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One of the pleasures of the Godzilla franchise is its depiction of an intergovernmental organization known as G-FORCE. Its purpose, servile to the United Nations, is to develop combat procedures and weaponry in the event of another giant monster attack – probably an alluring notion to Japanese directors in a time of voluntary de-militarization. It allows for love triangles, time travel and psychic rapprochement with Godzilla himself, but it also paints a candy-corn daguerrotype of military power as we have come to consider it onscreen since 1945. It bears lingering traces of the cockpit-cams in Star Wars films, but also flirts with James Bond storylines, 007 himself being a consolation prize for the decline of the British Empire.

The most prismatic is M.O.G.E.R.A. (Mobile Operation Godzilla Expert Robot Aero-Type), a bird-beaked steel colossus that can break itself into different types of tactical vehicles: a boat, a drill, a spaceship. Piloted by a colorful crew of matinee 20somethings, it’s as vast and potentially destructive as the evil it was designed to deter – an unintentionally hilarious stand-in for war itself in the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (For the curious: it was built by G-Force following the failure in 1992 of their weaponized Mechagodzilla.)

The new also-silly action film Act of Valor, which I reviewed for The L Magazine a few weeks ago, is about the opposite: proof that war can be cheap, lightweight and deadly effective. Part of the deal for ticket-buyers is that the movie’s heroes are the real deal; the plot concerns a tight-knit team of Navy SEALs, portrayed by real Navy SEALs. They appear without their names in the credits, which is another way of saying there’s no particular evidence that they are really on active duty, but implicating any skepticism on the viewer’s part in a bigger challenge to said viewer’s loyalty or patriotism. I had a few ideas I wanted to embellish upon in light of the recent spotlight thrown upon on Special Forces operations, especially after the raid in January that freed two nonprofit workers – one Danish, one American – held hostage by Somali pirates.

Act of Valor is a type of propaganda that plays on both personal and national aspirations, drawing a line of reverence between an average-joe viewer and the finely honed killing machines beefcaking it up on the screen. The aim of war movies since the dawn of cinema has been to bring soldiers and joes closer together as types, simultaneously reaffirming the state’s right to demand blood from its citizens and the citizens’ rights to have their sacrifices recognized. This idea was especially prevalent during World War II, when America’s economic recovery went hand in hand with its suppositions of moral superiority for taking a stance against the German, Italian and Japanese armies. But for reasons probably related to blossoming social mores and the end of the draft, the idea of the everyman recruit stuck around until the Reagan Administration.

Since then, imaging has begun to play on more personalized notions of what constitutes a soldier’s personality – indeed, military culture at large. When it comes to the armed forces, Indiewood and Hollywood features alike are imbued with a breathless respect for form, thoroughness, precision – in a word, organization. Delivered in sweeping helicopter shots and procedural monologues, our new moral equivalence comes from a worship of authority, whether it’s a missile tracking system, or a brotherly code of conduct. War becomes less a force of national influence, and more a backdrop for ritualistic subcultures and fantasy tales of derring-do, spun around members of a shit-talking, guild-like work community. The films of Michael Bay – particularly The Rock and the Transformers films – constitute a steady thread of big-box outsider admiration for the zealotry and hardheadedness of fantasy-world military personnel, stirred in with delirious fantasies of widespread death, mayhem and conspiracy.

Today, Tom Hanks is making a movie about Richard Phillips, held hostage by Somali pirates in April 2009 and saved in a Naval Special Operations raid. He broke contract with Kathryn Bigelow as they were prepping a South American action thriller; now she and journalist / Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal have elected instead to dramatize the Team Six raid in Pakistan that killed Osama Bin Laden. Rather than hair-raising numbers of troops, there is instead a fecund, popular image ripped from the worst 80s actioners but somehow made real: a nimble unit of elites who can strike anywhere, at any time. It is the best-possible salvo on a wounded military conscience, the perfect wedding of human and technological merit.

For the first Bush and Clinton presidencies, a policy-decisive SEAL strike was among more fanciful notions (i.e. a full-scale war with Iraq), theoretically feasible but by no means a sure bet. Clinton’s miniaturized struggles in Haiti and Somalia, coming off of larger Bush victories in Panama and Kuwait, rescaled the value of American life in the eyes of voters; the White House abandoned its Somalia adventure immediately after photos broke of the naked corpse of U.S. Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. (Clinton preferred cruise missiles anyway, building off of the massive CENTCOM established by the Reagan Administration, burnished by bases in Oman, Qatar and Bahrain – prizes from the first Gulf War.)

So for George W. Bush’s policy planners, the political will for small strikes was simply not there. But following 9/11, funding expanded into subsidiary DEA, FBI and CIA projects under different designations and monikers, a broader surge in funding for extra-territorial activity supervised by any official organs of U.S. Law. Connectivity exploded among the agencies, alongside a much more-balleyhooed beefing-up of the Department of Defense, which politics-wise has only become disputable within Congress in the last two or three years. Obama’s foreign policy bona fides benefit from his ability to position the Navy as the zenith of our military power, whereas Bush would have been viewed as picking favorites had he shifted praise so specifically from grunt recruits to specialized units.

The summer after the Bin Laden raid, a Team Six helicopter containing 38 people – 25 of whom were with Special Operations – was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade, the worst loss of life sustained by U.S. forces in Afghanistan since combat began in 2001. Semi-uncomfortably, the helicopter itself was mourned like a war hero, on account of the Special Forces’ rigidly enforced anonymity. Less than a year later, Admiral McRaven is arguing, maybe accurately, that operations like Team Six offer a better bang-for-your-buck than the U.S. would deserve right now, were it not for their clear-eyed planning and execution. The idea is that symmetrical combat will never begin, thanks to policy tweaks executed one raid at a time.

The legal proceedings that could hamper such an action don’t, because raids like those in Somalia or Pakistan are over before they’ve been noticed by our would-be host governments. And yes: the possibility of a Navy SEAL attack on Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony was bundled with this week’s sensationally ignorant advocacy campaign launched by Invisible Children. The idea that elites from private American companies can build grassroots support to somehow, with the blessed restorative balm of social media, “petition” the Executive Branch to plop U.S. armed forces down on sovereign territory and blow somebody’s brains out without anything approximating due process points to something worse than a mass embrace of the anti-internationalism that liberals disdained coming from the Bush Administration. Albeit doomed, it nonetheless suggests a compulsive binary voting attitude, an American Idol-ization of our worst foreign policy temptations and secrets.

In Act of Valor, circumstances are never ethically questionable, but outcomes are riskier – a realist worldview that perfectly matches Obama’s. Filmmakers Scott Waugh & Mike McCoy make no equivocations about the military’s connectivity to the world, mapping out plot destinations on a beeping “radio” or “scanner” themed grid of pixels, like a Sunday night Fox bumper; as commander in chief, Obama uses the same chessboard, made in the Cold War but expansion-packed over twenty years into the Middle East. The implication is that the lethality of U.S. policy is “canned” somehow, bullets tasting the same on any continent. It is simultaneously more daring and less brave; a Team Six deployment is cheap in relative terms to a conventional attack no matter where you play it. They are globally public demonstrations of superiority, literalizing much of the shadow world alluded to but never specifically ID’d by hegemonists, conspiracy theorists and neoconservatives alike.

Dollars to donuts, I’m pretty sure popular support for conventional combat in Afghanistan, Iraq, or pretty much anywhere else is as low as it’s ever been – a disinterest which may eventually create a nasty political rupture between richer and poorer gradients of both parties. This is in no way to suggest that Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz or Powell were taking troop casualties or deaths more seriously in their own planning; the current president’s maneuvers are just the wiser political choice, on account of their leanness and publicity value. If Obama were blowing out birthday candles, he couldn’t wish for a better villain to obliterate than the ruthless, desperate, apolitical small-timers off the coast of Somalia.

Call it “flash & awe”. The government today promises skeptical Americans an alt-military, full of unknowable heroes and streamlined beyond culture’s reach; the virtual avatar of a physically Napoleonic strategy. There is an entire world of troop drawdown speculation in which the president has engaged much more cavalierly in Afghanistan, but those decisions are as low-profile as they’ve ever been. Thanks to Bush’s ever-widening net of military bases, black sites and installations, Obama has managed to score his greatest foreign policy victories yet.

I’ve just finished reading Penn T. Kimball’s memoir The File. Today, the author is a historical footnote; he was a liberal journalist, politico and academic who cut his teeth writing for long-extinct publications like PM and Collier’s, as well as Time, The New Republic and The New York Times. He served in the Marine Corps during WW2, and worked for New Deal Democrats such as Chester Bowles and W. Averell Herriman before settling into a career at the Columbia grad school of journalism.

All of this is detailed in the book, clearly, but the autobiography is not exactly Kimball’s own. Rather, it’s his livid, methodical response to government documents released upon his request – via the Freedom Of Information Act – wherein he found that he had been classified, in so (so so so so so so so) many words, as a threat to national security. This verdict was the result of a labyrinthine inquest coordinated over years by the Office of Naval Intelligence, the State Department, the FBI, and – ironically, with the least damning results – the CIA. The full bureaucratic gangbang took years, but it started when Kimball applied for a job with the Foreign Service in 1946; State operatives immediately began investigating him to figure out whether or not his loyalty would be an issue.

Can you imagine? Most of the evidence is not really evidence, but fragmentary comments made, one interview at a time, under tight secrecy guarantees. There is no smoking gun or pivotal betrayal; some of the clearances are equivocal, like this one from State:

Conclusion

Investigation discloses evidence of a material nature tending to affect adversely the applicant’s loyalty to the Government of the United States and its institutions.

It reveals much information both pro and con in regard to the applicant’s loyalty, and though no one placed him in the (Communist) Party, it is noted that but few of the applicant’s most enthusiastic supporters are able to recommend him without explanation and reservation in supporting his stand on past activities.

The general impression gleaned from the file is that Kimball was indeed interpreted by the state as a patriotic, hardworking, reliable American – one who would have been a perfect fit for the job if it weren’t for his progressivism. He spent three decades totally unaware this was going on; it’s impossible to verify, or resist, the notion that he might have been luckier if he had never asked in the first place.

The documents are rife with redacted names/places/concepts, and so I found myself chuckling while underlining key passages and quotes every handful of pages. He’s an excellent writer, deeply embittered by the process – and who can blame him? Read below:

For the next 20 years, my file shows, the FBI’s interest was revived from time to time – and so was the attention of the State Department and the CIA – sometimes for reasons that I could discern and sometimes for reasons that I can still only guess. My document collection eventually grew to 269 pages for me to pore over, worry about, carry around on my mind and rehash during those moments when I wasn’t absolutely required to devote my attention to something else. Over the years after the first installment arrived in February, 1978, more pages arrived in dribs and drabs – from the FBI in Washington, from their field office in New York, from the Passport Division of the State Department and, five years later, from the CIA. It is surprising how much is still missed after leafing through such documents a hundred times. Connections between my FBI and State Department files would suddenly dawn on me when I spotted a tiny initial and date in the corner of a page. Some contained scrawls that took on meaning only later when another piece of the puzzle became available. Janet would chide me gently about my preoccupation when it became clear that I hadn’t heard a word of her conversation at dinner. “Where are you, Penn?” she would ask, as if she didn’t know.

Here’s a verbatim quote Kimball adjoins to the above, which is remarkably telling in terms of these type of investigations’ role in broader politics. It’s taken from one of the FBI’s summaries:

Even if we were satisfied that the man is not a Communist or has Communist leanings, should we make the appointment (to the Foreign Service) there would be the possibility of someone raising the question on the floor of the Senate or House, holding up as an example the Kimball case in which the State Department had made the appointment when it had been charged that he is a Communist or Communist sympathizer.

In other words: by sheer dint of being investigated, whether conclusively or not, Kimball was no longer an option for a government job because the investigation itself could potentially be used against the government. Full circle. If not a page-turner in the classic sense, the book made me gasp a number of times at passages like these, which still can’t quite convey the documents’ full scope. (Although tempted, I think accurately quoting big chunks would be a Herculean task for me to contextualize, and for you to read. Just get a copy of the book!)

I also learned a little something about myself. Kimball writes with real severity about the importance of challenging his official, permanent reputation as a disloyal citizen – informally by writing the book, and officially by appealing the allegations. A few years after publishing The File, Kimball was successful in the latter endeavor. To read the book is to be dissuaded of this attitude, but when I first tried putting myself in his shoes, my initial response to his agonizing was, “who cares?”

After all, since Kimball earned his keep as a private citizen, the government’s (top-secret) opinion could only have caused so much harm. His wife Janet died the same day he received the penultimate shipment of CIA documents; he recounts feeling too sick to stand up, yet somehow tearing into them anyway. His paranoid, heroic obsession with setting the record straight testifies to an earlier generation’s attachment to ideals of due process and government transparency – not things I would identify as hallmarks of mine, even as it unwittingly barfs up more and more potentially actionable data.

Remember, Kimball was a Yale graduate who worked for bigwigs later entrusted with key spots in the White House, living an erstwhile nonchalant suburban life with wife + kid. He was not a proto-hippie, a ganja smoker, a purchaser of firearms, a subversive or an agitator of any kind; although active in journalistic labor unions, his record suggests nothing even remotely out of liberal-whack. Janet Kimball was the leader of a Brownie troop in the 50s, and both of them taught sunday school at their local church in Westport, Connecticut.

Nevertheless, literally dozens of government agents managed to build a case against them by secretly interviewing coworkers, colleagues, former bosses, friends and acquaintances. (One such informant was Arthur Schlesinger Jr., JFK’s so-called “court historian”*. ) There were background checks, credit reports, verifications of press passes, medical history, travel history (frequently incomplete, at least in the files made available to Kimball) and the marriage license.

If this much bureaucratic machinery was brought down on one dude who doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, where does this leave us today? The two most disheartening aspects of the whole thing, for my money, are these:

1. The sweep and expense of this type of investigation, which we can by no means assume was unique. The analysis it yielded was never intended for any kind of prosecution; it was amassed solely for internal purposes, to determine whether or not Kimball was a good fit to work for the State Department. If the government was willing to spend this much time and money verifying a nobody’s inadequacy for a minor diplomatic position, then it becomes more and more unfortunate that somebody like Abbie Hoffman never requested to have his information released. The mind reels.

2. The fact that it really, really, really takes two to tango. I just assumed that Kimball’s file was not a freak occurrence, but he himself is probably unique among people willing to contest this level of surveillance. (I’m sure more than one functionary got off the phone with him and sighed exasperatedly, praying he’d never call back.) At one point, in fact, FBI representatives offered him the chance to have his file destroyed for good, which seemed like a sweet deal until he remembered how much evidence it contained – vital for debunking the other agencies’ coordinated research. (He found out later that the CIA had made multiple classified copies of all the FBI’s documents anyway, totally erasing any potential benefit to that idea.)

*I first heard about The File in Christopher Hitchens’ memoir from last year, Hitch-22. Funnily enough, Hitchens just published a piece for Vanity Fair reviewing (if that’s the right word) Schlesinger’s just-released interviews with Jacqueline Kennedy, recorded less than a year after the assassination. A quick search verifies Schlesinger’s WW2 years with the Office of Strategic Services, which of course grew into the CIA. Hitchens’ vitriol towards all parties concerned made me feel a little bit better about the whole thing.