Der Kommissar: The Introduction to The Cold War and Pop Culture

“Dreh dich nicht um, schau, schau,
der Kommissar geht um!
Wenn er dich anspricht
und du weißt warum,
Sag ihm: ‘Dein Leb’n bringt dich um.’ ” [1] – Falco, “Der Kommissar” (1981)

Falco, in a mix of guttural Austrian and English, sings about how Der Kommissar is “out and about” and he has power to fuck your world up. This Kommissar references the poli-mil position within the Soviet Army that was responsible for ensuring the regular Soviet military forces and the citizens within the Soviet Army districts stayed good communists. When this song came out in 1981 the Cold War was on its descent of its arch through history [2] and I was a middle school student in Germany. At the time I didn’t know what these Austrian lyrics meant… but I knew this was a catchy New Wave tune that me and my fellow Army brats were rocking to… as much as you can rock to the weirdness that was Falco and Germanic New Wave.

The Cold War permeated my childhood since I was the son of a US Army soldier. My early years through the beginning of junior high were based around having a dad you deployed for REFORGER [3] exercises and the constant bomb threats and warnings my school in Germany… Frankfurt American Junior High School… received. In the 1950s it was the Red Scare and the fear of the “Godless Communists.” [4]  In the 1960s it was the Domino Theory and Vietnam. The 1970s was when the Cold War seemed to compete with dueling American political and military priorities of oil, Middle East tensions, and the eventual rise of Islamic terrorism, which was ideologically different from communist/marxist terrorism. In the 1980s… my generation had President Reagan, American Cowboy diplomacy and the posturing of technologically advanced military weapons systems like the Apache attack helicopter and the M1 main battle tank to counter the numerically superior Soviet military forces. My generation, Generation X, got to enjoy the Cold War through the prism of MTV and Hollywood. My generation got to enjoy Falco singing about Soviet ideologues, [5] a weird Genesis video that had puppets, and Patrick Swayze kicking some Cuban and Soviet ass in Red Dawn.

Red Dawn was the epitome of Hollywood’s attempt at mixing American nationalism and the Cold War. Hollywood has always been a mix of flag waving and political liberalism… as if it knows exactly what Americans like and that they want to be entertained at stupid and visceral levels. On one hand Hollywood gave us Dr. Strangelove which is a perfect example of the mix of satirical and serious, and on the other hand, Hollywood gave us Red Dawn… which is a mix of adolescent fantasy, and at the time, explicit war porn. Red Dawn was a movie that not only made me feel proud to be an American… but it also made me want the Soviets to invade so I could fight them like some 1980s version of the American Revolution colonial fighter… I was ready to kick some communist ass in 1984.

Unlike some Hollywood movies… like Dr. Strangelove, Red Dawn has not aged well. It is simplistic, poorly written, poorly acted, and completely unrealistically. Patrick Swayze swaggers through this movie with a grimace and a level of pissiness that was only matched by him in this “unforgettable” scene from Dirty Dancing. Red Dawn and Patrick Swayze sucked… sucked so bad that almost every serious scene causes me giggle… yet I love Red Dawn. This movie is a link that connects the period of my life when I thought shit like killing Cubans and Soviets was what I was called to do… by God of course… this movie made me what to be a badass. This movie with all its nationalistic flag waving and high school sport star worshipping was exactly what I thought life should be like… I should have been allowed to go out there and defend my country… cause we all know that there is nothing more dangerous than a teenage boy and a gun… and I was ready to be dangerous.

Now Hollywood has gone and remade Red Dawn and named it Red Dawn (2012).  Yep… it is as poorly written and acted as the original. It’s cast of actors seem as stupid and grimacy as the original cast, yet none of them compare to Swayze’s pissiness. Instead of the nasty Cubans and Soviets of the original, the remake has North Korea occupying the Pacific Northwest… and we are also told that the Russians have occupied the “eastern seaboard.” Originally when filmed, the enemy occupation forces were the Chinese, however, due to fear of pissing China off… through the miracles of CGI… the occupation forces were identified as North Korean. Homage is played to the original with little and big things such as the use of a large blue pickup being used as the escape vehicle and the use of an old World War II code playing the background “the chair is against the wall.” [6]  The remake contains a significant portion of the original with fathers being executed, certain Wolverines being implanted with tracking devices… and the famous scene of Wolverines rising from spiderholes and killing the enemy with a well planned ambush using a little Wolverine temptress. One of the true drawbacks of the remake is the actors. Josh Peck plays Matt Eckert (Charlie Sheen in the original)… and his constant pout made me wonder if he was sporting a small dip of Copenhagen the whole film… additionally the limited range of emotions he displayed seemed to be as if he needed to take a dump the whole time North Korea was running roughshod over the state of Washington.

Basically, the Red Dawn remake seems to be an attempt to tap into the vein of the present day American angst… Amurika!… I want my country back!… over the economy and the fear of China’s supposed rise… even though North Korea is used as a surrogate.

The Cold War was constantly played out in the same manner when everyday language, actions, and thoughts were peppered with fear and propaganda of the supposed coming of war with the Soviets. When this supposed war with the Soviets was looming I was rocking to Falco and dreaming of shooting commie bastards with a deer rifle and snuggling with Lea Thompson around a campfire. In retrospect, the Cold War during all of its decades affected pop culture in numerous ways and this post is the first of many that will be a quick look at how our fear/anticipation of a war with the Soviet Union affected our daily American consumerism and culture… with a focus on television, movies, and music… WOLVERINES!!!!

[1] “Don’t turn around, look, look,
the Kommissar is out and about!
When he talks to you
and you know why,
tell him: ‘Your life is killing you.’”

[2] Unbeknownst to both the Soviets and the Americans

[3] REturn of FORces to GERmany was an annual US military exercise that trained and prepared for the what was believed to be the Soviet invasion of western Europe… US military planners assumed that one of the main axis of advances the Soviet Army tanks would take would be the Fulda Gap, which was an area between the former East Germany border and the West German city of Frankfurt. The Fulda Gap contained two lowland corridors that was the perfect geography for the maneuvering of heavy tracked military vehicles.

[4] This was also when the US government decided to put “In God We Trust” on everything official… a propaganda tool to battle communism instead of actually having any historical basis on supposed Christian views of the Founding Fathers.

[5] Some of us never took the time to think about what this song was about or how it might affect us… others dreamed of fighting the good fight.

[6] Interestingly, this code is played on a radio in another Hollywood classic war movie The Longest Day and it is part of the code that was broadcast to the French Resistance to inform them that the allied invasion of France was imminent.

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I was raised a Campbellite or why I don’t have faith in “Faith”

Growing up, I had questions about the Bible and I got the response of “faith” when it was not answered directly from scripture. Faith may be good enough for those that settle for answers provided by those that don’t know… it was never good enough for me. Fortunately or unfortunately, I am an iconoclast… a questioner… suspect of authority and the sources of power. I’m not a conspiracy theorist… but I am a person that has determined that the reason for certain things is very simple: control and power.

When I discovered there were “other” books of the Bible that weren’t included in our holy King James version, I asked who decided what “books” were included and why were the other “books” excluded. The answer I received was simple… “the Bible is the literal word of God and those other books were not the word of God.” That is not an answer, yet no one in positions of authority in my church was ever able to answer me. As an adult, I found out that the “books” of the Bible were determined by Emperor Constantine… well actually Eusebius (a Roman historian and a guy who liked to argue1) who Constantine empowered. This first collection of the Canon of Scripture was printed and later was standardized by some of the first ecclesiastical councils in Hippo Regius (393 AD) and at Carthage (397AD)… both in North Africa and both of them nearly 360 years after the death of Jesus. No one making the decision of what was the standard Bible had ever lived in Christ’s time.

These “books” were determined by the following criteria:

  • prophetic authorship – the book must have been written by an apostle or prophet… or one who had a special relationship to one an apostle or prophet… which was determined by Eusebius and the councils.
  • witness of the spirit – the book had to have an inner witness to the Holy Spirit… because God’s people could distinguish between “wheat from chaff.”
  • acceptance – the final test was that the “people”of God accepted the book… Eusebius being the first Christian to accept it of course.

So historically, the Bible was originally determined by a historian and then accepted as the standard by a group of Christian leaders nearly 400 years after Jesus’ birth, and accepted by criteria as noted above. This criteria based on historical authorship, witness of the Holy Spirit2, and general acceptance seems to be very subjective. I was never told these things… I had to discover them later. Faith wasn’t the right answer… because there was an actual answer.

When I asked why we used the King James Bible, I was told cause the good King James wanted to enlighten his subjects. This too was the wrong answer. King James had the Bible translated to get rid of the Geneva Bible which was the accepted version at the time in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. King James was a devout believer in the “divine right of kings” and the Geneva Bible, with its marginal notes, questioned many concepts of the orthodox religion of the time… which included the “divine right of kings.” King James believed his subjects should suffer in silence and historically, King James was a known homosexual, dabbled in bestiality, and supervised the torture of some of his subjects. Additionally, the original King James Bible included the Apocrypha books which a bunch of Dutchmen excluded in 1618 at the Synod of Dordrecht in Holland. Again, I was asked a question that no one could answer… yet had an answer.

This Bible – based on a Roman historian’s determination, standardized by men nearly 400 years after Jesus’ death, and translated by an asshole – was the book of my religious youth. This book was exactly what my ancestors wanted to return to… a “primitive form of Christianity.” My church of my youth was a church of the American Restoration Movement. I was raised a Campbellite… it wasn’t until I was an adult and did a little research that I found out I had a name… and it wasn’t protestant.

It seems, that right after the American Revolution there was a desire among certain Christian congregations and sects to return the American protestant Christian to a primitive religion that was based solely on the King James Bible’s New Testament… these congregations were among the Baptists… which started calling themselves Separate Baptists and they rejected the idea of creeds (like the Nicene Creed) and wanted to structure their churches on nothing but the King James version of the Bible. This movement took firm root in the rural and frontier areas of America, especially the south. There were two prime movements within this idea and they were the Stone and Campbell Movements.3

My church came from the Campbell Movement, which originated out of Pennsylvania. Unbelievable to many a Restoration protestants today (and me)… the Age of Enlightenment had great influence on the Restoration Movement and Thomas Campbell (head of the Campbell Movement) was a student of philosopher John Locke… and Campbell basically wanted a church that reduced Christianity to a set of essentials that all reasonable (common?) persons could understand and agree.

For awhile the Stone and Campbell Movements merged, but split later in the 1840s which led to today’s separation in what we call Church of Christ and the Christian Church. Both of these denominations are subject to no governing body, and each individual congregation is independently run.

What I remember of the preachers of my youth was that none of them were religiously educated… why would they be… the church they shepherded was one based on the Bible and Bible only… who needs a theological education when all the answers were in the Bible. There was no need to understand the history of that specific denomination or Christianity as a whole… historical facts had caused the birth of these specific (and independent) churches… yet these churches by the 1970s and 1980s had forgotten what caused their historical development… and no one knew how the Bible had been determined. The churches of my youth had been born of a “sinful and animal loving” power-hungry king from the 1600s and used a Bible that had gone through numerous revisions… including a revision by a bunch of wooden shoe-wearing Dutchmen.

“Faith” is what I was told as a child. I have no faith in the word “faith” and I trust no organization or movement that is based… historically based… on the concept of ensuring “subjects” suffer in silence. I have no faith in a foundational document that is determined by a small group of powerful men who never knew Christ or knew anyone who lived in Christ’s time. I do, however, have confidence in my ability to read, research, and find facts4 over bullshit… so I guess I didn’t need faith… I just needed to be educated.

1. People who like to argue about important things are called “polemist”… who knew I was a polemist?

2. When Constantine was ordering Eusebius to standardize the books of the Bible, he was also convening Christian Bishop councils to determine important matters. The First Council Nicaea dealt primarily with the issue of the deity of Christ, but the general notion of the “divine three”… the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost… did not become doctrine until the Council of Constantinople in 359AD. This council was convened by Roman Emperor Constanius II.

3. Puritanism is a form of restoration and primitive Christianity movements.

4. If you think I am full of shit on any of this… do your own damn research.

There are no war stories left (A Book Review)

I devoured books about war when I was a kid. I have mentioned before about my experience in purchasing Third World War: The Untold Story by Sir John Hackett in 1982. This book is the first “war” book I remember reading and I was 12. Since then I have consumed war books with a ferocious appetite. Novels about war lost their luster, fiction in general has lost its luster with me, war fiction really seems to lack the punch that historical accounts and personal memoirs provide. Life is far richer than fiction. The following (and well written) quote is from Eugene Sledge’s World War II memoir… his book With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa is one of the best of personal accounting of war and the effects of war on men.

NCO as he came by what a mess I was digging into.
‘You heard him, he said put the holes five yards apart.’
In disgust, I drove the spade into the soil, scooped out the insects, and threw them down the front of the ridge. The next stroke of the spade unearthed buttons and scraps of cloth from a Japanese army jacket in the mud—and another mass of maggots. I kept on doggedly. With the next thrust, metal hit the breastbone of a rotting Japanese corpse. I gazed down in horror and disbelief as the metal scraped a clean track through the mud along the dirty whitish bone and cartilage with ribs attached. The shoved skidded into the rotting abdomen with a squishing sound. The odor nearly overwhelmed me as I rocked back on my heels.
I began choking and gagging as I yelled in desperation, ‘I can’t dig in here! There’s a dead Nip here!’
The NCO came over, looked down at my problem and at me, and growled, ‘You heard him; he said put the holes five yards apart.’  (p. 302.)

Eugene Sledge went on to be a biologist and college professor and his memoir was one of the many that were used as the basis for HBO’s miniseries The Pacific. This scene from the final episode of the miniseries is so extremely telling of the horrors of war (and some veterans’ inability to explain their experiences to others) that one has to wonder how humans survive in its wake. If Eugene Sledge post-traumatic stress breakdown after the war, as depicted here, was fiction… one would find it difficult to find better fictional prose… unfortunately it’s not fiction.

Sometimes, however, war memoirs fail. Sometimes, regardless of the authors intent, war memoirs tell us nothing new. Matt Bissonnette… “Mark Owen”… recently broke ranks and wrote a memoir of his time as a SEAL and recounted his participation on the SEAL raid in Pakistan that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden. No Easy Day is Bissonette’s attempt to bring to light the dark and shadowy world of special operations… in an unclassified manner. What Bissonnette provides is nothing new or enlightening. Here is what one learns (whether true or not) from reading No Easy Day:

  • SEAL selection and training is really hard. This would be interesting if there wasn’t already a list on Amazon named “Top Five Books on Navy SEALs.”
  • SEALs kill with little remorse. The human anguish of killing is glossed over and stands in stark contrast to the books considered classic in the war literature genre. Arguably, Eugene Sledge’s book and Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War are considered classics because of how brutally honest they are.
  • SEALS, like other overly masculine professionals, like to play practical jokes on one another. Humor in the macabre and humor in the moments of dispar have always been the life boat of sanity… Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is a wonderful example of the humorous and insane aspect to war.
  • SEALs, like all Americans, have grown weary of war. Obviously, the men and women who do the fighting and dying are the most eager to see the end of war.
  • War… like life, but only magnified… is a mix of experience, education (training), and randomness.

This is a typical paragraph from No Easy Day:

I couldn’t sleep. I’d spent the last couple of hours trying to get comfortable. But I found no peace on the hard mattress or in my own head. It was go day, and there was no getting around the significance of the mission now.

This isn’t good writing… this isn’t good war writing… this isn’t even good war reporting. Where Eugene Sledge let you feel it… Owen/Bissonette bores you. War is random, yet Owen/Bissonette can’t even make you feel the random pain, fear, and hurt of war with his writing. Other reviewers, however, seem to like the book.

One reviewer from the Associated Press said that the book is a “… remarkably intimate glimpse into what motivates men striving to join an elite fight force like the SEALS – and what keeps them there.” Okay, but hasn’t that story been told before? The Los Angeles Times called the book “… brisk and compelling… “… maybe “brisk” is code for elementary and lacking in voice. The Washington Times states that the book gives a “… feel for the sights, sounds and emotions of the raid… ” which may mean that there really wasn’t much to the raid other than the significance of the target.

Seems I am not the only one lamenting the absence of the great novel on the last decade’s wars. The Atlantic’s “Where’s the Great Novel About the War on Terror?” which uses a quote from an Ernest Hemingway letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) when referencing war and stories:

War is the best subject of all. It groups the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get.

This article boils the problem of the lack of a good 21st Century war story to the point: “I wanted to go to war” stories are something the American reading public cannot or will not relate to. Sadly, I think this is true. We may have become so jaded that we can’t appreciate the poetry of war… or atleast understand the human emotional orgasm that is war. At one time I was a boy who enjoyed the guts and glory of gun battles, as I matured I wanted the historical view, and now I want the poetry and prose of the sad but true element of man’s violence… the violence that he visits upon his fellow-man… war after war.

One day a good… and accurate in feeling… war story may come out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan… unfortunately we must first wade through the obvious, trite, and simplistic. As Hemingway wrote “War is the best subject of all,” however, it takes a writer… a real writer… to take the subject and provide us with a story worth reading.