Tag: Vietnam

Men Landed on the Moon – I’m Depressed – another leg falls away from my world

Shot from 2001 a space odyssey - used w/o permissionThis morning I was scanning through Zite and found this article claiming that some guy had definitively crushed the “hoax” that men landing on the moon in 1969 was shot on the back lots of Hollywood.

A Fog of War or a Fog of Ethics?

Through our friend Esther Hanig we attended a showing of Errol Morris’s new documentary, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara. at the Kennedy Library in Dorchester on December 14, 2003. This documentary is an extended adventure into the historico-biography of Robert S. McNamara, most famous as the Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The movie intersperses close up head shots of McNamara (always shown off center) responding to questions posed by the interviewer (never seen, but clearly the director Morris) with historical footage and graphics illustrating events or concepts.

McNamara today at age 87 McNamara as Sec. of Defense ca 1966.
Photos appropriated from the New York Times web site

One of the most effective sections reveals McNamara’s role in the planning and execution of bombing campaigns during WWII under the command of Gen. Curtis LeMay. This bombing campaign attacked 67 Japanese cities. Morris uses historical footage of the results and then flashes the names of the Japanese cities with their populations on the screen immediately followed by the names and populations of similar-size American cities. In one night a fire-bombing of Tokyo incinerated 100,000 civilians. In the movie, Mr. McNamara tells Mr. Morris. “Lemay said, `If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.’ And I think he’s right. He — and I’d say I — were behaving as war criminals.” He asks, “What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?” (thanks for this quote to the movie review article “War and Never Having to Say You’re Sorry” by Samantha Power, Published: December 14, 2003 in the New York Times)

Later, covering the Vietnam War, Morris provides audio tapes of both Kennedy and Johnson speaking with McNamara about the war. These add more fuel to the argument that if Kennedy had lived that he would not have enlarged the US involvement. And, on the other hand, Johnson comes across as clearly responsible. No surprise there.

When asked during the post-screening discussion about why he waited for over twenty years to reveal that he had come to think the Vietnam war a mistake even while still Sec. of Defense, McNamara repeated his claim that as a former Sec of Defense he could not say critical things of the war policy because it would have been giving comfort to the enemy and endangering US troops.

This is a cruel bit of logic.

When McNamara left his position roughly 25,000 Americans had died and probably 10 to 20 times that many Vietnamese. By the time the war actually ended seven years later, more than twice that many had died on both sides. It remains a galling outrage that this man, so intimately involved with the development and prosecution of the Vietnam War, could be seeking absolution twenty years later. It is the minimum we human beings owe to each other that, when confronted with obvious wrong doing, we speak up. This obligation is all the more important for those in positions of power and authority. But, one of Morris’s points in his movie is that evil and evil doers are never quite so easily categorized as might be in an old Western movie.

The end of the post-screening discussions with McNamara displayed this point with fresh vigor. After the program was officially closed, McNamara called for a few more moments of the audience’s attention. He wanted to add to his call for work on developing and deploying a real policy on proliferation of nuclear weapons with a call for international standards for behavior by political leaders enforced by international judicial tribunals. Perhaps we might think of him in the dock for his role in the Vietnam War. Just as a small starting point for the prosecution: during the movie McNamara himself pointed out that more munitions were dropped on Vietnam during the war than all that were used in the European theatre of WWII. And, this, in a country that is just about the same land area as our states of Wisconsin and Minnesota and then, as now, one of the poorest countries in the world.

But, then, McNamara seems incapable of connecting the ethical dots in his own life. How can acknowledge that his role in the fire-bombings of Japan might be considered a “war crime”, his policy in Vietnam wrong, and call for international standards of behavior enforced by international courts??

PS: I highly recommend the movie. It is challenging and very well made.


Michael Crichton’s Congo and the Transformation of the Western Mind

Original Book Review/Essay  2/971


Michael Crichton’s 1980 pulp novel Congo opens with an introduction that is truly arresting . I quote here the first two paragraphs in their entirety.


“Only prejudice, and a trick of the Mercator projection, prevents us from recognizing the enormity of the African continent.

Covering nearly twelve million square miles, Africa is almost as large as North America and Europe combined. It is nearly twice the size of South America. As we mistake its dimensions, we also mistake its essential nature: the Dark Continent is mostly hot desert and open grassy plains.

In fact, Africa is called the Dark Continent for one reason only: the vast equatorial rain forests of its central region. This is the drainage basin of the Congo River, and one-tenth of the continent is given over to it – a million and a half square miles of silent, damp, dark forest, a single uniform geographical feature nearly half the size of the continental United States. This primeval forest has stood, unchanged and unchallenged, for more than sixty million years.”

This reader was gripped by his own ignorance of the facts and yet skeptical.  He could recall all those geography lessons of grade school. He had traveled a bit. But none of this brought enough confidence to bear for these first two paragraphs in this pulp novel not to send him off to his maps, atlases, encyclopedias, even the internet.

Mercator. Yes, that is the projection so familiar from grade school. It even sticks in the mind that one of its key features is that the latitude and longitude lines are straight lines.  This is convenient for rectangular pieces of paper, but it creates great distortions of area. This rectangular display of the surface of the nearly spherical surface of the earth produces a Greenland that appears almost as large as the US. The farther away you go north or south from the equator the larger this error becomes.

So, OK this Mercator, who on investigation in the ‘97 Grolier CD Encyclopedia, turns out to be a Flemish cartographer, Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594), produced cylindrical projections of a spherical surface.  This of course lead to this readers present state of misapprehension.

Well, let’s take a closer look at this matter. A few simple comparisons of territories that he has driven across will put this into better perspective (this reader does have a bit of trouble with abstractions).

So here is a chart neatly drawn up in tabular form (again courtesy of the above referenced CD encyclopedia). The data on Africa seems to hold up Crichton’s assertions. Hopefully the American reader (obviously of the East Coast persuasion) will find some suitable reference point to investigate the data for themselves. The India entry is just for fun and effect.

Area (sq. miles)
New England
New England, NY,PA,OH,IL
United States (continental)
Nigeria (most populous in Africa)
South Africa

What strikes this parochial mind is that the Mercator effect is at work even in our views of the United States.

Let’s investigate this a bit.

First a couple of numbers to illustrate my thesis. Texas is 801 miles north to south and 773 miles east to west.

By contrast, think of a car trip from Boston to Chicago. The American Automobile Association preferred yellow-line triptych calls this out at 925 miles. Boston to Washington DC is approximately 600 miles. Do these numbers and our mental images on the map jive?

Let me close this bit of geography with a historical note about Vietnam. During the Vietnam War I found it useful in political discussions, during my college days in Wisconsin, to point out that Vietnam is very close to the combined land area of the states of Wisconsin and Illinois . In this area the US government dropped as much munitions as consumed during all of World War II in all theaters.

mercator Mercator Projection (circa 1596)
robinson Robinson Projection(most widely used by National Geographic and others during the 20th centuryh until 1980’s)
Both maps borrowed without permission from geography.about.com  


Yesterday I was scanning through the New York Times and saw an article, “Latest Peace Hopes Thwarted on Africa’s Battlefields” by Somini Sengupta. It was accompanied by a series of maps, including this one: (text added by me)Congo_over_US_map










As for the balance of the 314 pages of this pulp novel, it’s entertaining…lots of gorillas and other beasts ………a page turner.

  1. originally published on markorton.com []