Monday, May 27, 2013


My education has been lamentably Euro-centric when it comes to warfare, so I’ve known more about Machiavelli than Sun Tzu, who is quoted by one of my more adversarial friends.  Inadvertently -- unless my subconscious is even more powerful than I think, which is not a good prospect -- I watched “War Horse” on the same night as  “Day of the Falcon.”  

I disliked “War Horse,” though I love the documentary about the stage version with puppet horses.  I haven’t read the original book, which was meant for children, a sort of story-line to explain the participation of horses in WWI through the point of view of one horse, something like “Black Beauty.”  But when it came to the movie, I agreed with Simon Winder who lamented that the film, "despite twisting and turning to be even-handed, simply could not help itself and, like some faux-reformed alcoholic, gorged itself on an entire miniature liqueur selection of Anglo-German clichés".    I’m even more cynical.  Spielberg often seems to me only a big LA suburban fourteen-year-old over-impressed by Truffault.  But the play onstage was different:   Later I intend to write about the lure of puppets and what they allow that a conventional movie, even with CGI, simply cannot.

“Day of the Falcon” is more informed by the thought of Sun Tzu than of Machiavelli.  There is no question that Machiavelli actually wrote “The Prince,” but Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” is much, much older and more controversial.  Chinese history is divided into periods: “The Spring and Autumn Period” from approximately 771 until 476 BC, followed by “The Warring Period” which concluded with the victory of the state of Qin in 221 BC.   Scholars differ over whether Sun Tzu’s work was revised by later writers, much like the composition of the Bible.  

The internal evidence indicating late tinkering (list from Wikipedia) includes:  the mobilization of one thousand chariots and 100,000 soldiers for a single battle;  protracted sieges (cities were small, weakly fortified, economically and strategically unimportant centers in the Spring and Autumn period); the existence of military officers as a distinct subclass of nobility:  deference of rulers' right to command armies to these officers;  the advanced and detailed use of spies and unorthodox tactics (never emphasized at all in the Spring and Autumn period);  the extensive emphasis on infantry speed and mobility, rather than chariot warfare.  An additional factor is that Confucianism was much more powerful in the second period and Confucianism frowned on deception and lies, something like New Testament Christianity but not the Old Testament which finds deception clever.

“Day of the Falcon” is based on a 1957 book called “South of the Heart: A Novel of Modern Arabia” (Coward-McCann, 1957) by Hans Ruesch.  Its relevance is rooted in a modern contrast something like the two Chinese periods except that it is the traditional bedouin culture that is like Confucianism, honorable and content with tradition, while it is the competitive (and greedy) leader who consorts with the modern world’s geologists and developers.  The two leaders have guaranteed an agreement to keep the “Yellow Strip” a place of mutual non-aggression and sharing, guaranteed by leaving the two sons of the traditionalist with the more ambitious man.

One son is the most romantic of Arabs, hunting from horseback with a falcon on his fist.  He is killed.  The other son is bookish so when the Westerners come to punch oil wells into the Yellow Strip, he understands the implications, is distressed, but is held hostage still by his love for the daughter of his host.  The rest of the movie is about the forces playing out, with tragic consequences before a final reconciliation is reached.   The hero is the bookish son, not a falconer but a wearer of specs.  He’s the one who understands Sun Tzu.

Sun Tzu says:   “So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.  If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.  If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.”

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

When the two realms, one traditionalist and one anxious to catch up with the Western world, finally come to war -- horses and camels against tanks and machine guns -- Auda, son of the bedouin Emir, outwits the Sultan by many clever strategies.  In the end the Emir (played by a hawkish English actor, Mark Strong) is killed, but the Sultan (cleverly played by Antonio Banderas) is not punished by death but rather by condemning him to Denver to sit on the board of the oil company, defending the interests of the Tribes.

This film was made in Qatar and is transparently propaganda.  It interested me in part because my old traditional Edwardian School of Speech, now converted to Communication Arts, is much involved in high tech production classes in Qatar.  It’s hard not to have mixed feelings about it.  On the one hand, it means more knowledge of each other -- on the other hand, propaganda is so easily deceptive, so focused on strategy.

By chance -- or maybe because of Netflix’ algorithm -- last night I watched two more movies about war on long historic terms.  One was “Arn” about the founding of the country we call Sweden by a virtuous knight depicted by Joakim Natterqvist and the other was “The Last Emperor,” a history of how China has developed, seen by Bertolucci through the eyes of the hapless Emperor, played by John Lone.  Much tricky stuff, but in the end Arn knows both his adversary and himself -- he even knows and likes Saladin! -- but the poor Emperor knows neither and how could he, since he has been confined to the Forbidden City from toddlerhood?  Both movies were beautiful, but Bertolucci has a gift for creating the most ravishing scenes.  Joan Chen, as the emperor’s wife, eats a whole branch of white orchids in a despairing imitation of opium smoking.  Earlier, the same wife plus “second consort” under a yellow satin brocade sheet with the emperor in an erotic threesome, slide their arms around each other in an undulating dance until the light of dancing flames suffuses the room, calling them out to disaster.  This is a far cry from Arn and his slashing sword, his horseback pursuits.

I’ve just learned a new word from the “feminist” editor on Good Men Project.  It’s kyriarchy, which is a “set of connecting social systems built on domination, oppression and submission.”   The word was invented by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, a religious thinker.  “The point of using the term kyriarchy is that it looks at how the intersections of sexism, heterosexism, racism, etc. create and maintain hierarchal power structures.”  This term lets us include the female systems of religions, convents, eunuchs, old concubines, and other bureaucratic institutions that always underlie war.  At heart is always control and extension of the economy of the place whether we are talking about the Atomic Bomb or the Crusades.  

When the kyriarchy supplies both the martyrs and the money to erect monuments, we mark the calendar with Memorial Day so as to go lay flowers at their feet.  We should not let this distract us from the reality of war, which tries to conceal itself.

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