Peter Maass's blog

April 02, 2002  |  permalink

Coming Soon: Militainment

Should the Pentagon co-produce television shows? That’s the issue behind this New York Times story, which describes a wave of new programs as “militainment.” The Pentagon is offering detailed technical support to prime-time entertainment shows that deal with issues it favors, in ways it favors, such as an upcoming episode of “JAG” about military tribunals; the Pentagon also is working with ABC, CBS and VH1 on reality shows featuring soldiers on the job in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

There’s reason to be concerned. News reporters should not be denied access to the armed forces in favor of entertainment producers, which is what the Pentagon is doing. But it’s also true that much of today’s news programs are drenched in showbiz; Walter Cronkite cannot be pleased when he sees “Dateline.” I just wasted several minutes of my life watching Ashleigh Banfield explain on MSNBC how she drove in an armored car to Ramallah; I learned nothing.

Perhaps militainment will not be such a bad thing. If these new programs attract viewers, television executives will roll out more military-themed shows, some of which may not require the assistance or approval of Donald Rumsfeld. Why not a Pentagon version of “The West Wing”? Or a “M*A*S*H” for the post-Cold War era? Television news divisions have failed to offer viewers, in a moderately compelling way, an understanding of world affairs; their entertainment cousins might not do worse. “JAG” will never be confused with “Judgement at Nuremberg,” but it could be a start.

No Man’s Land

Proof that a movie can do it all: “No Man’s Land,” which is about the war in Bosnia. It captures, perfectly, the absurdity, horror and madness of the war, and is reminiscent, in its subversive use of humor, of “Dr. Strangelove.” The film was written and directed by a young Bosnian, Danis Tanovic, and revolves around two soldiers, a Bosnian and a Serb, trapped in a trench between the frontlines. “No Man’s Land” is a brilliant companion to Milcho Manchevski’s haunting 1994 movie, “Before the Rain.


April 01, 2002  |  permalink

An Afghan “To Do” List

Richard Holbrooke states the obvious, but the easily-forgotten obvious—shoring up Afghanistan is as important as taking down the Taliban. Holbrooke is too optimistic about the prospects for nation-building; there’s a limit to what can be done in such a ruined and chaotic country. Unfortunately, the bare minimum of making sure a measure of order prevails, which is achievable, seems beyond the intent of the U.S. government.


March 30, 2002  |  permalink

Adam Shapiro, Call Your Mother

Strange things happen in strange places, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that a young American from Brooklyn has emerged from Yasser Arafat’s besieged compound in Ramallah. Adam Shapiro, who has lived in Ramallah for three years and is engaged to a Palestinian woman, is an activist with the International Solidarity Movement, which advocates nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation. Shapiro entered Arafat’s compound on Friday, in an ambulance with a doctor, and soon sent a text message to his fiancee: “Phone lines have been cut. Need Red Cross.” He later called her and told of sharing a meal with Arafat. As his fiancee put it, “He was like, ‘I just had breakfast with the president.’”

Shapiro’s work in Ramallah revolved around organizing nonviolent resistance to Israeli occupation, and this article, which the 30-year old American wrote with his fiancee, outlines a strategy the Palestinians should have adopted long ago. If their goal is to have a state alongside Israel (a very big “if” these days), the use of violence to achieve it has been an abysmal and deadly failure. Shapiro’s views were shaped by Gene Sharp, the Clausewitz of nonviolent theory. Sharp’s how-to handbook, From Dictatorship to Democracy, deeply influenced the Serbian students who played a crucial role in overthrowing Slobodan Milosevic.

UPDATE: Adam’s parents have left their Brooklyn apartment after receiving death threats from anonymous callers who regard their son as a traitor and/or terrorist. The Times notes that Adam, who remains in Ramallah but plans to return to the United States next month for his wedding, told his brother to add “getting a security detail” to a checklist of things to do before his marriage.


March 29, 2002  |  permalink

The Executioner’s Story


Monster’s Ball is a special film. Halle Berry won an Academy Award for her performance, which is why I decided, after the Oscars were handed out, to see it with a friend. Berry is great but Billy Bob Thornton is greater, and Monster’s Ball is a small masterpiece. The less one knows about the plot the better, but keep your eye on Thornton, who expresses, in an understated yet believable way, the capacity for a man to change. For a review, here’s what The New York Times said.


March 28, 2002  |  permalink

Times Of Honesty


The best feature in The New York Times, when the feature runs, is an Editors’ Note. The Times runs Corrections almost every day, but an Editors’ Note is different and less frequent, because it means the paper really messed up and has some explaining to do. The notes are wonderful to read, not so much for the schadenfreude value (though one cannot discount that), but because they are curious labors of honesty that show the limits to the amount of humbling and confession that any proud institution can undergo in a day. The Editors’ Note today (you need to scroll down the page a bit, past the Corrections, which are a fine read) relates to a March 19 obituary of golfer Paul Runyan, in which a number of quotes obtained from other publications ran in the Times without credit to the original sources. (For more on this problem, ask Doris Kearns Goodwin or Stephen Ambrose.) The Times very conscientiously lists each of the quotes it purloined and the publications from which it purloined them. Bravo. Left unsaid is how or why the quotes ran without attribution, and what’s going to happen to the poor sod responsible for the offense. But I don’t mind the omissions, which reaffirm just how human the Times is, striving for total honesty yet falling short, as many people do.


March 27, 2002  |  permalink

Move Over, WWF

I would have thought this was a Modern Humorist hoax—The International Federation of Competitive Eating—were it not for an IFOCE-sanctioned burrito-eating contest I happened to attend a few days ago in Tribeca. As the burritos disappeared down the gullets of a half-dozen competitive, uhm, eaters, the crowd boozily chanted “Eat! Eat! Eat!”, and a guy next to me shouted to his girlfriend, “America’s a great country!” One of the eaters, as well as his “cornermen,” wore a T-shirt that said “The Doginator.” Another eater (what should one call these people?) was the famous Edward “Cookie” Jarvis, who ate one gallon and nine ounces of vanilla ice cream in twelve minutes last October. The winner, Eric “Badlands” Booker, a corrections officer from Philadelphia, turned out to be a charming fellow and, unsurprisingly, stupendously large of girth, into which he packed more than a dozen burritos in eight minutes.


March 27, 2002  |  permalink

The Friedman Phenomenon

Thomas Friedman notes today the importance of altering the shape of repressive governments in the Muslim world. He recently wrote that poverty does contribute to terrorism and that perhaps we should do something about it. Both columns were long overdue. My principal complaint with Friedman’s work over the past six months (and the commentariat in general) is that he has focused too narrowly on war as the only facet of the war on terrorism. What about lifting tariffs and quotas on the few products (textiles and the like) that the Muslim world is competitive in? What about pushing hard for real changes in the corrupt governments that we support (not to mention the ones we don’t support)? What about finding ways to make foreign aid truly effective, rather than just throwing a few more dollars into the pot? This is not flashy stuff but vital for our national security and it deserves more than an occasional thought; a presidential speech here or a Friedman column there is not enough.

Although I’m not a big fan of Friedman’s, I love the Friedman phenomenon. A foreign policy columnist getting as much attention as Maureen Dowd got during the Clinton years? Very good news.

War Psychology

You are the commander of more than 2,000 troops going into battle against Al Qaeda. What do you say to your soldiers before they board the Chinooks and Black Hawks? This Los Angeles Times story about Operation Anaconda includes a link to a scratchy Real Audio file of Col. Frank Wiercinski’s eve-of-battle speech to his fighters at Bagram air base. “There are two kind of people out there,” Wiercinski said, standing atop a Humvee. “There’s innocents who don’t want any part of this fight. And there are those out there who want nothing better than to kill an American or kill a coalition fighter. Do not be afraid to squeeze that trigger. You will know when and you will know why. Take care of one another. Take care of all of us. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world today but right here with you. Today is your climb to glory.” Because the Pentagon strictly (and stupidly) limits reporters’ access to G.I.s and their combat in Afghanistan, the leaked recording provides an unusual insight into war psychology; not the Hollywood stuff, the real thing.

The End Of Journalism?

The recent controversy over Nightline being threatened by David Letterman’s Late Show gave rise to the usual round of eulogies about the erosion of journalism on television. I think the eulogies missed the point: Particularly since September 11, the quality of reporting and writing on foreign affairs has been amazing in publications like The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and in newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. Scattered around my apartment, and on the hard drive of my iMac, are months of excellent and important reading that I wish I had time for. This is a golden age of quality journalism.

Yesterday I scratched one item off the unread list: Samantha Power’s lengthy piece, in the September issue of The Atlantic, on the shameful U.S. handling of genocide in the 1990s. It is a powerful story that focuses on the Clinton Administration turning its back on Rwanda in 1994 even though the State Department, Pentagon and White House knew genocide was occurring there. The story was excerpted from Power’s new book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which has received great reviews.



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