Wednesday, March 29, 2017

what are we thinking?

Here in The Present, we experience Life moment by moment, our perceptions always colored by our memories of The Past (unreliable/delusional as they may be).

I'm not talking about your personal Past (undoubtedly the biggest factor in one's personal Present).  I'm talking about the collective Past - what we retained from History class (for those who were awake) and from our own obsessive reading since we left formal schooling (you know who you are).

It's so easy to be smug about catastrophic mistakes made by The Dead (or, as Homer and Nixon called them, the Silent Majority).  We ask ourselves 'what were they thinking?', as we ponder the blunders, whose results are so obvious and inevitable.

Examples are too numerous to mention.

I know there are an infinite number of distractions these days, but, still, it's positively shocking to me that so little is said about the events of exactly 100 years ago, when the Great War raged and millions were slaughtered.  To this day, unexploded shells (many filled with still-deadly gas) surface in the gardens of rural France, along that path of misery that stretched from Switzerland to the sea.

By 1917, the pre-war world was crumbling.  The Russian Empire's autocratic rulers were (unlike today's) clueless.  Same with the Ottomans.  Bleeding men and treasure, the French and British and Germans carried on with the same vain certainty that 'one more push' would lead to a quick victory.  The Americans arrived with their 'step aside and let us take over' bravado.

What were they thinking?

We know how it ended.  It's so obvious that the harsh, vindictive terms of the Treaty of Versailles would lead inevitably to economic hardship in Germany, and we know what panic does to people in times of economic hardship.

What were they thinking? 

We envision Sykes and Picot drawing lines on their map of Mesopotamia, giving birth to 'Iraq' and 'Iran'.  What were they thinking?

I own about a dozen DVDs; my favorite films, which I have watched many times.  There are the obvious ones:  Vertigo, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Maltese Falcon, Godfather Part II, Dr. Strangelove, Cabaret, The Producers.  You get the idea.

But there are two that I am especially thinking about today, in conjunction with WWI.

First,  Lawrence of Arabia.  Aside from the unparalled cinematography (I think I know just about every shot), what I get from the film is Lawrence's shocking progression from idealistic History nerd to a blood-smeared, violated, broken shell of a man (as the world itself was bloodied and broken when the shooting stopped).

The other is a film you probably don't know:  Richard Attenborough's astonishing film from the late 60's "Oh, What a Lovely War".  I first saw it in Baltimore around 1969 - I believe twice.  A few years ago, I ordered the DVD and have watched it three or four times, including yesterday.

It was originally a stage production, featuring songs sung by the soldiers in World War I.  The songs start out full of confidence and end up full of cynicism, hopelessness and the stark, grim reality they faced in the trenches.

The cinematography and editing are breathtaking, the dream cast includes Lawrence Oliver, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, John Mills, Dirk Bogard, Susanna York, Jack Hawkins (unrecognizable as the doddering Austrian emperor), and the shockingly young Maggie Smith, among other assorted Redgraves, etc.  One of the best anti-war films ever made.  If you'd like to BORROW my copy, let me know.

But (returning to my theme), seeing the events of 1914-1918 recapped, one can only ask how could they not have seen the coming calamity?  Why didn't the world rise up and try to prevent it?

What were they thinking?

In this week's news, there's this New York Times headline:  "Trump Lays Plans to Reverse Obama’s Climate Change Legacy". 

Now imagine reading that in 2117.

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