‘The Soviet Story’: To be continued?

The Soviet Story poster

Writer-director Edvīns Šnore’s powerful film, The Soviet Story, seems suddenly dated, overshadowed by current events. Or, perhaps, those events add deeper resonance to the film’s message. Different audiences will react differently. The release version I saw needed some fixing; through no fault of its own, it now needs a whole new ending in order to maintain a place in what is fast becoming “The Russian Story.”

As I write this, the West denounces the Russian invasion of Georgia and refuses to recognize Russian occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Though U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reminds Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that “this isn’t Czechoslovakia” (which the West sold out to Adolf Hitler for the illusion of “peace in our time”, then stood idly by while Soviet forces invaded in 1968 to reverse peaceful reforms), Red Army tanks continue to roll as they please. Putin nakedly threatens Poland and Ukraine, cuts military co-operation with the NATO defense alliance, and offers puffed-up “foreign threats” as distractions from festering domestic problems. An old recipe. Perhaps “things have changed,” as Rice said, but behaviour of ugly regimes toward their neighbours has not. Former U.S. national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski compares Putin to Hitler. A comparison to Joseph Stalin would have been more apropos. Both, according to the recent Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism, operated equally criminal regimes. The eastern half of the tandem, unchecked, carries on the old tradition.

Šnore’s film shreds the myth—still percolating in liberal circles, in the Hollywood “mentality”—that Hitler’s Nazis were the lone 1930s and 1940s evildoers. Based on meticulous, irrefutable research (facilitated by European Parliament deputies Inese Vaidere and Ģirts Valdis Kristovskis of Latvia), The Soviet Story demonstrates that Stalin’s Communists were natural partners-in-crime for the Nazis, sharing territorial ambitions (via the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, for example) and the same totalitarian (socialist) ideology. Both deployed vicious large-scale methods to crush domestic opposition: the forced Ukrainian famine, oppressive control of media, secret police, concentration camps for “undesirables,” and so on. Russian Communists were the experienced teachers, the Nazis eager pupils.

Doctrinaire Western left-wing “intellectuals” like George Bernard Shaw (Jean-Paul Sartre and others could have been mentioned) end up in history as propagandists and apologists for crimes against humanity. More could have been said about roles played by Western Communist parties (fomenting a civil war in Greece, for example, or destabilizing coalition governments in France and Italy), the Comintern, surrogates (like Cuba), and various “little wars” in Korea, Vietnam, Angola and on and on.

In the end, Nazi pupils were defeated. The teachers and their heirs, however, remain in control of Russia to this day, never challenged to reveal the truth of their programmed cruelty. The film missed one passing irony: at the Nuremberg “trial of the Nazis” (the losers), Western allies allowed their sleazy “partner” (Communist Russia) to sit in judgment of its former co-conspirators. Those Russian “judges” must have been laughing all the way back to the Kremlin.

There has never been a Russian Nuremberg. Should there have not been, after Russia decisively lost the Cold War? It is as though the Gulag (and its 20-million-plus victims) was a fiction, as if KGB batallions tasked to torture and murder as instruments of party policy never existed. Russians feel no guilt for barbaric acts like the Katyn massacre of Polish officers, for example, because they know little or nothing about them. (The recent passing of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and what he wrote as witness would have been another reminder.) Instead—as the film points out—we have KGB alumnus Putin moaning about the collapse of the Soviet empire as “an historical tragedy,” restoring Stalin’s hymn and re-establishing the red star as symbol for the “new” Russian army. (Those signals were barely noticed in the West. Peace in our time, again?) Russian murderers enjoy state pensions and brag about their exploits. The “new” KGB radioactively poisons whistle-blowers in foreign countries. This is hardly fertile ground for democracy.

Another nice end-piece for the film would have been Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s speech to the Canadian Parliament. He did not hesitate to say that the main reason his country—like Georgia—wants to join NATO is to eliminate the possibility of future Russian-inflicted atrocities. Prophetic. Not well received in Moscow, but truth never has been.

The film reminds us that Putin is hard-core KGB (pictures of him at a podium, intermixed with snaps of KGB crimes). But it fails to highlight other key links in the chain:

  • The organizer of the Ukrainian famine, Nikita Khrushchev, pounding a desk at the U.N. with his shoe, almost provoking a world war by stationing missiles in Cuba—but considered by Western experts to be a “liberal.”
  • Long-time KGB operative Yuri Andropov, later the “progressive” Soviet chairman, who while ambassador to Budapest co-ordinated the crushing of Hungarian resistance in 1956,
  • Mikhail Gorbachev’s foreign minister Edvard Shevardnadze, former head of the Georgian KGB, later overthrown as Georgian president due to corruption and excessive catering to Moscow’s wishes.
  • Gorbachev himself, a man British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said she “could do business with,” ordering bloody suppression of dissent in Tbilisi and Vilnius.
  • Putin, into whose heart George W. Bush once said he looked and found “a good man,” now pushing invasion. (Putin, too, must have been laughing all the way back to the Kremlin.)

Does it not, as police investigations of serial killers often establish, amount to a predictable pattern? We have short memories. They could have been jogged more forcefully.

The film does make the general point that anyone aspiring to join Russian leadership circles must come with “dirty hands” (as did hard-core Latvian Communist Boris Pugo, who is not mentioned), so that responsibility for ugly collective action can be shared. But The Soviet Story could have done a better job connecting dots from a bloody past to present-day adventurism. Was Afghanistan mentioned? I can’t recall. The never-solved murder of one dissenting Russian journalist was—but not the fact that 12 others also died in mysterious circumstances during Putin’s watch as president. No sense of Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” that rejected Putin’s selected (and blatantly supported) puppet-candidate. Yes, a hint of Russia’s “natural gas weapon”—fuel on which much of Europe’s economy depends (and so keeps politicians’ mouths shut when issues of principle hit the fan).

But without explanatory captions few North American viewers would recognize the faces of former French President Jacques Chirac and former West German Premier Gerhard Schröder (now a mouthpiece for Gazprom) in the crowd enjoying the Red Army’s “victory” celebrations. Come to think, why no mention of former Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga’s appearance—lone among Baltic leaders? How one could, in any way, at any time, “honour” Russia’s main instrument of oppression is beyond my humble comprehension. 

Other niggles:

  • A graphic, “bleeding map” point could have been made about bully Russia’s bite-sized thefts of territory from frightened neighbours: Karelia from Finland; parts of the Narva region from Estonia; Abrene from Latvia; parts of Moldavia from Romania; half of Kamchatka and the Kuril islands from Japan; now South Ossetia from Georgia, and so on. Apicture is worth a thousand words.
  • What about the cancer of Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg), injected into former Lithuanian, Polish and German territory? What about pushing Poland 100 kilometers to the west (at the expense of Germany) in order to create a subservient Belarus? Another pattern. Deposits of unwanted Russian colonists into “liberated” areas and then the need to “protect their interests”—another pattern. Russia has never been called to account for its expansionism and imperial ambitions, a theme this film should have explored more fully.
  • I may have missed it – but why no mention of the heroic Red Army standing by while Nazis decimated Polish resistance in Warsaw in 1939? This would have been a perfect sequel to a nicely documented segment about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its secret protocols. And that segment could have used a reminder about how long it took the new Russia to “discover” a copy of that infamous treaty in its secret archives, why the Russian public still has no idea and why its historians continue to deny the obvious.
  • Absent from the film is a clear picture of the extent to which, in former Soviet colonies, ex-Communist and ex-KGB cadres still hold positions of power or have morphed into cabals of respectable businessmen, often financed by earlier theft of state assets. Yes, this may have been outside the scope undertaken. But, if the film chose to mention Chirac and Schroeder, surely it could have given us some sense of times not changing quite as much as they should. at the local level. In other words, how free, really, is Eastern Europe? Latvian audiences, certainly, should like to see more about ex-Soviet apparatchiks walking around free in their country, and wonder why seized KGB archives have still not been opened to public scrutiny, as they have been elsewhere, notably in the former East Germany.
  • I would have welcomed a segment focused on Western stupidity—starting with British “peace in our time” illusions, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s weakness at Teheran and Yalta, American preoccupation with the Suez crisis while Russia crushed Hungary in 1956 (similar to our preoccupation with the Olympics while Russia attacked Georgia). And why no mention of another British sell-out: delivery of pre-war Latvian gold reserves to Moscow? (That event, if we have forgotten, came not so long after Russia extracted similar concessions from Spain in exchange for help during its civil war.) The Legion of Honour that France awarded to Putin would have been icing on the cake.
  • Why no mention of Solidarity and the Bulgarian (KGB subsidiary) secret service assassination attempt on the Pope?

All in all, the film could have made a sharper point about small Eastern European countries not being able to entirely trust the West—based on incident after incident—unless, as is the case now for a good number, they form part of a strong alliance (NATO). Would Russia have attacked if Georgia had been a member? Not likely. And it goes to prove, again, that trusting Russia to behave like a civilized nation is a serious mistake at any time.

When you watch a documentary like this, you wonder: What was the intended audience? Latvian exiles in the West don’t need reminders, this material is old news. Latvians in Latvia? Could be, if they still care enough. (The film was shown on Latvian TV, despite Russian pressure, and at the Occupation Museum in Rīga.) Perhaps European diplomats and bureaucrats are so ignorant of history that they need a refresher? Maybe (it was shown in Brussels). Some press comments from these circles seem to indicate a sickening sense of surprise, as though 50 and more years on they, too, had no idea, as though they resent having to wake up from stuporous decades of Russian-induced disinformation and propaganda.

But the general Western public is seriously disinterested, and wishes to remain comfortably in that condition. The Soviet Story will not be able to make an impact without substantial revisions. Perhaps this is a central flaw in the film’s character (and unfortunate timing): What was its intent? Strong on documenting Soviet-Nazi collaboration, it is weak on showing how our ignorance allows one unrepentant regime to continue its evil ways. Even Ronald Reagan, no great intellect, called it an “evil empire.” Can the film make us think otherwise? 

Here’s an unresolved technical problem: editing by Nic Gotham. The 86-minute private-screening version I saw (thanks to arrangements by the Latvian Embassy in Ottawa and the Ottawa Latvian Heritage Society) had been obviously cut for television, with typical transition headers every 20-30 minutes. But the same brooding introductory segment (featuring Lenin and then bits of Soviet atrocities) becomes repetitive and then annoying in a straight-through documentary. Two versions, please: one for TV, one for cinema. In the cinema version, space taken by “TV reloads” should be filled by covering some of the niggles mentioned earlier. Covering those niggles would have enforced continuity. 

Finally, a word about propaganda. The Russian ambassador to Latvia, having seen a few excerpts, characterized this film as propaganda. Inconvenient truths are often painted this way by people who have much to hide. Less understandable are Western voices who take a similar position. What is their problem? The fact that, after a half-century of uncontested Russian propaganda, we finally have a solid reply? That folks have to make a judgment based on facts?

If “Propaganda is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist” (Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, Propaganda and Persuasion), Šnore should proudly plead guilty on intent. Certainly he wants to change perceptions. Don’t we all want a more responsible Western response to the lessons history offers? On the question of content—the whole tactical panoply of selective truths, half-truths, lies big and small—Šnore is entirely innocent. He offers no deceptions. His collage of Soviet-Nazi similarities could have gone on for another hour. There is not a false note in it. There should be, as earlier comments suggest, more of a continuation theme, but that is a sin of omission, not commission, notable only because “things have changed.”

Sponsors of the showing I attended told us that general release of the cinema version is not possible in North America until rights have been cleared for some documentary film clips used. I understand that several Latvian organizations are raising money to make that possible. The Soviet Story will be shown as the Boston Film Festival. But I want to caution all involved, before exposing the as-is version (have they seen it?) to local audiences, that it is not ready for prime time. At a minimum, I would urge those responsible for fund-raising to take a closer, critical look before wholeheartedly embracing a flawed, somewhat dated product. At least conclude the film, I suggest, with footage of Russian tanks rolling in Georgia—over the caption “Again?”—to make it more immediately relevant.

That said, all of us should welcome this long-needed start to setting the historical record straight. Such efforts are never propaganda. I am reminded of Jack Nicholson’s line in A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth!” But Putin’s Russia aims to keep on distorting it. A proposed new Russian history text, designed to ruin the minds of future generations, will teach that the mother country has every right to exert influence and control in territories that once were a part of some greater Russian empire, with a view to annexing them altogether (again). If nationalist thugs are needed to put down minorities inside Russia and cause disturbances close by,  so what? Sounds like Hitler’s brownshirts all over again, doesn’t it? Triumph of the Will (a Nazi propaganda film by Leni Reifenstahl) is a distant memory. It shouldn’t be. It, too, should have been mentioned. The same dark forces it glamorizes so well are marching again. 

I like The Soviet Story for the effort it has (finally) begun. We need more like it. (When can we expect the commercial Western blockbuster that exposes the damage Communism has done, to counterbalance endless, formulaic exploitation of Nazi evil?) I salute it for destroying reams of Russian disinformation, whatever Moscow says. But it is far from complete in carrying out its mission—if some part of it was intended to alert us to present-day dangers.

An old Eastern saying tells us if you wait long enough by the riverbank, you will see the body of your enemy float by. I do not believe that we have this luxury of time, despite Russian male life expectancy falling by 10 years (to just 56, a Third World level) since the arrival of “democracy” in 1992. “The Russian Story” could also be a reminder—to Russians—that behaving poorly, and ignoring responsibility, invites deadly consequences.


The Soviet Story

Edvīns Šnore, director


Notes: In English. Documentary, 85 minutes, in color and black and white. Written by Edvīns Šnore. Narrated by Jon Strickland. Edited by Nic Gotham.

Comparing Latvia to Québec is false analogy

Why do academics inflict their particular, convenient analogies on the rest of us? Do they assume that ordinary people have no knowledge of history, that “plain folks” cannot draw proper comparisons? Do experts take it for granted that, just because they say so, “so it is”? Bafflegab nonsense is never acceptable. Even less so now, as Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga talks about important and controversial language-law legislation—if we recall what one Canadian government official had to say about Latvian “separatism” to begin with.

Years ago (in correspondence published in the Montreal Latvian Society newsletter Ziņotājs and elsewhere) I asked Canadian “unity” Minister Stéphane Dion to stop comparing a noisy minority trying to break the province of Québec away from Canadian confederation to national Baltic “separatists” (his label), who had “seceded” (his description) from the Soviet Union. The two cases are not even close, by any stretch of the imagination. Emotion-laden terminology fails to manufacture valid connections between them.

Québec, I pointed out, has never been an independent country. As a territory (then the British colony of “Lower Canada”), it willlingly joined the Confederation more than a century ago. Québec separatists were (and still are) trying create what never was. Latvia, in stark contrast, had been a sovereign republic, a member of the League of Nations. Latvians threw off Russian occupation to regain the natural independence they enjoyed before “the West” abandoned Eastern Europe to communism at the end of the Second World War.

Dion, a former university professor, was formulating clear “rules of separation” (for provinces) here—since Québec has a nasty habit of making up its own as it goes along. He drew parallels between Canadian legislation and “orderly procedures” Mikhail Gorbachev had set up to keep the Soviet Union cobbled together. Irrelevant. Latvians had no obligation to play by Moscow rules, designed to maintain a union imposed by force and terror. They simply took back what had already been theirs, what they had fought for and established, what had been stolen from them. They could not, logically, have “seceded” from an aberration they had never joined of their own free will. For an oppressed, occupied nation—which Québec can never claim to be—this was more than a procedural exercise.

I appealed to Dion to appreciate this difference between “may we?” legislation aimed at clarifying provincial options in a democratic confederation and a national imperative that rejects illegitimate invaders. Despite some singing and dancing in his reply, I believe that he recognized the point.

Latvia has regained independence. Dion no longer is a cabinet minister. But we never learn from history, even the history of arguments, so we are condemned to repeat the dance, this time in a minor but still-painful key.

During a sympathetic Feb. 23 Canadian Broadcasting Corp. news interview with Joe Schlesinger, Vīķe-Freiberga hailed “the success” of Québec’s Bill 101 in “reestablishing French in the public domain” as a precedent for Latvian language-law legislation. No serious qualifiers surfaced during a longer version of the piece braodcast March 6 on CBC Newsworld. Strange. Why this—how may we call it?—attachment to academic constructs that have no substantial foundation?

Surely Madame President knows that Canadian and Latvian (historical, political, ethnic) circumstances are not similar, that language legislation in Canada is a controversial exception, not a precedent to emulate. Her estimate of “success: is debatable—by Latvian-Canadians who lean toward local Anglophone communities, and by non-francophones within Québec (who see themselves as victims of Bill 101). The “public domain” she envisages is hardly national: it does not extend past New Brunswick (Canada’s only officially bilingual province), Québec (which is stridently unilingual French) and Ontario (mainly within the federal government in Ottawa). Most Canadian citizens do not accept any logical or moral justification for Bill 101. They see it as a constant irritant that pits one citizen against another.

Why, then, even mention it in connection with our own Latvian problems? Such offhand analogies compromise understanding of and damage good will toward our cause. This one is likely to make everyday diplomacy more difficult as well.

Start with the obvious difference, again : Latvia is a country, Québec a province of Canada. What a country does (for all citizens) and what a province does (for some) cannot have the same importance, or be measured with the same yardstick. National and regional “success” are two very different propositions.

Like any sovereign country, Latvia has the right to determine what its official language should be. (There is only one, and it is Latvian.) Latvia does not need to obtain approval from Moscow, or the European Union, in order to pass language laws, reconfigure its educational system, to “present a Latvian face” to visitors, and so on. For better or worse, the Latvian Parliament (Saiema) makes the rules, no one else. No elected regional assembly—in Vidzeme, Kurzeme, Zemgale, or Latgale—is empowered to issue challenges, or enact local exemptions. (We can discuss the city government of Rīga as a sad and special case, but that is another story.) In other words, there is no need to be defensive about what Latvia does, or explain it in analogies others are bound to misunderstand.

Canada is a confederation of provinces, Québec among them. The two official languages of Canada, equally enshrined in the Constitution, are English and French. (Neither one, therefore, cries out for “reestablishing.”) But equal, or “the same,” is not enough in this age of special entitlements. Any Canadian province may invoke an escape-hatch “notwithstanding” clause. It allows provincial legislatures to opt out of constitutional arrangements (for example on tax collection, health care or language) whenever they do not agree with federal policies, or feel that they must act uniquely for political reasons. The price of official unity in Canada, strangely enough, is this mechanism for potential disunity and discord. But there is no such mechanism in the Latvian Constitution, as the president knows. Latvia’s language law is not subject to any kind of “not in our back yard” disregard. It simply is. It applies everywhere. Respect it, or move on.

You will find no nation called Québec in world maps, or at the United Nations. Nevertheless, using the legislative loophole mentioned, Bill 101 declares French to be the “national” language of Québec, and gives it prominence (in signage, hiring practices, language of work, and so on)—evading Canadian constitutional guarantees. The rest of Canada, for practical purposes, is another country. Appreciate these details: traffic tickets are issued in French only; Anglophones must make special requests if they wish to “enjoy” court proceedings in English; there are no English road signs; Web sites must be mainly in French; software can’t be sold unless there is a French version; Canadians settling in Québec must send children to French schools; the civil service does not hire Anglophones; July 1, Canada Day, has been designated “moving day” by the provincial government, and so on. All this within a country where English is an official language. Worse, the federal government takes no notice. (In fact, it pushes acceptance of French, also known as “bilingualism,” in the rest of Canada.) The net result is that Anglo (and immigrant) Canadians in Québec are second-class citizens. This is hardly a precedent to applaud.

It is nifty, comfortable and assuring, however, if you are a unilingual francophone and wish to lead a sheltered “collective” life within provincial borders. Many do just that; for some this represents “success.” But consider the opposite dimension: 400,000 Anglophones have left Québec since Bill 101 became law. Hemmed in by nagging, petty regulations that promote the primacy of French at the expense of English, harassed by provincial language police (fondly known as “tongue troopers”), many who were not “pure wool” Québecois decided to pull up roots and start again elsewhere. These were not radicals, colonists or economic migrants, but ordinary Canadians who had lived and worked in Québec for generations. They had had enough. The steady decline of Montreal as an “international” city—once host to a World’s Fair and the Olympic Games, should not come as a shock. “Others” are not welcome there. The less they speak up, the better. The faster they absent themselves from provincial decision-making, the more comfortable local ethnically-cleansed majorities will be. Bill 101 does not “promote” French per se; it suppresses English (and all other languages) so that French can appear to be more prominent. Bill 101 flies in the face of equality as prescribed by national consensus. It is an aberration in a political culture that has otherwise been remarkably even-handed.

Latvia’s language law seeks to redress the ravages of brutal Soviet colonization (which imposed Russian as the sole “all-union” language in occupied countries as a key conveyor of rule “from the center”). That era is dead and gone (but not forgotten). It is now (again) our independent, fundamental right to underline and enforce the primacy of one natural national language, our own, to ensure its survival, to clearly make it the language of government, education and business, to insist on its use within the civil service and the armed forces—as similar legislation does in many western countries. Nothing is exceptional about this. Our law recognizes the right of minority groups to organize private schools, publish in their own language, and so on. But it refuses to consider, in principle, the creation of any acknowledged duality. More generously: it allows 40 percent of subjects to be taught in public schools in Russian. How “tolerant” must a nation liberating itself from lingering colonial influences be? How often should our language law be softened to calm those who refuse to accept basic principles, as Madame President has done twice by sending clauses back to the Saiema for “clarification”? (In this she has not quite been the Margaret “Iron Lady” Thatcher clone Schlesinger portrayed in his interview.)

Many of us cannot understand why the language of remaining colonists and their offspring should receive any public recognition, tax-paid support, or safe niche through a conciliatory back door. It seems like “peace-in-our-time” waffling to make these people more comfortable than they should be, or put off a harsher choice: conform, assimilate, or leave. Enough catering to privileges migrants cannot claim in other countries. These pretensions are even less welcome now, when “minority” children, for example, should be able to speak the language of the country (not province) into which they were born, where they reside by choice and, hopefully, aspire to become loyal citizens. If that is not their goal, they are free to move on. If parents want to use them as cannon fodder in a language war and thereby deprive them of a better future, that is their responsibility and burden, not ours. They will have no one to blame but themselves when willful ignorance of history comes home to roost—as in not qualifying for Latvian citizenship, say, which will be essential for taking out EU papers within a few months. Let us have no compromises on that score. Fervent nationalists though they may be, Quebeckers still need a Canadian passport. There is no escape from asking for one. Russian nationalists in Latvia may fall back on their “motherland” passport and enjoy whatever benefits it can provide. I can’t wait for a solid NATO and EU “control line” along the Russian border. Then, as they say, “let’s talk.” For real.

Latvia’s situation is not Canada’s. Moscow applied Russification to Latvia for 50 years. There is no comparable history of “colonization” here (apart from “creative community” fantasies). Latvia must restore the primacy of its one language. Canada has enshrined language duality. The Canadian Constitution says both English and French are good. Choose freely. Speaking and being able to work in both is an advantage. (Unless provincial politicians cater to paranoia, as they have with Bill 101.) But unhappy Russians in Latvia strive for a distinct identity. They are the “separatists” now. Their “where did it all go?” should be dismissed, because “it” will not return. A sense of proportion would be useful in making comparisons.

I am repeating myself, I know. Call it piling on, if you like. But we have to nail down differences in the interests of avoiding more public relations gaffes.

Bill 101 attempts to insulate a pampered minority (located in one province) from making choices, despite having its language safeguarded in a national constitution. Latvia’s language law reasserts (ever so gently) the natural rights of a threatened national majority—a mere 1.5 million still-unique people adrift in the “European sea,” encumbered by half-million sullen Russian-speaking non-citizens in their midst. Bill 101 protects a strong linguistic group (7 million out of 30-odd million Canadians) concentrated in one province—which faces no threat whatsoever—by discriminating against English, the national (and the continental) majority language. Latvia’s language law defends the only language this nation has. For Québec, France remains a linguistic homeland and sentimental umbilical. Russians in Latvia have their aggressive, pushy motherland next door. Latvians have no other connection, nowhere to go. They stand alone. Madame President knows all this, too.

Unlike the neo-colonial pretensions of Russians in Latvia, Canada’s duality is already a functioning living thing: the Canadian civil service employs francophones out of proportion to their national numbers, with senior positions designated bilingual; the proceedings of Parliament are conducted and printed daily in both official languages; there are, per capita, far more French immersion school programs in the rest of Canada than English-immersion programs in Québec; Ottawa does business in both languages, while Québec does not; Canada treats both “heritage communities” with equal respect, for example participating in Commonwealth and Francophonie activities; Quebeckers have served as prime ministers of Canada more often than politicians from any other group, and have safeguarded the interests of their constituency with great care; the Canadian Supreme Court maintains a near-50 percent complement of Québec judges. On and on. The Canadian public domain is a far different place than Québec’s—or Latvia’s. Some historians say that Quebeckers have enjoyed “success” in it far out of scale to what they have contributed to national unity. Russians in Latvia, meanwhile, whine and moan about lost privileges, and insist on contributing nothing but complaints and accusations. Canada is a working federation—yes, with its share of problems and disagreements. Latvia must shake off Russian influence in order to emerge, again, as a distinctive nation.

Does Madame President still want to suggest some kind of vague equivalency? Through a fairly meek language law, some concept of parallel “success”? I would counsel her to reconsider and tread with great care. All of Latvia is our “public domain”—no exceptions, exemptions, special rules. Unlike Canada, we cannot tolerate any double standard. Our survival, as a nation, is at stake. Québec’s, as a province, is not.

More than 200 year ago the king of France abandoned Québec (“some acres of snow,” he said) after losing a colonial war to England. (He did receive Martinique as compensation.) The following English administration, over time, did not impose assimilation, but allowed the (Catholic) religion, civil (Napoleonic) code and language (French) of conquered colonists to continue and flourish. If we cut to the chase, Québec has emerged—within Canadian confederation—far more vital, influential and secure than this king could ever have imagined. I invite comparisons of this history to constantly-occupied Latvia’s as Russian, German, Swedish, then again Russian, German and Russian forces imposed their “order” and their language on a small, beleaguered band of Latvians who stood in their place for more centuries than any North American colony. To late-coming outsiders, we were exploitable territory and workers held in servitude. To us, they were foreign invaders who applied force as they pleased. We can cry “occupation!” more times than you can count, but never-occupied Québec may not. We must deal with the results of crushing policies strangers have imposed on us just to maintain our existence, but Québec cannot envisage anything similar in its rush to self-promotion. And so we should disdain any claim of similarity. Our national self-respect demands pride and clarity. I say disdain not because we can’t use all the help and understanding we can muster, but because we should not ask for any of it under false colours.

It is true that Québec is not a province like the others. It is‘distinctive. I, too, admire its relentless resilience. But what it does to maintain selective distinctiveness, next to what Latvia must do to reestablish its own as a living, breathing whole, is a comparison between the privileged and the abandoned. We should have no romantic illusions about that. “Tolerance” in Québec, compared to what some push as “tolerance” in Latvia, are two very different beasts. Latvians have no moral obligation to tolerate oppressors, their heirs and sympathizers. The sooner we stop doing so, the better off we’ll be. And the better others will understand us.

There is another factor. Diaspora Latvians (through their collective strength in expressing a sense of necessary justice) have spent a great deal of time and energy making a specific case for overdue Western help. We have tried to illuminate our uniqueness—of history, place, time and circumstance—in a dossier that should not be cast aside for a careless media moment that, out of the blue, confuses issues. In real time, sentiment in the rest of Canada toward unending (Québec) French “aspirations” is less than enthusiastic. Latvian goals should not be coupled to this controversy in any way.

And still another factor: the constant argument of French-speaking Quebeckers has been that they are entitled to “special protection” (as per Bill 101) because their language is “drowning in a sea of English.” To that one can reply: it hasn’t drowned yet and, in fact, is stronger then it has ever been thanks to federal government policies and guarantees. Again, there is no comparison to genocidal Russian (and local quisling) policies that targeted the Latvian language and culture for eradication. We have no obligation to entertain a kinder, gentler version under the guise of human rights, or any formula that maintains the privileges of remaining occupants equal to (or even ahead of) those they have abused for too long. That would be gutlesness and suicide—and a fatal loss of self-respect.

Language, someone said, is oxygen. We need our intrinsic, undeniable share. There is no shortage of oxygen in Québec. It is not drowning by any measure. Latvians, on the other hand, may well be unless they reassert their uniqueness as they re-enter Europe. That will bring on another flood of languages—unlike anything Québec can (or is willing to) imagine.

So why does Madame President liken this special (provincial) case, an exemption from national norms, with our own (far more serious) problems, which the Latvian government is trying to correct with national norms? I’d like to know where the analogy lies. Is she suggesting that Latvia should treat its resident Russian non-citizens nationally as Québec treats resident non-Francophone Canadian citizens: provincially? How is this possible? Is the reverse perhaps that Latvians nationally need the same kind of “protection” francophone Quebeckers enjoy provincially? No comparison. Perhaps she envisages an eventual result: the exodus of several hundred thousand discontented Russians back to the floundering motherland Russian President Vladimir Putin has invited them to rebuild. Fine and good. Eminently desirable. But Latvia is nobody’s province any longer and should stop thinking and acting like one—as though faraway (perhaps too-familiar) “examples” may justify what we must do for ourselves, in our unique circumstances. Let us not coattail along on somebody else’s feeble excuses for discrimination when our self-determination calls for actions that are completely different and crystal-clear.

Maybe it was a dimwit speechwriter, a researcher too lazy to get past the first few easy Web hits and establish context for many kinds of language laws, or a “briefer” enticed by superficial similarities ahead of substance. Maybe, Madame President, it was your own experience and how you perceived things to be. Yes, there is enormous pressure to respond time after time. But, please, do not say in the face of overwhelming evidence that protection of Latvian in Latvia is (can be, should be) modeled on protection of French in Québec and in Canada. It cannot, and should not be. Shorthand like this, while handy for sound bites, is slippery and dangerous. Remove it from your otherwise excellent and inspiring repertoire.

Replays of faraway wars

“A man’s real possession is his memory. In nothing else is he rich, in nothing else is he poor.” So observed the Scottish writer Alexander Smith in “Of Death and the Fear of Dying,” part of his 1863 collection, Dreamthorp. To everything, the Good Book says, there is a season. And here—prepared by the ceremonies of November—the stormy, frozen spell between Christmas and Easter becomes a special time for memories. We fill new pages in a scrapbook entitled “the way it was.” Nowadays we add videos and electronic postcards to the archive that traces and illustrates our journey. As we re-sort, polish and treasure evidence of the past, we know that the future can never be the same. We will not be in it for much longer, other than as fading pictures and voices those who follow may recall.

This is our “private space,” and we tend it carefully, like a garden. Yet it borders on and is linked to “public space,” where major events change the directions lives take. “Authorities” track what happens there and select “officially important” highlights. When reflecting, we try to fit personal memories into this broader public display, but the two don’t always dovetail. We look for typical representations of who we are and where we belong in “common depictions”(of times, places, events), only to find that we have been left unconnected, adrift outside the mainstream. Or, we have been chosen to play background roles in somebody else’s story. Sometimes those stories do not ring true.

Most of us in the Latvian diaspora are castaways: veterans, refugees displaced from their homeland during World War II, a generation born during that time and later in exile, their descendants and heirs. Survivors. Forced to take a difficult road, here we are at the end of it. We could not carry material wealth along as we settled into new surroundings, but never abandoned memories and dreams. We transplanted and cultivated them. They keep resurfacing, like garden perennials do each spring. It may be thoroughly “localized” now, but our private space can never quite resemble the neighbour’s. How so? A search for origins and connections will give each of us a unique answer. I keep trying to stir (not shake) together these ingredients: travel “moments” that open doors to memory, November 11 experienced in different places, and the urge to find a fleeting glimpse of “us” in the vast array of films that serves as the public record of “our war,” World War II.

Omaha Beach

Spinning spiderwebs of salty mist, the wind whistles in off the Channel, where whitecaps break ranks and reform in rolling swells of grey chop. Swirling through row upon row of white stone grave markers that march to the horizon on a carpet of incredibly green grass in the vast, silent American war cemetery above Omaha Beach, a darting whisper of conflict long gone but not forgotten nips at the heels of passers-by. A crisp fall day in Normandy. Flags snap to attention, pointing east.

So this is where Robert Mitchum broke through German defenses at the end of The Longest Day. Opposite the cemetery gate, small varnished wooden crosses mark ruined positions and gun emplacements of Wehrmacht units who fought here. Simple inscriptions urge the visitor, “Denkmal” (think, remember). The slope up from the beach is less heroic than recreated on film in Corsica, but fields of fire down to it must have been just as murderous. Not one souvenir stand. No greasy hint of frites on the wind. No squawking, scavenging seagulls. Even tour buses, discharging hushed groups of pilgrims, seem humbled by the starkness of the place—discreetly marked, as though the French could closet away this constant reminder (and many more) of the price others paid for their liberation.

We first came to this region in 1993, less than a year before D-Day 50th anniversary celebrations, just two after Latvia reclaimed independence, and now—another 10 years gone, looking at those pictures—I realize that the past is always present, waiting to draw you in. If you have been to Brāļu kapi in Rīga, or the Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor, you will know what I mean. Many such places pull at us like conscience does, and we try to understand how they came to be and what they represent—as part of our own self-examination. That exercise is not on the agenda in Rio or Cancun.

This corner of Europe—Normandy, Belgium, the Rhineland, Alsace—lives in a time warp, rich in echoes of failed imperial ambitions and blood in the ground. So many statues and memorial sites, side by side, mark different eras of conflict. A few days’ drive takes you around from D-Day beaches to Bastogne, Dieppe, Dunkirk, Vimy Ridge (a World War I battle site), the giant hilltop “Denkmal” memorial above Rudesheim on the Rhine (from the Franco-Prussian War), Waterloo (from the Napoleonic wars), via Honfleur, where colonists embarked to build “New France” in North America; the dungeons of Chinon, where Joan of Arc awaited the “pleasure” of courtiers afraid to fight English occupation; the Abbey of Fontevreaud, final resting place of crusader Richard the Lionheart and his Eleanor of Aquitaine (later a prison for “unreliables” during the French Revolution); and all the way back to Bayeux and its famous tapestry, which tells the story of how Normans invaded England in 1066. Connections beckon at each crossroads:

  • Bayeux “leading lights” hate to be reminded that their proud city once granted the commander of occupying SS forces honorary citizenship. But there is no denying that it did—“to protect the heritage,” so the story goes. We have our own compromises to live with and explain.
  • Alsace changed “masters” three times in 75 years. Drafted by the French, an older brother could end up fighting the younger, forced into the Wehrmacht after each annexation. A total of 40,000 Alsatians lost their lives as “Germans” in World War II, most on the Eastern Front. Exploitation by invaders is a theme we know painfully well. We also understand “evacuation.” When the French government ordered 200,000 civilians out in 1939, Strasbourg became a border-post ghost town. Today it is home to the European Parliament. In the long run, nobody wins by force.
  • Tanks on pedestals at Arromanches and Bastogne stand as mute reminders of life-and-death struggles which they survived, but many did not. Do mechanical symbols of war distance us from human suffering? Maybe it depends on how just the outcome is. Eastern Europeans tore down hundreds of Russian “victory” monuments after the fall of the Wall in 1989. But the one in Rīga remains. Why?
  • The slope up from Canadian attack trenches to the crest of Vimy Ridge is gentler than Omaha’s, but one can picture the machine-gun slaughter just as well. Like a distant memory, the towering Vimy memorial awaits repairs while caretakers boast that their grass is “the greenest green” as they still pick bits and pieces of gear and soldiers out of the mud. We, too, must rebuild remembrance of our heroes.
  • Waterloo is an enigma: a museum, an “action” diorama, an artificial pyramid-hill from which you can see scattered farms and fields where key engagements took place, all so charmingly ‘rustique’ now, while the “hero” (but loser) of this battle lies under black marble in a central place of honour and national affection. Paris does not like to remember and learn from failures. Neither do we.
  • You will not find “Waterloo” among the Corsican Emperor’s triumphs, carved Roman-style into the circular mausoleum wall: final calamity cannot be allowed to tarnish a splendid record. The cost of “glory” must remain inscrutable. (Hitler spent some time contemplating Napoleon’s tomb during his one and only inspection of conquered Paris. Perhaps “victory at any price” is the only lesson he took with him when he left.) Lenin’s squat tomb in Red Square, complete with goose-stepping “honour” guards, is a similar, stunning mockery of history: the Soviet empire was never defeated, the Gulag never happened, a long-time KGB operative is president.
  • The French soft-pedal collapse and humiliation : amid much controversy (touched off earlier by films like The Sorrow and the Pity and Is Paris Burning?), it took them 50 years to open a Museum of Occupation wing at Les Invalides in Paris. It shows, delicately, how thin “Resistance” was and how deeply collaboration had put down roots during Nazi rule. This “our share of the blame” element is missing from the Occupation Musem in Rīga. But not from “The House of Horrors” in Budapest.
  • Associations flood together as feet almost tangle in the same tart Reisling vines Prussian soldiers must have marched through while the chairlift hoists you up to the Rudesheim “Denkmal,” a grieving woman, looking west across the Rhine for her lost sons, just as Māte Latvija looks down on the fallen in Brāļu kapi and remembers many more in distant, umarked places. The Irish riflemen’s signature chorus from the Sharpe television series sums it up: “King George commands and we obey.. over the hills, and far away.” We sing, “Es karai aiziedams…”

Women and children are always left behind when men go off to war, but North Americans cannot understand devastation the way Europeans do. Their cities and towns have never been reduced to smoking rubble, they have not lived in fear of a knock on the door in the middle of the night, enemy tanks have never rumbled down their streets, they have no idea how brutally demeaning “occupation” is. Europeans do know. Rooted in scarring, bitter experience, their anti-war sentiment is a genuine “never again,” not a fad or political posturing. Their world changed radically after 1918, 1945 and 1989. They have had to adapt and rebuild each time. If Americans, in their sheltered collective imagination, could multiply the horror of 9/11 million-fold, they would not portray that one attack as an historical “turning point,” as “war.” Or, in ignorance of suffering other than their own most recent, allow constant re-processing of emotional reaction to 9/11 for “patriotic” purposes.

The wind picks up and it feels better to face it than to hunker down. The blow that smashed ashore here in Normandy was aimed from Churchill’s bunker—the Cabinet War Rooms snug beneath Whitehall office blocks in London. (Another magnetic “must” visit, years earlier.) There one situation-room wall map featured a pin-and-red-string line stretched across a distant place called “Kurzeme,” frozen in time, May 1945. More points of reference: Dodging Russian torpedoes, we fled into exile from Liepāja to Danzig; then Allied firebombing of defenseless Dresden almost snuffed out the journey. Now the British have dedicated a statue to Air Marshal “Bomber” Harris, inventor of terror attacks on civilian targets, designed to “break enemy resistance.” Military types never let a dandy tactic go : they call it “shock and awe” nowadays.

The way it was

One “could it be?” face glimpsed through the crowd, yeasty aromas of fresh-baked morning bread evoking “that” boulangerie, snatches of familiar song from an overhead window…small moments we live and breathe prompt us to remember. To connect the dots again, to fill in blank spaces. Films are one broad-stroke brush we use.

Without, then, knowing what it was, I first saw the Omaha Beach memorial as backdrop to comedy. In a scene from If This is Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium, groups of American and German veterans stroll past (and oblivious of) each other, describing how they had fought during The Longest Day. Wrapped in American sentiment, opening and closing sequences in Saving Private Ryan unfold upon the same ground. Filmmakers know how to grab a good “frame”—physical and emotional—when they need one.

But, pulling back into perspective, can we find an all-purpose “grand” film, TV program, or “body of work” that satisfies our need to be “included”? Not really.

Two soap-opera TV miniseries (The Winds of War and War and Remembrance) aside, no single dramatized depiction of World War II attempts to show us “the way it was.” Such a project is bound to fail somehow (just as The Fall of the Roman Empire—elements borrowed and reworked in Gladiator—could not convey the grand sweep of ancient history). The subject is too big. It resists pinning-down. Characters who “move the story along” with familiar romances and intrigues get in the way.

What then? “Summaries” and documentaries, stitched together from newsreel (and propaganda) footage, with ponderous voice-over commentary, amount to a Reader’s Digest quick-hit: “Okay, I’ve had a look” at The War in Europe, The Air War, The Battle of the Atlantic. At somebody else’s “look.” At their severely edited selection of what is important to look at. (Implied by omission: We are not.) This formula is a profitable business known as the (pre-packaged) History Channel.

Nevertheless, in straight-up and “dramatized” versions, it remains a popular genre. We have “Inside the Third Reich,” “Inside the SS” and a host of other “inside” collages produced by folks who were never there. The German miniseries Heimat “captures a slice” more subtly. A parade of Hitlers has catered to our fascination with “evil”: “The Death of Adolf Hitler” (on British TV), “Hitler, The Last 10 Days” and, recently, “Hitler: The Rise of Evil.” (Listen for echoes as you enjoy the pork hock in Munich’s Augustinerkeller, where he delivered many rabble-rousing speeches.) And then contemplate: strange that an equally brutal monster, Joseph Stalin, has not received “the full Hollywood treatment.” (The British TV series Reilly, Ace of Spies offers some interesting early glimpses and mentions several Latvian “reds.”)

Which brings us to grappling with guilt and assigning blame, as in Judgment at Nuremberg (which never touches on the irony of Russian “legal experts” passing sentence on their Nazi co-conspirators). The Condemned of Altona was a minor variation on this theme, while Schindler’s List posits that “evil succeeds because good men do nothing.” In counterpoint, the fascinating Fatherland shows what life would have been like if the Nazis had won. We have forgotten Tom Courtenay’s Ivan Denisovich. Strangest of this lot is Pride, the life (and trial) of Japan’s wartime leader, Gen. Hideki Tojo. It argues that the imperialism he unleashed was “misunderstood” because it helped liberate India from British rule. But, then, the Japanese tolerate many shameful blank spots in their history books.

If not the grand sweep on a broad canvas, morality writ large, or sharper focus on forces embodied in maniac leaders, we look behind the scenes—at other major figures who made things happen. Biographies like MacArthur, The Desert Fox (about Field Marshal Erwin Rommel) and the blood-and-guts Patton add texture and character to events. The Last Days of Patton, with George C. Scott still in the role, was less relevant. Goering, despite the mini-series, remains a posturing mystery. Downmarket, PT-109 illustrated John F. Kennedy’s heroism in the Pacific; Hitler’s Commando featured the exploits of Otto Skorzeny (for example, his rescue of Benito Mussolini from Gran Sasso); Tony Curtis was a Pima indian, one of the Iwo Jima flag-raisers, in The Outsider. The life of Audie Murphy (later a cowboy star) depicted in To Hell and Back rates a mention because the hero played himself. Broodingly atmospheric (hints of Cabaret and Fatherland), Lili Marlene told the story of that legendary wartime song and those involved (not to be confused with Marlene, Maximilian Schell’s tribute to Marlene Dietrich).

Another approach concentrates on key battles, or “turning points.” Large-scale recreations, populated by all-star cameo casts, include The Longest Day (trumping D-Day, the 6th of June), A Bridge Too Far, The Battle of Britain, Tora,Tora,Tora! and Midway—all familiar and respectable. The less said about the recent, juvenile Pearl Harbor, the better. On smaller stages Anzio, Sink the Bismark!, The Bridge at Remagen (less imposing in life than on-screen), Battle of the Bulge (superseding Battleground) and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.‘s miniseries Dieppe illuminated decisive moments. In this category one strange El Alamein (in which, incredibly, Italians turn out to be the heroes) is very different from The Battle of El Alamein—actually created as a propaganda piece, so well done that footage from it was used in several commercial films. A European-made Stalingrad sank without a trace, but a new version has been released. Enemy at the Gates focused on a semi-ideological sniper duel against the background of that battle.

Not a glimpse of “us” yet. Certainly not in Days of Glory, Gregory Peck’s first starring role (and typical wooden performance) as a Russian partisan. Not in the John Gavin film A Rage to Live where, as a German soldier, he is shot in the back by Russians he has just saved from execution. Hollywood never came to grips with the Eastern Front. It is silent on the siege of Leningrad and the Battle of Kursk. We have seen the bombing of London many times, but never the obliteration of Dresden. We “know” the Gestapo and Nazi death camps, but the KGB and the Gulag have never been brought to our attention with the same relentless “dedication to truth.” Why this imbalance?

Hollywood does “capers” best and war provides a nice backdrop for them. The Dirty Dozen I-III (three different groups of misfits with Lee Marvin in charge), Where Eagles Dare, The Eagle Has Landed, The Guns of Navarone, Force Ten from Navarone, The Train (about stolen French art treasures), The Heroes of Telemark and the idiotic Kelly’s Heroes are typical. Cloak-and-dagger: The Man Who Never Was, The Counterfeit Traitor. Weekly Rat Patrol adventures on television amounted to “cowboys in jeeps”—but Americans never established long-range raiding parties in North Africa like the British did.

Escape from captivity is a specialty caper we understand well. The original in this genre was The Colditz Story. Stalag 17 won an Oscar for William Holden; the concept was later bastardized into TV’s Hogan’s Heroes. Worth noting: The Mackenzie Break (German prisoners try to escape from England), King Rat (George Segal as Holden in Malaysia), Von Ryan’s Express, The Hill (British army “problems”), The 49th Parallel (captured U-boaters try to reach a still-neutral United States across the frozen St. Lawrence from Canada) and, of course, the classic Bridge on the River Kwai. By far the most popular was The Great Escape, but GE II lost its way in murky sub-plots. Overlooked: the fine Australian TV series A Town Called Alice (women struggling for survival in Japanese prisons), and a British-Belgian TV co-production (the name eludes me) that showed, over many episodes, how dangerous it was to rescue downed Allied fliers and return them to England.

A war background allows the filmmaker to take dramatic shortcuts. We are presumed to understand stresses, asked to accept character flaws and behaviour that would normally be laughed at, to sympathize with relationships and conflicts that would otherwise be second-rate. This is the realm of commercial war films like Battle Cry, The Naked and the Dead, In Harm’s Way, Never So Few, Fireball Forward (a remake of Armored Command), Away All Boats, The Devil’s Brigade, The Young Lions (moral pepper added) and the typically American pre-war From Here to Eternity. From angst, simple plot lines; in war, easy resolutions.

But formulas, distilled down to essentials, can produce more than ordinary results. The best of these—“war is hell”—is exemplified by films like The Big Red One, Hell is for Heroes, The Thin Red Line and Sam Peckinpah’s excellent, gore-soaked Cross of Iron (based on Willi Heinrich’s books). I know of no other instance in which an American director and an international cast have combined to interpret German source material so well (but beware of stripped-down, “edited-to-fit” versions). Within this category—also known as “how groups of men bond to deal with conflict”—Saving Private Ryan and Steven Spielberg’s mini-series Band of Brothers stand out. The second is remarkable for an episode in which Americans casually murder German prisoners, the first time this has been openly acknowledged. Although occasionally predictable, the long-running TV series Combat should be respected for many sharp “slices of reality” (and the array of guest stars that, over time, amounted to an acting “who’s who”).

The same category gains intensity when action is confined to men trapped within a particular war “platform,” notably submarines and airplanes. There is no bailing from either one. Difficult choices confront us, like them or not.

I would rank the German Das Boot as one of the best war movies of all time. Brutal, uncompromising (in the director’s cut). The Enemy Below was a kinder, gentler version of the submarine campaign, while Run Silent, Run Deep and Torpedo Run carried us along on missions that were less than comfortable. U-571 was a lie:  British sailors salvaged the Enigma code machine from a crippled U-boat, not Americans. Above the waves, Convoy, Corvette!, The Cruel Sea, The Silent Enemy, Pursuit of the Graf Spee (Battle of the River Plate) and The Caine Mutiny showed different facets of the bitter war at sea. The one curiosity in all this: Sean Connery as Capt. Marko Ramius, a Lithuanian, in The Hunt for Red October.

Then—bombers. The War Lover (Steve McQueen) explored self-definition through war. Televison’s Enola Gay depicted “Fat Boy’s” trip to Hiroshima. Less momentous were 633 Squadron, Suicide Squadron and Mosquito!. A nicely understated “ordinary men doing the extraordinary” piece was Memphis Belle. But it owes much to Twelve O’Clock High, the first to show the impact of battle fatigue on performance and morale (it is still used in management-training case studies) and the first to include actual air combat footage. Produced close in time to “the real thing” (in 1953), it left out polishing and explaining that adds distracting “spin.” Plain, but absolutely riveting. The follow-up TV series was pure soap opera. In A Gathering of Eagles (in which Rock Hudson struggles with similar problems in the Strategic Air Command), this “concept” sank to the level of Airport.

Scaling back to “single-engine” combat, two TV series should be mentioned. Black Sheep Squadron (“Pappy” Boyington’s boys in the Pacific) was a decent attempt to recreate the chivalry of one-on-one air duels (recalling The Blue Max of World War I vintage). A Piece of Cake (from British TV), reviled by patriotic veterans, showed how disorganized Royal Air Force preparedness was during the “phony war” in France (1939-40) as it led into the Battle of Britain. It was a miracle that some British (as well as Polish, Canadian, American volunteer and Australian) fighter pilots survived to tell their stories after this period of local-unit silliness and political and high command incompetence.

Far more distant for us are “jungle campaigns” (Merrill’s Marauders, Objective: Burma!, a very young Mel Gibson in Attack Force Z, The Highest Honour) and, long before high-tech action in the Gulf, hand-to-hand ‘“esert wars” (at least three El Alameins, two Tobruks, the superb Desert Rats, The Desert Fox, Raid on Rommel, and many minor, sweaty variations).

A special kind of caper, then, is “the gadget movie,” wherein the entire premise rests on “a technical solution.” Enola Gay was certainly one (on a scale debated to this day), but The Dam Busters was first, The Cockleshell Heroes (commandos in kayaks) was second, and “men in minisubs” (for example, attacking the Tirpitz), “men in scuba gear” and “men in gliders” followed. War is a nice test-bed for “delivery systems.” Cue Stukas diving on Guernica. Cue “smart bombs,” live on CNN.

When tired of the conventional in all its varieties, we can be diverted by farce (Catch-22, What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, a host of “Yanks in England” romances and “headquarters comedies,” all inevitably leading to M.A.S.H.), symbolic wierdness (Castle Keep), and murder (Peter O’Toole in Hans Helmut Kirst’s Night of the Generals). Almost mundane by comparison, The Execution of Private Slovik told the story of the only U.S. soldier tried, convicted and shot for desertion in World War II. It borrows heavily from Kirk Douglas’ Paths of Glory, a tale of World War I.

Not much for us in any of this. Even less in semi-propaganda films like The Sands of Iwo Jima, Action in the North Atlantic, Air Force, Bataan, Back to Bataan, The Fighting Seabees, Guadalcanal Diary, 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, Halls of Montezuma, Captains of the Clouds, The Malta Story and others that, during or just after the action, glorified the effort and demonized the enemy. But there is no U.S. film that wonders why it took that mighty nation two years (until December 1941, and only after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor) to join in a “fight against evil” that was central to that era, no British epic that takes apart Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s cowardly “peace in our time.” With the exception of two or three movies that have looked at the tragic Warsaw (general and Jewish ghetto) uprisings, to my knowledge there has been no attempt—other than locally, and only lately—to portray the desperation of Eastern European nations abandoned to Stalin in post-war big-power games that sealed the fate of millions for almost 50 years. Stunning. Killing fields of much more recent vintage can be commemorated, but half a continent, once considered to be indisputably “civilized”—gone from view, forgotten, excluded from memory…

Self-styled winners do not care to remember large-scale blunders, so long as they can rest in comfort and make camera-friendly “ich bin ein Berliner” speeches for domestic consumption, or pontificate about an “evil empire” they allow to operate, but do little to dismantle. (Ronald Reagan, despite current conservative re-writing of history, avoided active World War II service by making propaganda films. George W. Bush found safety in the Texas Air National Guard “Champagne Squadron” during the Vietnam conflict, then apparently skipped a portion of his reserve duty obligations.) Do not expect Hollywood to challenge “home truths,” or CNN to provide context. Just pass the popcorn.

I have looked at all these epics and others I have failed to mention, but cannot find “us” anywhere. Yes, Americans always trumpet the U.S. role (“how our boys won the war”); the Brit specialty has been “how we held on” (despite…make your own list); Germans chime in with “it wasn’t quite like that” (but never fully acknowledge the brutal consequences of wars they started); the French, slowly, are admitting that they weren’t terribly heroic; we expect no truth from Russia (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn mused that it would take “a cultural revolution”). The Red Army “liberated” Eastern Europe, so the story goes, and kept on “liberating” everything in it for almost half a century—in plain sight of Western leaders more interested in “stability” than freedom. When will we know what Bush Sr. was peddling to Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta? Where are the films that tell us about the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the 1968 Prague Spring? About Solidarity in Poland? (Maybe the last was a non-starter. After all, U.S. President Gerald Ford thought that Poland already was “free.”) To this day there is no dramatic, cinematic record of how and why the Berlin Wall suddenly crumbled, counterpointed by the massive U.S. “intelligence apparatus” caught asleep at the switch.

With every bit of carelessness, every application of ignorance, every case of principles submerged in realpolitik horse-trading, we were further lost. Like it, or not, “we”—in large, long-suffering numbers—never had a place in the collective memory (and, thus, conscience, or even “interest”) of the West. We were written off in Teheran and Yalta long ago. (“The Baltic States? Is that somewhere in the Balkans?”) Over and over, we have had to tell our own sad story, to plead for recognition. To “remind.” To call for rights everyone here takes for granted—all the while, of course, competing for attention with multiple car crashes, glorified violence, exotic conspiracies and trivial scandals of every description. We were never important (or symbolic) enough. Gary Cooper never came along at high noon to face down evil in our small town.

Frustrated? Bet on it. It is one thing to be ignored. Quite another to be rendered irrelevant, never to have a place in the calculus of serious decison-making. To be an inconvenience. An afterthought.

Remembering differently

Still, still, our own memories keep trying to make connections.

Years ago on the Sparks Street mall here in Ottawa, a sprightly old gentleman, blue blazer proudly decked out in medals, crested beret jauntily tilted, approached to sell me a November 11 poppy lapel pin, a symbol (the Canadian symbol) of remembrance. It was a crystal-clear day, the kind that blows away fogginess of every kind and invites you to look beyond sharply-etched physical horizons.

One part of me immediately connected this man to Mr. Ross, history teacher at Stathcona Academy in Montreal, who dropped in on every class every year on that fateful day to recite “In Flanders Fields the Poppies Grow.” I can see and feel it still: each word torn from memory, grim conviction and barely contained pain that commanded untwitching attention. Mr. Ross had fought and lived through The Great War; each line spoke of and to his lost comrades, even though for us—mere schoolchildren—that was distant history we would never quite understand. He was a living witness. Everyone else in the room, just about, belonged to a generation that had no idea of what the horrors of war could be like.

But another part of me rebelled. “Why should I wear a poppy,” a disembodied voice protested (it sounded like my voice), “when people like you nearly killed me in Dresden?” What prompted that? In that moment? This: a conflicting flash of remembrance, black-and-white personal film clips of phosphor-seared anti-aircraft crews being carried into the hospital, the stink of burning flesh, nothing but flames and smoke on the horizon, absolute isolation and helplessness. For years after coming to Canada, whenever heavy planes rumbled by close overhead, I ran for the basement. Some birthday: Feb. 14, the day of that senseless raid, can never be Valentine’s Day for me, an occasion for chocolates, flowers and syrupy verses. For romance and sentiment. Nor—the old gentleman could not imagine—for poppies.

I suspect that I am condemned to remember differently. I hope that some of you understand and will sort through your own recollections. You, too, can bear witness. You can and should tell your stories, however much that sort of thing is not fashionable these days when we can consume the pablum of pre-packaged history.

Here Nov. 11 almost always starts with a blustery, raw morning. Canadian veterans march past, still in cadence with distant, powerful drums. At monuments large and small, they lay wreaths to honour comrades who gave their lives to protect freedoms we take for granted. A solitary bugler plays “Last Post.” In 20-second “moments” that pass for insight on TV these days, old soldiers recall the destructiveness of war in what seems to be a lost dimension non-participants will never enter. They try to convey a sense of their feeling that coming back to “this world” without friends must include terrible emptiness. We watch and observe a moment of silence at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month—and, if we care enough, try to find our own connection to what this really means. It is, after all is said and done, after flags are furled and limos whisk perfunctory dignitaries away, Remembrance Day.

But Latvians mark Nov. 11 as Lāčplēšu Day (Lāčplēšu diena) to honour soldiers who bravely served their country, especially those who gave their lives to protect it in far from ideal cirumstances. Many nations hold special “Remembrance” or “Veterans’ Day” ceremonies on this date, with solemn speeches and military parades. So do we. But the occasion has a much deeper meaning for us.

The name Lāčplēsis comes from a mythical hero who fought invaders on Latvian soil long ago. Literally, it means “bear-slayer,” a constant reminder that we have had to throw back the invading black (German) and brown (Russian) bear many times to liberate ourselves. To breathe free. Distant superpower struggles in the Great War (World War I), therefore, come second to our own desperate local battle for self-determination. For outright, long-sought independence. From “then” Vimy Ridge will always be central to Canadian remembrance of bravery in a common cause on foreign territory, an expensive marker on the road to national identity. But ours had to be forged on the spot, in our own blood, on our own soil. For us Nāves sala (Isle of Death), Ložmetejkalns (Machine-Gun Hill), Ziemsvētku kaujas (Christmas Campaigns) and many other battles—all in our own country—evoke strong national sentiments and command lasting respect. To close this “circle of differences”: Latvia’s highest award for valour in battle (the ordenis named for this hero) forms a centrepiece of our remembrance—not a (foreign) British Victoria Cross—and when the fighting was done, our soldiers did not return to a country untouched by war. They had to help rebuild theirs, which lay in ruins. They never left their Flanders fields.

This date falls one week before our Independence Day (Nov. 18). A doubly solemn period as Latvians count the cost of freedom gained, lost and regained. More than most nations, we mark our own struggle for survival and promise never to forget that, during 50 years of Russian occupation, Latvians were forbidden what was (and is) theirs by right of sacrifice. It is a day not just for “old sodiers,” but also for responsible citizens, for holding sacred the true meaning of our shared memories. It may be perfectly fitting that Latvia was invited to join the NATO defense alliance during its Prague meeting of November 2002. Another “November marker.”

I shall never forget Nov. 11, 1989. As we launched small paper floats carrying lighted candles—symbolizing the souls of our fallen warriors—from the Daugava river embankment in Riga downstream toward the sea just two days after the Berlin Wall came crashing down, many wondered whether “winds of freedom” sweeping Eastern Europe would reach the Baltics, still held in subjugation by “the evil empire.” Barely two years later, in 1991, they did—thanks to citizen-Lāčplēši and their brave stand on barricades in the face of threatening Soviet forces. They revived a tradition, set the example and freed their nation. Again. With no help from anyone. This, I would like to hope somehow, is my band of brothers.

History is written…

Time passes, accelerating, until, suddenly, we are middle-aged, then old, and must strain to maintain contact with points of reference flashes of lightning illuminated along the way. Echoes of rumbling explosions have long since faded into distance. Only memory holds moments of recognition, but will not surrender them without a diligent search. Different people will remember the same moment differently.

Like the survivor in Saving Private Ryan—who asks his family, “Tell me that I’ve been a good man,” at the Omaha Beach grave marker of the captain who tried to save him—we look for affirmation that we have been worthy of sacrifices others made for us. Why? So that we may go on each day to do something respectable, beyond simple surviving and conspicuous consuming. Perhaps we manage a token effort to reconcile private and public versions of what that should amount to only on Nov. 11, once a year, when “duty calls.” Only an informed conscience, from within some part of us that is still honest and true, will know—putting popcorn and propaganda to one side.

Spielberg had this right: What you do with what you have (or can call on in a moment of crisis) is what counts. But he missed the central dilemma: There is no magic formula (which, always, seeks to entertain, to stroke familiar sentiments.) Outside his (Hollywood) frame of reference, “denkmals” of every description ask us to reconsider. Outside his (assumed-on-our-behalf) notion of “good,” others clamour for attention and recognition. They are just as difficult to work out, just as valid. Let us not reduce choices to Patton’s formula: “Your job is not to die for your country, but to make the other bastard dies for his.”

Hallowed ground in many places suggests a humble question. Surely all these soldiers could not have given their lives not knowing what they were fighting for, or suspecting they were fighting for a lost cause, for a “just” one, for wives, sisters and homes (Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead’s rallying cry at Gettysburg, repeated many times elsewhere), or because someone in command ordered them to? It is too simple to say—or reduce events to a level where we accept—that it was just to survive, to hold on to friends sharing a similar fate. Or, to go back where we came from when the shooting stops, to the way it was before we left (forgetting Thomas Wolfe: “You can never go home again.”). Nothing else? Then there is no point wondering about “the good” in us, as many war films try to do.

To what extent, therefore, are we captives of what others say is “true,” and when does what we know come into play to contradict “conventional wisdom”? To what extent can (should) we trust any “official version”? At which point do we assert our own—and raise footnotes, asides, caveats, reminders, pleas—to the level of equal and worthy consideration? The history Europeans know is very different from the one Americans are constantly misled to believe, especially when it comes to how often (and how thoroughly) Eastern Europe has been screwed over by “the West” in the interests of “stability” and “business as usual.” Films, and the popular memory they help construct, are only an indicator, but a telling one.

Noam Chomsky cautions us that propaganda is designed to “manufacture consent” in the many governed by those few doing the governing, with the (tacit, calculated) complicity of lazy, co-opted or intimidated media (the self-styled “guardians of democracy”). The tactics are well-known from Nazi and Communist practice: lie (and lie big), whip up fear, lie some more, deny your own sad failures. blame others, point the finger at external “threats” and internal “enemies,” define “good” and “evil” in terms of agenda-du-jour priorities, crush (“unpatriotic”) dissent, paint those suggesting alternatives as “useful idiots” or “enemy collaborators,” press for “action” well outside normal laws and constraints. All of this is in the name of one crusading ideal: making the world safe for democracy; purity of values, race or religion; the siren call of destiny; protecting one true concept of civilization; or in support of a fevered, exclusive vision only willful ignorance can produce. It is aided by crises of “the war on (fill in the blanks)” and embellished by “danger alerts,” especially at election time, “supported” by a set of “human rights” convenient to the cause at hand (but ignored elsewhere) with crass calculations of commercial and political leverage well-hidden and denied (until “reconstruction” contracts are signed). What, exactly, does this kind of “morality” affirm and promote? What in it targets real “evil,” and what does not? That lonely Saving Private Ryan survivor, typically, begged to know whether he was a good man, not if we were.

Choice is a personal responsibility. But choices we make sum into larger collective duties. One of them is to call to account those who exploit a cause for their own purposes.

Their excuse always is “we know best” (and so will decide what is good for you), as though only those who do not hesitate to apply force hold a secure franchise on truth and are empowered to act in its name. We, they claim, are “special” and have been “chosen to lead.” (Almost universally that claim has been a dangerous fraud. History is littered with the wreckage of ambitious crusades.)

In an earlier, colonial age imperialists called this “the white man’s burden.” Then “proletarian revolution” took a turn, followed by “Aryan destiny,” “world capitalism,” “the clash of cultures” and assorted jihads. Ordinary people die. Arms merchants prosper. News at 11.

Today the powerful “act globally” (on behalf of corporate and religious sponsors), unencumbered by concerns “others” may have for “collateral damage.” They dismiss “unhelpful” (uncompliant) organizations that worry about dangerous precedents, or try to establish sane norms of international behaviour. They ignore, or undermine governments, good and bad. The powerless respond with protests, suicide attacks. Shadow-boxing morphs into vicious reality. How “good” are we if some claim that they have the “right” to act “preventively” to counter imaginary “threats” whenever that suits their needs and punish those who do not agree with their narrow righteousness, while others—equally stunted—see random terror as the only answer? Are we back to “might will make right,” the law of the jungle?

(Where are those weapons of mass destruction? They never mattered. Iraq was all about demonstrating that “smart bombs” can announce a doctrine that shall not be disputed. Naked and simple.)

What has this to do with memories, and films? Nothing. Everything. Myth-makers must deal with heroes as well as dangerous idiots, with notions of “good” and the machinery of destruction. When they do so years after the fact, they should have no other responsibility than to tell the truth. What will the 2020 all-star epic, The Road to Baghdad, show us about today’s sad lack of “human intelligence”?

Meantime, we do not live in a docudrama, we inhabit places other than the margins of stories others spin. Those can be convenient and assuring (for the attention-challenged, and for many who have raised ignorance to an art form). But George Orwell taught us long ago that the halfway aware and intelligent end up trusting the evidence of their own senses and discoveries, which, inevitably, conflict with “the official version” (as put out by the Ministry of Truth). Then the merde hits the fan. Then we face consequences.

This is a dangerous time because during no comparable other time has it been so easy to be held captive by “the popular (common-denominator) imagination” at the cost of denying our own personal (particular, painful) experience. Or accumulating documentary evidence. Circumstances (and cynical exploitation of them) conspire to discourage us from wondering and questioning. We are “led to believe,” not asked to find out for ourselves. We become consumers, not shapers of history. And our consent in this debasement of values that many have died to defend is dismissed as inconvenience. Shame on those who do this. Shame on us for accepting lies.

For how long? Sometimes it feels like not only commerce but also culture is being “globalized” to the point where “duty-free” consumption is the only remaining (or easily available) option. The powerful will casually tell us who we are and what we (should) “know” and feel—until (if ever) they are called to account for their arrogance. CNN will lead the cheers, either way. As long as there is a “story.”

There is a British television series called The Nazis: A Warning from History. Strange that there isn’t one called The Communists: Still With Us. Hollywood even makes award-winning, sympathetic films about them—Reds, for example, or The Front. Let us not be romantics to the point of being fools, even if the history of films, more than most chronicles, is a history of convenience, the road of least resistance.

It cannot remain that only “winners” may write “correct” and sanitized versions of events, that “losers” shall have no say or right of reply, that victims must constantly struggle to reclaim their own battered, threatened identity in the face of roles others wish to assign them. I do not like playing this “victim card.” All too often it signifies a tendency to blame others (even though, in our case, there is plenty of blame to go around). It implies that someone else should rescue us (an illusion Latvians have toyed with and relied on at great cost). Lately it has led to taking sides, in simplistic presentations of “good vs. evil” by folks who pick and choose opportunities (and targets) according to their own self-serving agenda, without regard for truth, priorities and common sense. Of all people, Latvians should know what “pre-emptive war” means and what endorsing another one could mean for us down the road. We are bigger and better than that—not in size of territory, not in numbers, not in clout, but in spirit. It is still being tested.

It was a particular Communist conceit to think that social engineering can be achieved by force and terror. It remains a capitalist conceit that consent can be manfactured by public relations. It is a particular American conceit to imagine that only their sentiments and “values” are uniquely valid, indeed universal.

One long flashback

Now, having come full circle from losing freedom to regaining it, we experience one long flashback—like the survivor in Saving Private Ryan. We try to fit various bits and pieces of memory, private and public, together again into a chronicle that feels right—because we have been saved and it is our obligation to make sensible connections, to give an authentic account of ourselves.

One final observation, then: come to your own conclusions. Do not let others make them for you. Arrive at them carefully, having sampled the best and worst of what is on offer. Visit and revisit every marker you can find. Consider and reconsider every “opinion” and presentation of events and occasions in which you have been (even marginally) involved, and ponder what they really mean—as you, not others, see it. Piece together steps that have led you to where you are, and evaluate—honestly—how much of that road has been of your own choosing, and how far you have been thrown and pushed. No one will speak for you.

Never, ever, forgive. Demand explanations. Insist on clarity. Somewhere, down deep beneath your everyday comfort and ease, should be a gnawing, still-unsatisfied demand for recognition and respect. Let it run. You are totally, as they claim nowadays, “entitled.” Lawrence Durrell in his 1957 novel Justine wrote, “I imagine, therefore I belong and am free.”

D-Day landing

American soldiers huddle in a landing craft as it nears the French coast on D-Day, June 6, 1944. (Photo from U.S. Army Center of Military History)

Saving Private Ryan poster

A poster advertises Saving Private Ryan, director Steven Spielberg’s story of American soldiers on D-Day.