The Road Not Taken, No Not That One, You Know, The Other One

1961. Robert McNamara, the recently installed Secretary of Defense in President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s cabinet, sits in his Pentagon office at a nine-foot-long mahogany desk, polished to a mirrorlike shine. He is wearing a dark suit, his thick brown hair slicked back on his head and parted in the middle, old fashioned wire-rim spectacles framing his mirthless eyes, his jaw clenched tight, a severe expression on his face, looking very much the Presbyterian elder he is.

The door opens, and Edward Lansdale, career spy and counterinsurgency specialist, enters. He has handsome, movie star good looks and a neat moustache. A look of determination is on his face, with a hint of a maverick smile, and he is carrying a box of what seem to be weapons and camping gear, caked with mud and even blood.

MCNAMARA is making notes on some graph paper.

MCNAMARA: [Stiffly] Colonel Lansdale, good to see you.

LANSDALE: Good morning, Mr Secretary.

MCNAMARA: Lansdale, we’re doing a systems analysis on our policy in South Vietnam. I understand you’ve just returned from a trip there and I need your report on the situation. You have nine and a half minutes for this briefing.

LANSDALE strides over to the desk and upends the content of the box. Out spill handmade pistols and knives, old French rifles, and bamboo punji sticks, all over the desk with a clatter, with a few falling on the floor.

LANSDALE: The enemy in Vietnam uses these weapons – and they were using them just a little bit ago before I got them. Many of them are barefoot or wear sandals. They wear black pajamas, usually, with tatters or holes in them. I don’t think you’d recognize any of them as soldiers, but they think of themselves that way. The people that are fighting there, on our side, are being supplied with our weapons and uniforms and shoes and all of the best that we have; and we’re training them. Yet, the enemy is licking our side. Always keep in mind about Vietnam, that the struggle goes far beyond the material things of life. It doesn’t take weapons and uniforms and lots of food to win. It takes something else, ideas and ideals, and these guys are using that something else. Let’s at least learn that lesson.

MCNAMARA stares at his soiled desk, blinking.

MCNAMARA: I see. [Stands up.] Colonel Lansdale, you can’t substitute emotions for reason.

LANSDALE: [Chuckles] It substituted just fine when we made those Marxists on Luzon think their villages were attacked by vampires.

MCNAMARA, somewhat fussily, fishes out his graph paper and pencil from under the weapons and other junk now on his desk. He walks to a clearer part of the desk and places it down.

MCNAMARA: Lansdale. As I said before, we are performing an extensive systems analysis on the situation in South and North Vietnam, and very much need to capture all the factors at play. I’m not sure if you are familiar with systems analysis. This is a process we used when I was an executive at Ford Motors. I have a list of seventy three factors our staff have so far found, including food supply, ammunition, rice production, oil imports, and so on. We’ll crunch the numbers, and once the analysis is complete, the output of the model will give us a clear path to victory.

LANSDALE glances at the list.

LANSDALE: Mr Secretary, your list is incomplete. You’ve left out the most important factor of all.

MCNAMARA: What is it?

LANSDALE: Well, it’s the human factor. You can put it down as the X factor.

MCNAMARA writes down “X Factor” on the graph paper.

MCNAMARA: What does it consist of?

LANSDALE: What the people out on the battlefield really feel; which side they want to see win and which side they’re for at the moment. That’s the only way you’re going to ever have this war decided.

MCNAMARA: Ah. Good point, but we’ve got that actually. Over here, see: “Volunteer signups”, “Ho Chi Minh “uncle-ization” ratio”, “Negative reviews on Saigon embassy facebook page”, “Mao Zedong cat pun frequency”, “GI sales of Conrad short stories”.

LANSDALE: I see. Well, what about the V factor?

MCNAMARA writes down “V Factor” on the graph paper.

MCNAMARA: What does it consist of?

LANSDALE: Vampires.

MCNAMARA: Ok. Ah, we’ll make sure to give that, uh, the appropriate weighting.

LANSDALE: Mr Secretary, there’s no mathematical formula for the human spirit.

MCNAMARA: That’s true. Some of those smart IBM boys we seconded from Cambridge found that a fifteen dimension vector including poetry writing and fish sauce consumption was a passable proxy in the Indochinese context, though.

LANSDALE: Oh, ok. Well that sounds just dandy. Don’t forget there are three brands of fish sauce popular in the south though – you should really track the lot.

MCNAMARA: Interesting. I’ll put those IBM boys onto it.

LANSDALE: Good.

MCNAMARA: Good. This has been really useful, but I’ve got something else to do now. Oh, by the way, the intern you put on the Saigon embassy Twitter account is going great. The analytics are through the roof!

LANSDALE: [Snaps fingers, points back to MCNAMARA and smiles winningly.] I’ll pass it on.

MCNAMARA: Thanks Ed.

LANSDALE: Thanks Bob.

Rather loosely adapted from Chapter 22 of Max Boot’s recent biography of Lansdale, The Road Not Taken.

References

Boot – The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the America Tragedy In Vietnam
Brecher, Ames – War Nerd Podcast Episode 39
McNamara – In Retrospect
Wintermute, Boot – Max Boot interview on The Road Not Taken

The Vengeful Angels Of Our Nature

It’s not surprising, in a movie such as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, to find a great deal of hunting vampires, but I did find rather more than I expected of Mr Lincoln. Part of the point of such a piece is of course the glorious joke of its title. Given the basic setup is pretty much explained before reaching the cinema, even more so for those who saw the earlier novel, the challenge is to put something else behind it.

Critics have come out uniformly negative, like a line of Union soliders wielding Springfield rifles of hate. Actually, Timur Bekmambetov and writer Seth Grahame-Smith don’t do too bad a job. Abe: VH has its problems. It doesn’t take the approach (I would think a mistake) of being just a fight movie in 1860s costume. The second act even takes time out for political exposition and smaller scale Whitehouse family drama; a saggy but welcome variation from a simple progression of action scenes. It’s an action movie that makes time for the Gettysburg address. It’s not a long speech, but somehow a little more than expected.

Some parts are flawed. Others are freaking awesome. They are freaking awesome in the same way as Brad Nelly’s George Washington.  They combine mythic fragments of the American Civic Religion with mythic fragments of American action movies and mythic fragments of vampire lore in a mosaic that celebrates their symbolic role while signalling it is also a fiction.

Bekmambetov and Grahame-Smith play the material straight. Again I think this is the right choice when presenting such a flagrant counterfactual. Winking at the content would destroy the premise of the fantastic world. The viewer can always step back to laugh at the absurdity of the hook; they shouldn’t be pushed back. There are some good fights, much influenced by the post-Matrix martial arts style. At 105 minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

American presidents have a role not unlike saints or Hellenic gods in the American Civic Religion. And many-named Lincoln is at the heart of the pantheon, equal to the founding fathers in symbolic weight, the great hinge on which the chronology of American statecraft swings. Lincoln even sounds mythic. He had, in Adam Gopnik’s words, “mastered the sound of the King James Bible so completely that he could recast abstract issues of constitutional law in Biblical terms, making the proposition that Texas and New Hampshire should be forever bound by a single post office sound like something right out of Genesis”.

This movie’s Lincoln is not the Lincoln of history books, though the complexity of the man lends him weight as an action hero. Don’t all politicians have secret lives run in parallel with their very public lives? This story reverses the usual superheroic trope – the secret life is the one of clean hits and unambiguous moral purpose. The famous, public life is the compromised one beset by moral quandaries. (Batman is a variation where both identities are famous.)

How much of the real Lincoln is really told by popular history? The Lincoln of this movie doesn’t say anything like those dismaying words of the First Inaugral,

I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

… and yet, how often does that enter the foreground in the history of poular memory? Lincoln is the great American nationalist, and the great liberal imperialist too. I view this from a non-American vantage point, so maybe I’m missing some cultural context. Maybe all elementary schools tease out the multifarious economic, demographic and historic causes of the War between the States and all Fourth of July barbeques are accompanied by nuanced discussion of the political factions faced by the 16th president.  Many Americans do know their own history well.

I suspect that even when the history is well known the myths of civic religion require certain narrative simplifications. Conor Cruise O’Brien argues much the same about Jefferson. (Jefferson para-scholarship is also largely silent on whether he was a vampire.) The virtue of a movie like this is acknowledging that mythic need while separating it somewhat from history. Grahame-Smith even constructs a scene where Pickett’s charge makes sense – vampires need not fear bullets and can infiltrate an enemy line with invisibility. It’s far more rational than the psychology of armies and generals failing to learn new tactics in the face of new tech.

Civic religions are worthwhile when they support worthwhile ideals. The American variant supports liberty and democracy and a system that for all its flaws is the great exponent of the same. They let us make the transformation from merely thinking republican democracy is a good idea and truly believing it.

Maybe it’s for the best that in these days of targeted US drone assassinations a movie imagining a president individually killing evildoers with a silver coated axe has not swept all before it. When I put it next to such monumental pieces of kitsch as Harrison Ford’s Air Force One or Mt Rushmore it hardly seems out of character. At least Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is honest about what it confabulates.