical profiles. However, these ants do show aggression toward ants from South Africa and the smaller secondary colonies that occur in Hawaii and California. Thus, the largest and most dominant introduced populations are likely descended from the same ancestral colony and, despite having been established more than 100 years ago, have diverged very little. This apparent evolutionary stasis is surprising because, in other species, some of the most rapid rates of evolutionary change have occurred in introduced populations. Given the spatial extent of the Argentine ant society we report here, there can be little doubt that this intercontinental supercolony represents the most populous known animal society.

The “25 years and beyond” section of the Facebook product roadmap contains a single word, unlined twice in red ink: ants. Can ants be trained to look at ads though?

Update: Radiolab also did a segment on these ants. (via @minwoolee)

Update: Wow, the Argentine ant is having a bit of a moment…I didn’t expect this to be my most updated post of the week. Annalee Newitz just dropped a long article about their world domination: Meet the worst ants in the world.

UC Berkeley environmental scientist Neil Tsutsui helmed an effort to sequence the genome of L. humile, in part to find out where the invading group had originated. He and an international team of colleagues published the results of their analysis in 2011. They compared the genomes of Argentine ants in California to those of native populations, and Tsutsui told Ars that they were initially surprised by the results. “I was expecting Buenos Aires to be the source, but it was actually a city upstream called Rosario,” he said. “It turns out that in the late 19th century, when the ants were moving around, Rosario was actually a bigger shipping port than Buenos Aires. So it made more sense as a source for introduced populations.”

Genetic evidence supports the idea that the ants made their way from Port Rosario all across the globe. Subsequent sightings of the ants in the United States show that they also hitched rides on trains from New Orleans, ultimately arriving in California in 1904. Trucks probably transported them throughout the state. But how could such fragile creatures survive these journeys in giant machines and go on to found insectile empires? With their countless queens and nomadic lifestyle, they turned out to be the ultimate adapters.

Che Guevara and Lionel Messi are also from Rosario and have taken over the world in their own way. (via @tcarmody)

Teaser trailer for Christopher Nolan’s new film, Dunkirk

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 05, 2016

Christopher Nolan’s next film is a WWII action/thriller about the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk, France in 1940. The film comes out in July 2017 and if that last scene in the teaser trailer is any indication of the overall film, I will be there.

Update: The first full trailer has dropped. Yeah, this looks good.

The historical accuracy of Saving Private Ryan

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 14, 2016

Saving Private Ryan has been praised for its graphic and intense depiction of World War II, particularly the Normandy landing scene. History Buffs recently analyzed the film for its historical accuracy. How well does the film reflect the events of the actual D-Day landing and aftermath?

The video takes a bit to get going but is really good when it does. For instance, did you know that the Allies used inflatable tanks and Jeeps to make Germany believe Allied forces had strongholds in places they did not? Look at them inflating the tanks and bouncing Jeeps around:

The Industrial Revolution, climate change, and Brexit

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 24, 2016

Coalbrookdale

The Industrial Revolution began in the mid-18th century in Great Britain. To provide power for the wondrous new inventions producing marvelous new goods and services, coal (and later oil) was dug out of the ground and burned, releasing billions and billions of tons of carbon dioxide. In time, the speedy introduction of all this new carbon into the atmosphere caused the Earth’s climate to change.

In order to procure new resources for manufacturing and gain access to new markets for finished goods, the British Empire expanded across the globe. At some point, Great Britain invaded nearly 90% of the world’s countries. The expansion fueled climate change and created avenues for immigration to Britain from their colonies. Their activities eventually bring them to the Middle East in search of oil.

Fast forward to 2006. Drought exacerbated by climate change is one of many factors that pushed Syria into a prolonged civil war. The war triggered a humanitarian crisis and millions flee the country, becoming refugees, and some are able to migrate to Europe and other countries around the world, including Britain. The Syrian immigration issue fueled British nationalism, racism, and xenophobia, triggering a vote about whether Britain should leave the European Union. Yesterday, more than 17 million Britons voted to leave, with strong support for Leave in areas with now-empty coalfields and declining industrialization.

Coincidence? Not even close. More than 250 years on, Britain is still dealing with the effects of the Industrial Revolution. (via @EricHolthaus, @johnupton, @MichaelEMann, @chucktodd)

Hussam and the Death Way

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 02, 2016

Hussam Death Way

From comic artist Toby Morris, a harrowing tale of Hussam and his family, who escaped the civil war in Syria to a refugee camp in Jordan.

Dorothea Lange’s photos of Japanese Americans’ imprisonment during WWII

posted by Jason Kottke   May 16, 2016

Lange Japanese Internment

Lange Japanese Internment

In 1942, the US government hired Dorothea Lange (of Migrant Mother fame) to take photos of the removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Although Lange quit after a few months because government censors wouldn’t let her shoot images of barbed wire and the bayonets on guards’ guns, she took hundreds of photos documenting this shameful moment in American history.

Famous for her forlorn images of Dust Bowl America, this pioneering female photographer was hired by the War Relocation Authority in 1942 to document the removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans. Although her skill at candid portraiture was unparalleled, “Lange was an odd choice, given her leftist politics and strong sympathy for victims of racial discrimination,” writes scholar Megan Asaka. The position was a challenging one for Lange as well. “Appalled by the forced exile, she confided to a Quaker protestor that she was guilt stricken to be working for a federal government that could treat its citizens so unjustly.”

The WRA initially gave Lange little instruction about where and what to shoot, but controlled and censored her while she was at work. When documenting life inside the assembly centers and concentration camps, she was prohibited from taking shots of barbed wire and bayonets. Unable to tolerate this censorship and her own conflicted feelings about the work, Lange quit after just a few months of employment with the WRA.

Less ashamed at what they’d done and more worried about PR backlash, the government embargoed Lange’s photos until 1972.

If this all makes you think of some recent comments about Muslims from a certain Republican presidential candidate, history may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.

Update: Ansel Adams also took dozens of photos of the Japanese American interment camp at Manzanar.

Adams Japanese Internment Camp

So did photographer Toyo Miyatake, who was among the prisoners at Manzanar.

Miyatake Japanese Internment

The exclusion order forced Miyatake, his wife and four children, to the concentration camp at Manzanar. He was able to store his photographic equipment but managed to smuggle a camera lens and film plate holder into the camp against government orders. Miyatake told his son Archie that he felt it was his duty to document camp life. An Issei carpenter in camp constructed a box to house the lens, and Miyatake was able to get film into camp by way of a hardware salesman and former client. The photographer eventually asked camp director Ralph Merritt if he could set up a photo studio, and Merritt, who learned about Miyatake from Edward Weston, consented with the provision that Miyatake only load and set the camera, and a Caucasian assistant snap the shutter. Eventually, that restriction was lifted, and Miyatake was designated official camp photographer, and granted the freedom to take photos of everyday life at Manzanar.

Miyatake and Adams met at the camp and began a collaboration. Lange and Adams were friends — he printed Migrant Mother for her — and she was instrumental in convincing Adams to document Manzanar. But she was also critical of his detached approach:

In 1961, Lange said about Adams’s taking landscape pictures at the Manzanar Relocation Center: “It was shameful. That’s Ansel. He doesn’t have much sense about these things.”

(thx, @gen and samuel)

Update: Anchor Editions made a page with dozens of Lange’s photos paired with quotes from contemporary sources about the camps.

Daughter of Civil War vet still getting a pension

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 07, 2016

Private Mose Triplett was 19 when the Civil War ended in 1865. Later in life, he married a woman 50 years younger than him and, in 1930, they had a daughter Irene. Irene Triplett is now in her mid-eighties and gets a monthly benefit check from US Department of Veterans Affairs for her father’s service so many years before.

Eric Shinseki, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, often cites President Abraham Lincoln’s call, in his second inaugural address, for Americans “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”

“The promises of President Abraham Lincoln are being delivered, 150 years later, by President Barack Obama, ” Secretary Shinseki said in a speech last fall. “And the same will be true 100 years from now-the promises of this president will be delivered by a future president, as yet unborn.”

A declaration of war sets in motion expenditures that can span centuries, whether the veterans themselves were heroes, cowards or something in between.

This story is from 2014, but I looked for Triplett’s obituary and found nothing, so I’m assuming she’s still alive and collecting that pension. See also The Great Span. (via @mikekarlesky)

Update: As of August 2017, Triplett was still alive and collecting the pension.

Drone footage of a Syrian city destroyed by war

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 03, 2016

Until recently, the Syrian city of Homs was the country’s third largest, with an estimated population of more than 800,000. As you can see from this drone footage, The Siege of Homs left much of the city destroyed and its population displaced.

If you scroll down in this Guardian piece, there’s a photo showing what a Homs street looked like before and after the siege. (via @alexismadrigal)

Update: A pair of newlyweds recently posed for some wedding portraits in war-ravaged Homs. Bad idea or the worst idea?

A brief history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 21, 2016

From Vox, a history of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. More here.

Horizontal history

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 21, 2016

At Wait But Why, Tim Urban turns history on its side by thinking about time-synchronized events around the world, as opposed to events through the progression of time in each part of the world.

Likewise, I might know that Copernicus began writing his seminal work On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in Poland in the early 1510s, but by learning that right around that same time in Italy, Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, I get a better picture of the times. By learning that it was right while both of these things were happening that Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon in England, the 1510s suddenly begins to take on a distinct personality. These three facts, when put together, allow me to see a more three-dimensional picture of the 1510s — it allows me to see the 1510s horizontally, like cutting out a complete segment of the vine tangle and examining it all together.

He does this mainly by charting and graphing the lifetimes of famous people, revealing hidden contemporaries.

Horizontal History Graph

I’ve been slowly making my way through Ken Burns’ remastered The Civil War.1 At a few points in the program, narrator David McCullough reminds the viewer of what was going on around the world at the same time as the war. In the US, 1863 brought the Battle of Gettysburg and The Emancipation Proclamation. But also:

In Paris that year, new paintings by Cezanne, Whistler, and Manet were shown at a special exhibit for outcasts. In Russia, Dostoevsky finished Notes from the Underground. And in London, Karl Marx labored to complete his masterpiece, Das Kapital.

And a year later, while the advantage in the war was turning towards the US:1

In 1864, a rebellion in China that cost 20 million lives finally came to an end. In 1864, the Tsar’s armies conquered Turkistan and Tolstoy finished War and Peace. In 1864, Louis Pasteur pasteurized wine, the Geneva Convention established the neutrality of battlefield hospitals, and Karl Marx founded the International Workingmen’s Association in London and in New York.

Urban explicitly references the war in his post:

People in the US associate the 1860s with Lincoln and the Civil War. But what we overlook is that the 1860s was one of history’s greatest literary decades. In the ten years between 1859 and 1869, Darwin published his world-changing On the Origin of Species (1859), Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1861), Lewis Carroll published Alice in Wonderland (1865), Dostoyevsky published Crime and Punishment (1866), and Tolstoy capped things off with War and Peace (1869).

The Civil War. The Origin of Species. Alice in Wonderland. The infancy of Impressionism. Pasteurization. Das Kapital. Gregor Mendel’s laws of inheritance. All in an eight-year span. Dang.

  1. Which is simply excellent. I had forgotten how powerful the storytelling technique Burns devised for his documentaries is. Really really worth your time to watch or re-watch.

  2. In talking about the Civil War, I’ve been trying to use Michael Todd Landis’ new language…so, “labor camps” instead of “plantations” and “United States” instead of “Union”.

A 5-minute history of the war in Syria and the rise of ISIS

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 17, 2015

From Vox, a quick video summary of the war in Syria and the rise of ISIS.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which has claimed responsibility for Friday’s terror attacks in Paris, has its origins in Iraq, but the group as we know it today is in many ways a product of Syria’s civil war. That war is much bigger than ISIS, but it is crucial for understanding so much that has happened in the past year, from terror attacks to the refugee crisis. And to understand the war, you need to understand how it began and how it unfolded.

See also Syria’s civil war: a brief history.