Wednesday, April 30, 2003

My brother brought the latest
vile excrescence from the violently disordered mind of Norman Mailer to my attention. The best explanation I can come up with for how completely whacked out this guy is--and I know he's 80 and senility can't be ruled
out, but he's been writing nonsense like this for decades--is a mixture of the aesthetic and the personal.

I first noticed it in a Rolling Stone interview he did in 1974. It's not online, so I have to quote from memory; but I was so appalled by it (and it took a lot for someone on the Left to appall me at the time, for I was a 17-year-old liberal Democrat) that I remember it verbatim today: He was talking about Charles Manson, and Manson's impressive behavior of responding to criticism by picking up a gun and handing it to the critic, daring the critic to kill him. "He's not a small man," said Mailer of Charlie, "Not a small man at all."

At that point in my life I was exploring ideologies and theories, and was open to even the most offensive statements from artists as legitimate aesthetic expression. And even then, when as I was as nonjudgmental as I have ever been, I thought a statement like that was contemptible. I remember writing in my journal at the time how pathetic could someone be to find Charles Manson admirable.

I didn't know it at the time, but this was only a small hint, a precursor of what Mailer would do to the world a short time later.

In 1979 Mailer, collaborating with future O.J. Simpson groupie Lawrence Schiller, wrote an entire, endless book about Gary Gilmore, a person of whom--had he been, say, a law-abiding Middle American like the motel clerk that he murdered--Mailer would taken no more notice than he would an insect. The Executioner's Song won the Pulitzer.

Immediately after the success of the Gilmore book, Mailer began to champion a real live convicted murderer named Jack Henry Abbott and used his prestige to help get Abbott released from prison in 1981. It took only two weeks on the outside for Abbott to commit another murder.

Mailer's gift of Abbott to the world was more than the usual masturbatory radical chic silliness of the type that Phillip Terzian refers to when he reminds us that Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins named their son after Abbott. It was consistent with Mailer's point of view of at least the preceding decade, and really for much longer than that. His famous essay "The White Negro" in 1959 praised the antisocial pathologies in the African American community that would inflict such appalling damage to it in the years to come.

A year after that, Mailer was drunk at a party and stabbed with wife multiple times with a kitchen knife, missing her heart by inches. Mailer's celebrity helped him escape jail, and he never seems to have comes to grips with what he did. As recently as last year he was still equivocating:

Forty-two years after the first incident, Mailer is certainly not going to let introspection disrupt the patrician calm which has settled over the Provincetown house. "It's a long time ago, and you really might say the worst elements of it have been digested over the years - by me, I mean. I can't speak for Adele. It's our children who suffered with it more than we did, when people whisper about it. All right, I deserved [condemnation], but it's them carrying the weight. Everyone alive carries the weight. It's a dull bruise. You don't go around fingering it."

The intellectual tradition in which Mailer operates is an extremely familiar one from the first half of the twentieth century. The high water mark of all this was the literature of the 1920s (Mailer was born in 1923), when the West's intellectuals were still pissed off about World War One. They produced material designed to shock not only in form (as with Dada and Surrealism) but also in content: Cynicism toward all things except that which society hated and feared most, violent sociopathy. The movement was full of glaring contradictions: It was slavishly romantic while pretending to despise Romanticism, eagerly Rousseauvian while feigning contempt for Rousseau. The violent social predator became The Noble Savage. The one title that captured the zeitgeist was Franz Werfel's play Nicht der Mörder, der Ermordete ist schuldig ("Not the murderer but the victim is guilty").

Thing was, eventually, many of them got over it, not least Werfel, who converted to Catholicism and started writing about Saint Bernadette. Eternal cynicism is a hallmark of adolescence, and people eventually started to grow up. The ones who didn't grow up died bitterly as Communist bureaucrats like Brecht, or, even worse, became university professors, or else they were named Norman Mailer.

Sunday, April 27, 2003

Today was one of those Sundays where I had to go out and get in my car and just go somewhere far away, and I tried, I really tried to. I had talked about going to the shore for a day, but I didn't want to fight the traffic. So I'm in the car, on the Schulkill, and (those of you who know me well will have already guessed the ending to this story) I was seized by guilt and in my next conscious moment I found myself in Roslyn, PA, home of Abington Game and Hobby Center, taking inventories that I didn't get around to yesterday.


But the consolation was that Bob and I got to watch the last two innings of the Kevin Millwood no-hitter. And I stopped off on the way home to see Identity which, yes, AN, is brilliant and captivating. I won't give anything about it away, but it's a very ingenious script with a great cast. I quote my favorite line:

Ray Liotta: "You got a name?"

Amanda Peet: "Paris."

Ray: "Paris, huh? Never been."

Amanda: "And you ain't goin' tonight, either."

Friday, April 25, 2003

So I went to see House of 1000 Corpses because, well, there wasn't much else I was interested in seeing, and I hadn't seen a real state of the art horror/gore film in a long time. I am about the furthest thing in the world from a fan of Rob Zombie's music. He epitomizes the least favorite thing about contemporary music, even worse than rap: That particular rock vocal styling where the singer sounds like he's really constipated. I call it the pro-wrestling-interview-set-to-music school of rock. Anyway, as I said, I am not a fan. But the fact that he'd named his band (White Zombie) after a classic 1930s horror film gave me some hope.

But I'm really not the audience for this movie. It's just two hours of unrelieved carnage and mayhem and sadism, and the only interesting thing about it for me was how unaffected I was by it. If I had been involved, I might have been offended by the shallow evil at the core of this film. But I wasn't for one minor and one major reason.

It's very easy to say that--for example--the Friday the 13th movies are hypocritical. Like many horror films, they glory in Jason's lurid and inventive murder technique, but at the end the film punishes him for doing nothing more than what the audience paid to see him do. But the alternative--as here--is the consistent celebration of monstrous evil. Imagine a movie about the adventures of Zed, Maynard, and the Gimp from Pulp Fiction, only where Bruce Willis doesn't untie himself--and who the hell wants to see that? That's basically what Ho1KC is. But that's not really the most serious problem I had with it.

The recent problem for me with gory horror is, as with so many other things, my September 11th problem. It's not that I'm offended by horror; it's that horror is never horrifying enough for me anymore. Two stories often cross my mind from that day. I will warn you that they are very difficult to read.

The first may be an urban legend, but it certainly could have happened.

A family had an apartment that looked out on the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and they all went out to watch the fire. Everyone was speechless except for the youngest, the five-year-old: She chattered as she looked on, pointing out the birds that were on fire. "The birds, Mommy, look at the birds on fire." The parents had no idea what to say to her, so they just humored her and kept the TV off and acted as much as possible like it was a normal day. Finally, that night, the mother was putting the girl to bed.

"Mommy?" said the little girl.


"I know they weren't birds."

The second story is definitely true. It's from the book September 11th: An oral history, and it's the testimony of an EMT named Ernest Armstead, entitled, "Tormented by conversions with death." I reproduce it here verbatim:

r".....I ran towards them, my triage tags in hand. There was a man having a seizure and his eyes were rolling into the back of his head. He had struck the pavement so hard that there was virturally nothing else left of him. There were a couple others that I never got to, but I could see from a short distance that they were dead. And then there was the lady with the nice hairdo and earrings.
When I got to her, I ripped out a black tag. What impressed me - and scared me - was that she was alert and was watching what I was doing. I put the tag around her neck and she looked at me and said, "I am not dead. Call my daughter. I am not dead." I was so startled that for a split second I was speechless. "Ma'am," I said. "don't worry about it, We will be right back for you." That was a lie. She couldn't see what I could see. Somehow, I guess it was an air draft or something, her fall had been cushioned enough so that she didn't splatter like the others. Still her body was so twisted and torn apart that I could only ask myself, Why is this lady still alive and talking to me? How can this be? Her right lung, shoulder and head were intacted, but from the diaphragm down she was unrecognizable. Yet she was lucid enough that she continued to argue with me."I am not dead," she insisted again.

....but another wave of casualties arrived in the lobby from upstairs, so I needed to return. As I headed back, I stepped over the lady one more time. And as eerie and unsettling as our first encounter had been, the second was even worse. She yelled at me.

"I am not dead! I am not dead!"

"They're coming, they're coming." I replied without stopping.

"I am not dead! I am not dead!"

I think of those two stories, the birds on fire and the argument with the talking head, pretty much every day. And that's why, when I see a movie that is supposed to horrify me, the only phrase that comes to my mind is, "What else ya got?"

Thursday, April 24, 2003

There was a remarkable story from AFP, of all places, today. It seems the anti-American demonstrations in newly liberated Iraq have fizzled.

I have a feeling CNN will not notice, though. They seem committed to the "clearly, the Iraqis don't want the Americans here" point of view. I actually heard one of the CNN embeds say that two weeks ago.

We can always count on CNN for a ferocious cross-examination of the Bush administration's point of view. A "critics charged that..." addendum is required for any story out of the White House.

And yet, the pronouncements from regimes and movements hostile to America are accepted with total credulity. There is not even the slightest speculation that anti-American demonstrations might not be as "spontaneous" as they appear, that professionals from Iran might be fomenting them. No, CNN just accepts it all at face value. "Clearly, the Iraqis don't want the Americans here." And they take this credulity to extraordinary lengths, as in last October's Iraqi "elections," the legitimacy of which they didn't question at all:

From Baghdad, correspondent Nic Robertson stressed how “Iraqi reverence for President Saddam Hussein is rarely more expressive than when their leader calls a referendum” as “students at Baghdad's fine arts school, too young to vote in the last referendum in 1995, appear eager now. 'It is my time to challenge the United States' threats against Iraq,’ says Samir. 'So I will say yes, yes, yes to President Saddam Hussein.’”

I especially loved the "fine arts school" business. In Saddam's Iraq there was no such thing as unofficial art. So every artist in the country could aspire to nothing other than to be a stooge of the regime, producing Saddam portrait after Saddam portrait, a skill which seems to be in somewhat lesser demand these days. Taking the pulse of Iraq in an arts school is on the order of gauging the popularity of Hitler at a Jungvolk meeting.

Wednesday, April 23, 2003


I never thought I'd hear myself saying this, but I am loving Games Workshop these days.

Bob just called me up to read me the new retailer-agreement letter he just got from GW. Apparently with the blessing of their legion of lawyers, they are shutting off all Internet sales of their products. The new policy was announced informally last week, and has only just been put into writing.

And I am thrilled.

The effect of this edict will be more than just strangling the Internet discounters. Reading the text of the new agreement, you see that marginal stores and game clubs that are just buying for themselves are going to be devastated also. A guy I used to work at Chessex with in particular is not going to be happy. His parents have a ceramics store not far away from us, and he uses their business license to order GW and other product. Up to now this has been completely permissible. I should mention that this is a guy who used to call Bob his "best friend" but after Bob's divorce pretended that Bob no longer existed. (His wife was close with Bob's ex, and it was a matter of...well, I can hear the whip-cracking sound from here). So it is with pleasure that I look forward to seeing him scrambling for product.

And in the meantime, I have the immediate pleasure of seeing the caterwauling of the Internet dealers.

Oh, and since my sister gets mad at me when I talk about hotness and such on my blog, I will post this particular notice of the Two Towers home video release without comment:

And finally, the quote of the day, from
Mark Goldblatt

Monday, April 21, 2003

Busy weekend. Saturday I was at the store for a while, bringing over some games I had picked up for resale. Then I went to Pat Cerm's 40th birthday party at the Columbus Club in Clifton Heights where I saw all my old "neighborhood" friends. I hadn't seen those people in a long time, and it was nice to spend time with them. There couldn't have been more than a couple other college degrees in the room (Joe Canamuccio and Olga, who are secondary schoolteachers, and Mike Cunningham) but I felt such a strong affinity with everyone. None of them turned out badly, every one of them is a decent person, and I was--in retrospect--very lucky in the environment I grew up in.

Sunday I went to my sister's house for Easter dinner. I had missed the whole war with her, an omission she blamed on me rather than her Everquest usage.

Friday, April 18, 2003

A Mighty Wind is my favorite comedy in a long time. I would put it a little below Best in Show or Waiting for Guffman because this time auteur Christopher Guest couldn't resist one moment of sweetness among all the brute force irony.

Guest's faux documentaries focus unmercifully on people who have absolutely no sense of self-awareness, which is what makes them so funny. It looks like in this one, the central Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara characters seem to have captivated Guest so much that he can't bring himself to give them the cynical smackdown that he sets the audience up for. But there is so much delight here that it hardly matters.

The cast, essentially the same group as in Best in Show, is hilarious. The standouts are Guest himself, doing a letter-perfect Art Garfunkel impression; Ed Begley Jr. as a smarmy PBS producer; Fred Willard doing the usual Fred Willard character, clearly making up his lines as he goes along; Piper Perabo, wonderfully perky and sexless; and Jane Lynch, who as usual manages to be both bland and intensely sexy at the same time.

And the music, crafted for maximum silliness, is much more effective here than the music in This is Spinal Tap was. And there are lines here that make me laugh every time I think of them: "There was abuse in my family. It was musical."

Monday, April 14, 2003

Inspired by a blog entry from my friend one_by_one, I have felt the need for a purgative list of things I hate.

1. One particular syntactical atrocity, "needs fixed," instead of the correct "needs fixing" or "needs to be fixed." I really, really hate that one, and you hear it everywhere, even from relatively intelligent people.

2. People who make puns out of the words "Ba'ath" and "Shi'ite" and think they're clever.

3. Unwritten etiquettes. In other words, traditions that people outside the circle of intimacy know nothing about but which are treated with quasi-religious reverence by those within it. Exhibit A: The whole Masters tournament green-jacket nonsense. I wouldn't wear that stupid green jacket under torture.

4. The shoehorning of contemporary beliefs and mores into our views of the past, both in drama and historiography. This would encompass everything from Marxist/deconstructionist academic history to having to put Morgan Freeman in a Robin Hood movie.

5. People who throw themselves in front of bulldozers and are surprised when they end up dead. As someone commented on the passing of Rachel Corrie, "Machine 1, Rage 0."

6. White rappers. Any and all.

7. The belief, never spoken out loud but enforced with an iron hand, that African Americans must be Communists, or else they are somehow inauthentic.

8. The city of Philadelphia.

9. People who love Fidel Castro.

10. People who say, or hint, that "we had it coming" on 9/11. You actually see as many of these creatures on the paleoconservative Right as you do on the Left.

11. People who respond to atrocities like 9/11 with calls for us to understand "why we are hated" and "the root causes of the problem." This is like saying that the root cause of the Jeffrey Dahmer murders was hunger.

12. The Church's recent reaction to the war in Iraq, which in my opinion crossed the line from simply advocating peace to defending and endorsing the Saddam regime, suffered from a credibility problem which unfortunately recalled the pedophile priest scandals: To me it felt like the Church was as eager to deny the sufferings of the tortured Iraqis as it was to ignore the teenage boys seduced by its representatives. I exempt JPII--who managed to express hope for peace without a pro-Saddam agenda--from this condemnation, but not some of his closest aides, who called the war "a crime against peace." "We all know," said the Pope, in a line ignored by most of the world press, "that peace is not possible at any price."

13. People who speak in slogans rather than in coherent thoughts. For many people the repetition of dogma is a substitute for the most rudimentary thought processes.

14. Tie Domi.

15. Jimmy Carter doing anything else but hammering nails.

16. People who drive all the way to the very front of a traffic bottleneck and demand to be let in, instead of joining the merged traffic when they were supposed to. When I see people doing this, I am always grateful that I don't own a gun.

17. People who get abusive with others over television shows. It's called a life, people.

18. Green tea ice cream. If you have never tasted this, just throw some chalk dust and milk in a blender and freeze.

19. Taxes.

20. The Dallas Cowboys. And by extension, Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders. Troy Aikman's work on TV has given me a new degree of respect for him but...what the hell, I still hate him. Did I mention Jimmy Johnson? Jerry Jones?

21. Brussels sprouts.

22. The appearance of O.J. Simpson on any television screen for any reason at any time.

23. Pit bulls. I like dogs, but the breed has become a symptom of a certain mindset more than it is a biological entity.

24. Too many recent Hollywood films to name. Not merely films that were boring, or which made no sense, or which were unintentionally funny, or which were vulgar and repellent. What I'm talking about here is the--for whatever reason--viscerally offensive. A quick list from the last ten years would include Shakespeare in Love, Cider House Rules, American Beauty, Amistad, The American President, The Sum of All Fears, and The Contender.

25. Jerky Boys-style phone pranks. I don't have any problem with people pranking celebrities and ridiculing their pretensions. But somewhere along the way it became a source of humor to take ordinary working people who are trying to make a living and feed their families, and screw with them. I would love to see any of these little punks try, even for a day, to do the work that the people they are making fun of are doing. I really, really, hate these bastards.

26. The massive body of laws and decrees and ordinances that we are subject to. We're approaching a point in society where pretty much everyone is breaking some kind of law at one time or another, a point where anyone can be picked up at any time by the government because there is a near-certainty that they have broken some sort of law, somewhere, somehow. End of libertarian rant.

27. Kate Moss.

28. Mean drunks. Drunks in general.

29. The way that certain black people can give "dispensations" to certain white people to act in a blatantly racist manner. The clearest example I can think of is way back when, training for the first Ali-Frazier fight in 1971, when Muhammad Ali went on this rant about how Joe Frazier was a "gorilla," and he had the entire crew of white camp followers chanting, "Gorilla...gorillla." Something, in other words, that would otherwise have created a massive commotion with all the usual Jesse Jackson demands for justice in the form of cash payoffs. We see this now in the way white liberals are permitted to describe Colin Powell and Condi Rice in language right out of the Aryan Nations syllabus.

More to follow...

Friday, April 11, 2003

Our order of Carnegie Collection dinosaurs from Safari arrived yesterday, to my delight.

Bob has wanted them in the store for a long time, as I have. My planned Cretaceous diorama that I've talked about here before keeps getting more and more ambitious. Along with the Reaper and Jeff Valent metal figures, I'm adding the dinosaurs from The Honourable Lead Boiler Suit Company in the UK, as well as 1/72 resin figures from David Krentz. I'm building the terrain myself, using Woodland Scenics fir and pine trees, grass, and faux water for a stream, along with wedding-cake palm trees , which work extremely well in that scale. My concern about including the Carnegie figures in my diorama is that the scale may not always match; but I think that with judicious repaints they may work.

Thursday, April 10, 2003

Okay, so in decompressing from the intense war stuff, my thoughts turn....well....

My five hottest female newsreaders/reporters during the last three weeks of war. Yes, even during wartime my mind still works this way:

Linda Vester, Fox News:

Jennifer Eccleston, Fox News:

Janine DiGiovanni, CNN:

Heidi Collins, CNN:

Rudi Bakhtiar, CNN Headline News:

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

So today I watched CNN in the lunchroom at work this morning with a bunch of other people as they took down the Saddam statue. My friend Sahra, who is a beautiful woman from Egypt, was even more enthusiastic about it than me: "I just hope that they finally killed [Saddam]!"

It was yet another war for which the market scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark was a metaphor: The Arab warrior blusters and threatens and waves his sword, while Indy just grimaces and pulls out his pistol and shoots the guy. (I wish I had thought of the metaphor, but I have to give credit to dfwgator on FR for it). I'm hoping that this one will finally cause enough soul-searching on the Arab street to cause a change in attitudes. I asked Daniel Pipes Monday night at his lecture, "What event or events might change the Arab mind?" And he wouldn't state a specific example, but gave two events that had that effect on other populations: Berlin in 1945, and Berlin in 1989. A profoundly violent one and a profoundly peaceful one. I think we have seen both today. The anguished reactions from many in other Arab states make me hopeful, ashere.

Amir Taheri says today: 'Here is the first lesson to draw from the liberation of Baghdad: Iraqis, and Arabs in general, are no different from other human beings. They, too, prefer to live in freedom and dignity. They, too, are grateful to those who come to their aid in their hour of need. They, too, reject the disease of anti-Americanism that prevents so many otherwise sane people from acknowledging that the United States can be a force for the good."

And my dear friend Luigi emailed me a picture from the front page of today's Corriere Della Sera.

I will go back to talking about shallow things at some point. But today is not a shallow day.

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

First of all, I love stories that are unspinnable. Stories that are so stark, so black-and-white, that they cannot be interpreted any other way than how they appear. The report of the liberation of the children's prison in Baghdad is such a story. It makes the other side--not only the Iraqis, but the most stridently pro-Saddam of the antiwar protesters, and the entire political leadership of France, Germany, and Russia--look very, very bad. They will do their absolute best to ignore this story.

I went to see Daniel Pipes at Swarthmore last night.

The specific talk was on the subject of the future of Israel and Palestine.

It was a fascinating evening. The audience was divided into three basic groups: The group that invited him, Students for Truthful Israel Representation, was apparently an activist pro-Israel organization of mostly Jews. I would never have thought that such a thing could exist on Swarthmore's campus, but the world is full of surprises. With many of them wearing yarmulkes, they made up about a third of the audience.

Another third was a group of Muslims and their sympathizers. They were the ones with kaffiyehs around their necks, the black women wearing the hijab. Not too difficult to miss.

The rest of the audience was, except for oddball townies like me, just the usual Swarthmore peaceniks, apparently dressed for a Phish concert.

Pipes was eloquent and direct, and had basically one message: Prevailing understanding of the issue is that the Arabs have accepted the existence of Israel and the only problems in forging peace lie in specific modalities: Jerusalem, settlements, water, etc. This understanding is incorrect. On the contrary, there is a fundamental Arab rejection of the right of Israel to exist, and until this state of mind changes, there can and will be no peace in Israel/Palestine.

So the question and answer session reflected the makeup of the audience. Basically, the Jews asked supportive questions, the peaceniks asked cynical questions, and the Muslims asked hostile questions. The dramatic highlight of the evening was when a self-identified Palestinian challenged Pipes's terminology. How can you not call it an occupation, was the loaded question. When Pipes answered by pointing out that he had kept his own language judgement-free ("I used the term 'violence' rather than 'the despicable act of blowing up women and children at Passover dinner'"). Of course the Palestinian took exception to this, and started responding, and Pipes dismissed him: "I'm not debating tonight."

Then one of the Jews stood up and walked over to the Palestinian, and said, "He SAID, he's not debating tonight." And the guy quieted down. At that point, you could see a lot of the peaceniks start to get all oogy inside, and several of them left at that point.

After the lecture, as Pipes was signing (he signed my copy of The Hidden Hand my favorite of his books), this woman came up to the Jewish guy who'd confronted the Arab. She had been sitting behind me at the lecture, where from time to time I'd heard her cluck-clucking under her breath.

"I thought you created a GREAT DEAL of NEGATIVE ENERGY in the room," she said to him, exactly like that, in that preening tone that can only be mastered by the truly self-righteous, "And that is NOT how we CONDUCT ourselves within the TRADITIONS of this University."

It was a glorious moment. One for the Self-Righteousness Hall of Fame.

A campus news report of the event is here.

Sunday, April 06, 2003


scha·den·freu·de Pronunciation Key (shädn-froid)
Pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.

[German : Schaden, damage (from Middle High German schade, from Old High German scado) + Freude, joy (from Middle High German vreude, from Old High German frewida, from fr, happy).]

To experience this emotion, click here

I've also spent part of today watching 3 hours of the great Bernard Lewis on C-Span 2's Books and Authors weekend program. It's fascinating to watch an 86-year-old man still at the top of his abilities, slapping away loony Wahhabi callers who hate him more than anything. His Wahhabist critics cannot deal with him on any real level, and can only resort to incoherent, tearful sputtering, as with the notorious Edward Said piece published last summer.

Another of my favorite authors, Daniel Pipes, is lecturing at Swarthmore tomorrow night, and I will be there.

Today, as I was watching crappy trailers to upcoming crappy movies, I was thinking about how unimpressive they were. After watching the 3rd Infantry's road trip through downtown Baghdad yesterday (with an amazing kill ratio of 3000 to 1)...

...the standard Hollywood action movie looks silly and contrived. A full, continuous screening of the entire two-hour excursion around the city would be a million times more interesting. The movie I saw today--Phone Booth--is hardly worth discussing. If I had known going in that Joel Schumacher had directed it, I wouldn't have gone at all. Colin Farrell is entertaining as always, but the script is full of false, hollow moments and characters--the usual crap, as Richard Grenier used to say.

Thursday, April 03, 2003

I saw Miyazaki's wonderful Spirited Away tonight.

I found it the most coherent Miyazaki yet. It's visually stunning, like all his films, but I actually started to get what he was trying to do. I don't always do that with Miyazaki films: Princess Mononoke, though hypnotically beautiful, went right over my head. But Spirited Away is much more accessible, a straightforward story of a young girl who stumbles into a fantasy world. In many ways it's the most ambitious and literary Miyazaki yet: The central metaphor of a child trying to interpret the grotesqueness of the adult world is vividly drawn with one unforgettable image after another. The blatant obviousness of the allusion recalls Kafka; some of the images in the film are right out of Dali and Henri Rousseau. I loved this movie.

Tuesday, April 01, 2003


One of the consequences of my obsession with the current war is the unavoidable linkage with North Korea. We all remember the run-up to the Iraq war, when the taunts from certain quarters were all the same: "So why don't you attack North Korea, huh, huh? They're bad. And they have nukes. So why don't you attack them, huh? Huh? What's the matter, scared?" For several months we were treated to policy analysts sounding like nothing so much as extras from West Side Story.

With that as a background, it's been interesting to see the immediate political fallout in that region from the Iraq war: China, after months of American requests, finally cut oil supplies to the Kim Jong Il regimefor a few days in the immediate period before the war. This, the very first sign of local pressure on Kim from his supporters in China and Russia, has not had any apparent effect on the regime's behavior, as it still issues weekly threats to incinerate its neighbors the same way that municipalities issue trash pickup bulletins. Meanwhile, President Eraserhead has not been seen in public for 47 days and counting.

What all this means is that Kim may be too far gone to listen to reason, as much as we would prefer he would. Because of the very real risks to the civilian populations in the region, war is certainly not the preferred option here. But I get the feeling that Kim looks at Iraq and sees an example that doesn't apply to him: He has nuclear weapons, and Saddam doesn't, and that makes all the difference. So Kim continues to bluster and continues to prepare for war.

And I've been thinking--while praying it doesn't happen--what that war would look like.

The first and most important order of business in such a conflict would of course be the problem of Kim's nuclear weapons, which is always a question of delivery. Having nukes is a great deterrent--as long as you can reliably deliver them. The performance of the third-generation Patriots in Iraq gives me hope on this score, at least with nonballistic surface-to-surface missiles of the type that NK produces and exports. And it would not surprise me if we could rush airborne lasers into service as needed for the problem of ballistic missiles.

The only other possible delivery method for Kim's nukes would be by aircraft, and here again Kim would have a problem. The North Korean air force is old and creaky, and its pilots are extremely poorly trained according to most reports. They would face a full array of opposing aircraft. From the USA they would face multiple carrier groups, plus the USAF's 8th Fighter Wing, based in Kunsan, South Korea (which has just today announced the addition of a permanent F-117 component). To this we would add the hundreds of combat aircraft from South Korea and Japan that would participate. It's extremely unlikely that any of the old Ilyushin bombers in the NK inventory would make it very far.

So I think the immediate nuclear threat from Kim is overrated. But Kim also has a very large conventional army with a very large artillery component less than 50 miles from Seoul. And the scenario of massed artillery fire on Seoul is very scary. However, in an environment where your opponent has air supremacy, massed anything is just a big target. The ammunition dumps that service any "mass" of artillery mean, essentially, that we can count on seeing the most spectacular secondary explosions in history.

I think a conflict with NK would look very, very different from the one in Iraq. There would be very little ground component to it until the very end. We would use the several thousand combat aircraft in the region to pound NK horribly and relentlessly day after day, week after week. It would be very ugly for them. The blunt, unspoken reality would be that there is no "Korean street" to worry about, and there would be less restrictive rules of engagement for the conflict. Bunches and bunches of civilians would die. It would not be too bad for the Americans--unless a nuke sneaked through. Then it would get really, really ugly in ways I don't want to think about.

Which is why I think that at some point China will step in even more forcefully than they have up to now. I cannot see China intervening to save Kim. They might be willing to fight us over Taiwan when they feel the time is right, but risking their infrastructure over a madman like Kim would be insanity. A unified, capitalist Korea would just be a bigger market for their products--they have to know this. A remilitarized, nuclear-armed Japan--which would be another inevitable consequence of Kim's continued presence in Pyongyang--is not something that the Chinese would want, ever.

So this is why I think the scenario that makes sense is the one where China tells Kim: Not only will we not save your ass, but we will actually help the Americans kill you. Leave now and you'll live. President Eraserhead leaves, Korea unifies, China has more consumers for its dollar-store crap, Japan stands down, and, as part of the negotiated settlement, the Americans remove all their troops from the Korean peninsula. Everybody wins.

But history doesn't always follow a logical path. So I worry.

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