Rambo III

Colonel Trautman: You expect sympathy? You started this damn war! Now you’ll have to deal with it!

Zaysen: And we will. It is just a matter of time before we achieve a complete victory.

Colonel Trautman: Yeah, well, there won’t be a victory! Every day, your war machines lose ground to a bunch of POORLY-armed, POORLY-equipped freedom fighters! The fact is that you underestimated your competition. If you’d studied your history, you’d know that these people have never given up to anyone. They’d rather DIE, than be slaves to an invading army. You can’t defeat a people like that. We tried! We already had our Vietnam! Now you’re gonna have yours!”

Rambo III

Recently, I’ve been rewatching the Rambo series. The recent installment made me aware that there have been two more additions to the series since the original three, and I was curious how these films had aged.

The first film is still a classic of American action film. Its focus on police brutality resonates in the era of Black Lives Matter to the point of prescience. Or, as Bryant, the cop in charge in the original Blade Runner put it: “You know the score, pal. You’re not cop, you’re little people!” The original film cast the institutional structures of the United States as the villain, and it still feels relevant. It’s a popcorn movie, but there are ideas worth exploring in it.

It’s interesting how the subsequent films repurposed the character to work as an agent for the United States in Cold War conflict, where Cold War jingoism makes Russians into comic book villains with recognized tropes, such as the Husky Russkie and Torture Technician. But, this third film looks very different from when it first came out due to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan for almost 20 years after 9/11.

I don’t particularly buy this idea that Afghans are some kind of unbeatable enemy. The main difficulty is geography and the limited ability of conventional armies to project power within it. With the investment in the right infrastructure and troop size, probably on the scale of millions, it could be done. The question is: is it worth doing? And, no matter the time or place, it never is to imperial states.

That said, the quote above got me thinking about the American experience in Afghanistan and how it differs from the framing of Vietnam. In both cases, the outcome looks to be about the same. Vietnam has about 58,000 U.S. service members killed and 150,000 wounded. In the U.S. War in Afghanistan, it’s about 2,400 and 18,000 wounded. That figure doubles if you include contractors, which I suppose is the modern euphemism for mercenaries.

So, clearly the main difference is scale. Fewer people went to Afghanistan, so it weighs less on the national consciousness. Chances are that most Americans did not know anyone involved. And, I think that gets at one of the key ideas in the Rambo films, that beyond promoting the American nationalism and a token “thank you for your service”, veterans are mostly forgotten about, both during and after the wars they are asked to fight.

Rambo III is an exercise in cartoon violence. But, interestingly, it has become more relevant 30 years on. It’s not a great film, but it does provide some food for thought, given our collective experience of the War on Terror. It becomes much easier to draw the line from the first to the third film, and how American institutions are fundamentally correct, and perhaps have always been so since at least World War II.

What is Old?

“Warren Sanderson and Sergei Scherbov suggest that we classify old age by looking closer at the end. Instead of counting the number of years someone has lived (and whether or not they’re at least 65), we can go the other direction and look at the number of expected years left. They recommend the 15-year mark, as shown below.”

—Nathan Yau, “Redefining Old Age.” Flowing Data. August 26, 2020.

Depending on whether you live in the United States and which state you live, average life expectancy is between 75-82 years. If we use this 15 year rule, old age is ages 60-67. I’m not sure how this is an improvement over using 65 years old as a shorthand.

I think the more interesting conversation in aging should center on function, such as living independently, and redefining old age as a state where support is required.

Happiness of Others

Make one person happy. Ideally, the one before you, in this moment. Listen. Understand their story, if you can. But, never more than one, and don’t have it be the focus of all your energy. You cannot make other people happy. We can choose to be happy, ourselves. In others, we can only help create the conditions. In then end, they must choose, and in some conditions, it’s an impossible choice. The crucified are never happy. The only option is for their suffering to end.

The Blood Sacrifice Redemption

Imagination is political. Without new vocabulary, new thinking cannot be born. A change of concepts both clarify and obscure. Data erases all our nuances and contradictions. We retain the facts which are easiest to think about and then classify and organize them into representations we pretend are the whole world.

When imagined worlds defiantly insist on being birthed into Reality, the dream reshapes the whole world. Secret police exist to prevent the dreaming and brings the might of the state down on the individual, who with a new thought buys a lottery ticket that redeems society with blood sacrifice. New worlds are fed the blood of their originators and early adopters, their validity testified to by the numbers of the dead.

Love is a Blank Check

“Sandra Simpson didn’t keep the suffering of the world at a distance. She invited it into her home and made it family…To believe in the power of adoption is to believe that the most profound way to help someone isn’t through large-scale structural change or foreign policy, but by opening up something as intimate as the family unit—by committing to love a kid you’ve never met.”

—”The Forest Hill couple who adopted 30 kids.” Toronto Life. August 2020.

For a long time, I wasn’t sure what it meant to “love” someone. Is love a feeling one has toward someone? Is love a verb?Is it not so much a feeling, but something we do? How do you know when you love someone? Or, that they love you?

But, merely asking these questions also suggests a poverty. Don’t most people know that their parents, siblings and extended family love them? Isn’t it a given?

I cannot speak for others, but for me, at this moment, the key to understanding love is to look at those moments — when we chose to get married, have a child, and so forth — where we make a commitment to put someone else before ourselves over the long haul, over a life, without any guarantees that it’ll work out well, and a virtual certainty, that, for some period, it’ll be a bad bargain. Love is what transforms a bad bargain into a good one, where you give someone a blank check, the ability to ask for and get more than you have, and by some miracle, at the moment it is needed, you find there is enough in the bank to cover it, money you never knew you had.

To Make Friends

Be able to talk and shut up. Listen well, particularly for the voice that is hard to hear in yourself and in others. Remember: there is little difference between being shut out and being shut in.

Standardized Thought

“From this [advertising] expert he learned that the key tool of the ad trade was to “standard[ize] thought by supplying the spectator with a ready-made visual image before he has time to conjure up an interpretation of his own.3 In that instant before the process of making sense was completed, a presupplied image and, subsequently, a thought (not quite your own) could take hold. Thought was being standardized.”

—Rebecca Lemov, “Into the Whirlpool.” The Hedgehog Review. Summer 2020.

A discussion of legibility and mass manipulation from print media through YouTube and Facebook algorithms. Nothing new here for people familiar with James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State or Edward S. Herman’s Manufacturing Consent. However, I did like this idea of standardizing thought, which is clearly what the 24 hour news networks, YouTube, Twitter, etc. are doing.

Everything is Everywhere

Everything is everywhere, but the [local] environment selects.

-Lourens Baas Becking

The environment can be an anything, e.g., an individual, an activity, or a society. But selection happens everywhere which is why everything isn’t there.

Shut Out or Shut In

“Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge.”

—C.G. Jung

People like to tell the same stories, over and over again. The truth of those stories is changed, imperceptibly, in each telling. Our identities are a lacquer, painted on by the stories we tell ourselves and others.

Identity accrual and world building are our principal occupations. I’m this and that, signaling to society my tribe and allegiances. One thing that seems less common is people capable of admitting that they were wrong or made a mistake. It’s partly because doing so means we are open to change. Or, our connections with the rest of the world are open to reconfiguration. And people really don’t want that from themselves, or from others.

People want consistency. They want to be right. It’s difficult to be these things in a world that is always changing and where we make decisions with imperfect information.

Easier to misremember that we were right all the time, adding on another layer of our identity. Brittle, but bright.