What Red Dawn Really Has To Say About War

An essay taken from Wolverines: Reflections on Red Dawn


For as many people who love Red Dawn, it seems like there is an equal number of people who hate it. Just read any article on the internet about the film and you’ll see the phrases “pro-war,” “militaristic,” “xenophobic,” “paranoid,” “jingoistic” and “nationalistic” come up frequently and not in a positive light. On the other side of things, there are people who believe that the film glorifies militarism, armed conflict and patriotism and love it for that. I believe that both assessments of the film miss the point, as the film’s take on war is more complex than what meets the eye. War is not exactly glorified in the film and at no point do the characters speak any significant jingoistic lines. Instead, the film focuses on the true costs and realities of war as it relates to civilians to an American audience that had largely escaped the suffering brought on by war during the 20th Century. Although the setting of Red Dawn is unique, the basic story certainly isn’t.

To say that the 20th Century was bloody would be an extreme understatement. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 16 million people were killed in World War I and somewhere around 70 million around the world were slaughtered in World War II. In addition to the two major wars, there was the Holodomor, a Soviet-made forced famine in the Ukraine that killed off at least a few million, the Armenian Genocide which claimed the lives of about a million, around 2 million killed by Poi Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and numerous other atrocities and conflicts around the globe. Chronicling the violence and suffering of the world between 1900 and 1999 would fill up volumes. Despite the fact that a large percentage of the world’s population suffered through violence, war, tyranny, oppression and/or famine at some point in the 20th Century, the American civilian largely escaped hardship, despite the United States’ involvement in many conflicts over the course of the century. I believe that through Red Dawn, director John Milius challenges the American public’s ideas on war that have largely been formed at more than an arm’s distance from the actual fighting. By setting the conflict on American soil, the perceptive American audience might find themselves contemplating some of the hardships that war brings upon civilians and showing more empathy for that burden. Although Milius certainly uses Red Dawn as a platform to advocate for a strong national defense and he’s by no means a pacifist, the film suggests a very sober approach to armed conflict and brings home the true gravity of war to a disconnected American public.

While American civilians may have been distant from the consequences of war, the same can absolutely not be said about the citizens in America’s Cold War archrival, the Soviet Union. The Soviet death toll in World War II added up to well over 20 million between civilian and military deaths, with widespread destruction (some of the scars from the war can still be seen on the Russian landscape). We suffered somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000 war deaths and statistically insignificant civilian casualties during the war. Barring a few anomalies (minor sabotage and Japanese balloon bombs), the mainland USA came out of the war unscathed. In fact, coming out of the war with our industries and infrastructure intact while the rest of the developed world suffered significant damage over the course of the war allowed the United States to rise to the position of the post-war world’s dominant superpower. The Soviet Union rose as a challenger to the United States’ position of the world’s sole superpower shortly after World War II in spite of the widespread death and destruction caused by the war. The sacrifices made and hardships suffered during the war by the people of the Soviet Union were deeply ingrained in the national psyche. The film brings up the question of the American public’s stomach for total war in a world with nuclear missiles pointed right at Hometown, USA. We know that our enemies in the Soviet Union proved that they could deal with extreme hardship, death and destruction – would we be willing to undergo that kind of sacrifice as a society as a means to win a war?

There are certainly some parallels between the Nazi invasion and occupation of the Soviet Union and the fictional Soviet occupation of the United States in Red Dawn,and I believe these are more or less intentional. When Lt. Col. Andrew Tanner describes Denver being under siege and the citizens living off “rats, sawdust bread and sometimes each other,” I couldn’t help but to make the connection to the famed sieges of Stalingrad or Leningrad and the harrowing tales of the suffering of the civilians of those cities amidst the block-to-block fighting. Just as Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa caught the Soviet Union off guard and unprepared, the Soviet invasion in the film caught us in the same manner. There are famous stories of Soviet commanders dismissing reports of German attacks during the kick-off of the invasion, and I would imagine that reports of Soviet troops falling out of the sky in Colorado would have been scoffed at initially as well. The Soviet occupation of the US encompassed much of our most productive agricultural land. The actual Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union took away much of their best agricultural regions in the Ukraine, forcing them to fight the fight of their lives with a hand tied behind their back. The loss of the oil fields in Texas and grain producing regions in the Great Plains would have a similar effect on us. Red Dawn allowed the perceptive American viewer a chance to imagine and contemplate some of the hardships suffered by Soviet society of a generation or two earlier and what war actually means when it’s on your doorstep.

The last time an American citizen fell under foreign occupation was in 1812 (or perhaps some people in the south might say 1865), barring the invasion of a few remote Aleutian Islands in World War II. Although rationing in World War II brought hardship to American civilians, life was lavish compared to that of our allies in Great Britain and certainly the Soviet Union. When the subsequent conflicts in Korea and Vietnam came, life in America generally went on as usual unless you were one of the young men drafted into service. Due to technological advancements, Americans could watch scenes of combat from the comfort of their living rooms and this became the war experience for much of the country. I believe that Milius must have had the idea that the American public lost touch with reality regarding war at the forefront of his mind when he came up with the idea of Red Dawn. He sought to remind us that the world can be a rough place and to show us what war looks like up close and personal.

Although the film was released in 1984, I believe the disconnection between the American public and war has gotten wider and more bizarre between the 1991 Gulf War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan of today. It’s true that the heavy reliance on National Guard and Reserve troops during these conflicts made it so I would imagine that virtually everyone at least knows someone who has been over there by now, but the war has brought very little suffering to the members of the American public who have no direct stake in the war. I would argue that the wars have been embraced by many as a form of entertainment. You can get on YouTube and watch videos of IEDs, firefights and all sorts of things of that nature. You can even see it on the news and I know many people (myself included) were glued to the television set watching videos of bombs falling out of the sky on Iraq. I’ll always remember the scenes of a eerily-quiet pre-dawn Baghdad with palm trees and minarets, only to have the stillness broken by missile strikes and air raid sirens. Clips of smart bomb strikes on bunkers and charred retreating Iraqi soldiers on the “highway of death” out of Kuwait became iconic of the Gulf War.

As a personal anecdote, I was in fourth grade during the Gulf War and absolutely obsessed with the war. I remember the school playing Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless America” in the morning over the PA instead of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. With what little spending money I had, I bought Gulf War trading cards (pretty funny concept, right? I’ll trade my USS Iowa for your Harrier Jump Jet) and other trinkets from the industry that sprung up around the war – shirts with “I’d fly 3,000 miles to smoke a camel,” toilet paper with Saddam Hussein’s face on it, etc. I was glued to the TV watching the latest in military technology: smart bombs, stealth bombers, night vision and so on, used in a complete and utter shit-stomping of the Iraqi Army. I spent a lot of my playtime playing war. It really encompassed my thoughts and imagination. After the war ended I remembered feeling let down and making a comment to my mother that I wish there was still a war going on so there would be something good to watch on TV. Naturally, she gave me a completely horrified look. What can I say, I didn’t know any better. For what it’s worth, later on in life I got to see what war actually looks like when I went to Iraq in 2004-2005 as a Marine Corps infantryman. Of course the Gulf War experience for the Iraqis I talked to that lived through it was a lot different than mine as a kid high-fiving over smart bomb strikes and collecting the trading cards.

As of the date this is penned (in October of 2012), the remake of Red Dawn has not been released, but I feel that as a society we could probably use a Red Dawn again to remind a complacent and safe public what war looks like when it’s happening in your backyard and that it’s not always a matter of our boys pushing some buttons and laying waste to ne’er-do-wells around the world. To be honest, I doubt that the 2012 Red Dawn will have that affect, as the story line isn’t as tangible as the Soviet threat in the 80’s.

Despite claims to the contrary, I see very little that could be deemed true patriotic propaganda or jingoism in Red Dawn in the way of speech or imagery from the American side, although I will concede that one could get “our enemies are bad!” out of the film. The Wolverines’ motivations are entirely human and make no appeals to God, mom and apple pie, free markets, Jeffersonian democracy or the Chicago Bears. Jed puts it very succinctly in the scene where he’s about to execute a captured Soviet soldier when Matt asks him “what’s the difference between us and him?” in an appeal to cancel the execution, to which Jed responds “Because we live here!” followed by dispatching the unfortunate soldier. They fought simply because the Soviets were there and to get revenge for the atrocities committed against their families, friends and community. I think it’s interesting to note that the group’s name comes from the town’s high school football mascot, the focal point of many small towns across America, instead of a name that reflects a broader American identity. I feel it localizes their resistance and makes it more about their community than the larger theater of war.

If the film is full of pro-American propaganda, they do not do a very good job of promoting the idea of a competent and able American government so it’s hard to make the argument that the movie promotes statism. Agents of the US government only surface as the helicopter that saves the Wolverines (ok, that’s significant) and terrorizes the occupying forces initially, radio broadcasts from “Free America,” a botched armored assault on the town and the downed pilot, Lt. Col. Andrew Tanner, USAF. The idea of the Soviets getting through our defenses and catching us off guard would suggest ineptness of the government, whom we trust to provide our general defense against foreign enemies. Although it’s implied at the end that the invasion was eventually repulsed, the film does not show the US military coming to save the day and make Uncle Sam the hero. There’s no saving grace in American exceptionalism in Red Dawn.

The character who appears to be the most enthusiastic about fighting is Robert, who is motivated by a burning desire for revenge and a sense of fatalism after finding out about the fate of his family. Jed would perhaps be second in enthusiasm, driven by his position as a leader and de facto father figure to the now-parentless teenagers. Neither character display any patriotic sentiments or appealto high ideals beyond reacting to direct situations throughout the movie.

Red Dawn has a lot to say about war and defense to an American public who has largely become disconnected from the human cost of war. Milius forces us to address our complacency and perhaps arrogance acquired through virtually two centuries of military victories and immunity from the death and destruction that much of the world experienced during the 20th Century. Far from being a jingoistic propaganda piece or a two-hour glorification of war, the film shows the American viewer what war actually looks like through an uncomfortably familiar setting. How anyone can watch the film and get the impression that war is a good thing is beyond me.

I recently had  Red Dawn by Murray N. Rothbard from the 1984 July-August issue of Libertarian Forum pointed out to me where Rothbard came to many of the same conclusions as I did on Red Dawn.  Read the essay and find more from one of the greatest political and economic thinkers of our time at www.Lewrockwell.com

Increase Your Situational Awareness With Keep In Memory (KIM) Games

I’ve heard a few questions on podcasts recently about how one can increase their situational awareness skills. The phrase “situational awareness” gets thrown around, but little is ever said on how to develop this elusive skill.

Everyone already has some degree of situational awareness or else you wouldn’t be a live to read this, unless you have a very protective mother.    It’s a skill and a mentality that takes a little bit of extra effort to develop.

When I was in the Marines we had a sergeant come to us who was a former sniper.    Snipers must have excellent observation skills and the ability to take a good mental picture.   There’s so much more to being a sniper than just being able to shoot straight and I always thought it was funny when civilians would suggest that they could’ve made it as a sniper because they think they’re good at shooting pumpkins of posts or whatever.

This sergeant introduced us to KIM games, as we were working up towards a deployment to Iraq.   Not to sound over dramatic, but having a keen sense of situational awareness really was an issue of life or death there.   The enemy blends in with the local populace and uses that to his advantage.   Attention to detail and picking out things that weren’t right allowed you to spot IED’s, detect if someone was acting funny or full of shit and other clues about the task at hand.   As infantrymen, we spent a lot of time patrolling through the town which was technically all “indian country” and there were no real secure areas outside of our little base.   We had to constantly be aware of everything going on around us while doing our jobs.

He laid out a poncho and placed about twenty items on it.   We had a minute to look at the poncho and then make a mental note of what was on it and how things were laid out.   Then we went outside to do some exercises or other tasks to break our concentration for a little while.   Then we came back in and tried to draw a picture of what was on the poncho.    The first time had predictable results, but it improved as we became acquainted with how our minds work on these things and had the idea that details are important hammered into our heads.

This can be done at home if you have someone willing to lay out a bunch of items on the kitchen table or something before you go to work and then when you come home try to remember what you saw.   It’s understandable if your spouse doesn’t want to play along with that one though.    You can also do it with the way cars are parked on your block, license plate numbers, the clutter on a coworker’s desk, the arrangement of books on a shelf, anything at the grocery store (i.e. try remembering the order of the aisles or take note of what was in the produce section).   The possibilities to do these kinds of exercises are endless.    You will find yourself getting better and doing a better job of observing your surroundings.

I think many people take things as they see them and don’t pay much attention to these kinds of details.   When you start acknowledging details to yourself, you’ll start analyzing them and it makes it easier to pick out things that aren’t right.    Me, I think I’m hyper-vigilant.  In some social situations I spend most of the night scanning the crowd to the point where it’s difficult to loosen up.   I can usually pick out the people that are going to cause some sort of incident with a good degree of accuracy.

I think this is the ultimate preparedness/survival skill.  Noticing things that aren’t right can give you a few extra moments to react to something or back up that gut feeling you’re not sure if you should act on.   It makes your neighborhood safer if you have an idea of what everybody’s general routines are, what vehicles you typically see, what lights are on (for example, the people who lived across the street from my grandpa knew something was wrong if his kitchen light wasn’t on when they woke up).

It also helps improve your “bullshit detector” abilities when dealing with the people you interact with.   If you think back to the old Encyclopedia Brown books (or any other detective novels if your background in that genre is more distinguished than mine), virtually all of the mysteries were solved by catching someone in a minor detail and then everything else begins to crumble down around them.   When you observe things and make a mental note of it, you never know when it might come in handy or for what reasons.

Keep your head on a swivel.


White House Responds to Secession Petitions

Daily Kos:  White House Responds:  No Secession Today Boys




In States Filing Petitions for Secession I wrote about how virtually every state had a Whitehouse.gov petition for secession.  I said that internet petitions are usually exercises in futility, but sometimes they can force someone to take a few minutes out of their day to address it.   If a petition on Whitehouse.gov gets enough signatures, by policy they have to respond to it and the Obama administration just did that this week.

He said basically everything you would expect.  Honestly, it wasn’t a bad response.   “Boy, we sure do have a lot of differences, but let’s work together!”, along with mentioning that secession is illegal and bringing up the fact that 600,000 Americans died the last time secession was tried.   I’m sure someone out there took that as a subtle threat.

Just like last time I posted about secession, I don’t really think there’s anything going on at the moment but I think it’s something we’ll hear a lot more of in the next 10 years for some of the reasons laid out in The 2012 Election and The Elephant Outside The Room

I think Daily Kos is a joke, but I linked to their article for a reason.   Reading the comments and the tone they take with the people signing the petitions says a lot about how divided we are as a country.   Very few people are talking about how to reconcile the wishes of red states to be red as the country around them becomes increasingly blue.   Instead of  asking questions like “how do we allow conservatives in North Dakota to live the way they want without dictating it to liberals in New York City?”, there’s a lot of ridicule, name calling, and expecting people to just “deal with it”.     If the people/places signing the petitions are so fucked up, why are these people so ardent about keeping them in the union?  You would think they would fall all over themselves to help the “teabaggers” go off on their own.  It is notable that the people signing the secession petitions aren’t asking the other states to do anything special beyond let them go their own way.     The more I read and see the less likely I think this country will remain “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”.    In the meantime, I’ll just continue to do my own personal form of secession from all of the bullshit they put on the news every day.  I’m more interested in insulating myself from other people’s bad choices than arguing with them why they’re wrong anymore.


How Much Is A Firefighter Worth?

How Much Is A Firefighter Worth?



A couple months ago I decided that I was going to cut down the amount of financial programs I listen to.   I admitted to myself that I was spending a lot of time being told about how bad things are, how the system is rigged and how there’s a looming catastrophe just around the corner.  I get it.   I’m already taking measures to deal with the possibility of going through some hard times.   I’ve been putting that podcast time towards other things I want to learn about.   There’s only two financial podcasts I listen to regularly.   One is Follow The Money Weekly.   I think this one is good because it’s more proactive than reactive and I learn a lot from it.   The other one is NPR’s Planet Money.  Planet Money is cool just because it’s almost always really interesting and informative.   It’s the kind of show that after it’s over you can turn to whoever is next to you and talk about what you just heard.    The link is to a Planet Money podcast that I heard a few weeks ago.

Here’s the condensed version of the story:  A long time ago the city  on Contra Costa, California made promises to the firefighters that they would receive a set percentage of their final pay as their pension.   When they made that deal the city assumed that their tax revunes were going to keep going up and up and they would be able to foot the bill for not only the current fire department, but the retirees as well.   That growth that they counted on didn’t happen and the city is stuck with a huge bill for fire services and pensions.

Some in the city are claiming that that since the majority of calls the firefighters go out on are of a medical nature instead of fires, they can get away with a lot less.   One commenter in the blog (who says he is a firefighter) points out that the increase in medical calls reflects a growing dependence on emergency medical services as primary care among the poor/uninsured and not necessarily a decrease in fires.    The commenter also brings up the fact that when a fire does happen, everyone is going to want the right amount of firefighters on hand and cuts in staff can make it difficult for the firefighters to do their primary job.

After a lot of talk between the city and the union, they came up with the idea of putting out a ballot measure for a $75 across the board tax increase to help fund the firefighter’s pension fund.   They needed a 2/3 vote and ended up short of that, so the measure didn’t pass.   Now they have to make some very deep cuts in fire service in order to make up the shortfall.

While this is the story of just one American town, I think it reflects a few themes and growing trends:

–  We tend to count our chickens way before they hatch and probably assume that one of those chickens is going to lay a few golden eggs.    I think the idea that everything is just going to keep going up and up is too deeply engrained into our financial workings.  Unfortunately reality is something completely different and assuming that the future is going to be like the past can be dangerous.

–   As a society we want more things than we’re willing to pay for.   That’s understandable – who doesn’t want more than what they pay for?   I always like to get a good deal on things.   I like the idea of putting a tangible amount to the measure and putting it out to the public on what things actually cost per household.   I would love to see a website that had goverment expenditures on everything broken down to per capita, i.e. “we spend X amount per person on foreign aid to Djibouti and Y on the military presence in Korea”.   It’s easy for us as citizens to say “they should do this” and “they should do that” when we’re not directly seeing the bill but if we actually saw the costs I think the conversation on a lot of things would be a lot different.   By putting out the costs you’re not exactly making judgments on whether or not it’s a good deal, but you’re letting the taxpayers theoretically decide whether or not they think it’s a worthwhile expenditure.    The elephant in the room on that subject is that a lot of those expenditures get passed on to future generations through government debt.    At any rate, I think most people are really disconnected from what things actually cost.  I think sometimes people think that these decisions to cut services are made just because someone has a spiteful heart and wants to make their life miserable rather than fiscal reality.

–  To use another colloquialism, a lot of our financial system really seems like a giant game of hot potato.  Just keep passing it on.   Eventually it’s going to get too hot for someone to hold.   The US government can always print money, cities can issue bonds and raise taxes, but someone has to be willing to buy those bonds and raising taxes could chase away people who would otherwise pay in.   Das FedGov can unload every bond they issue to the Federal Reserve.      I went a little deeper into this subject (and some of America’s muncipal/state debt woes) in this article:   Scranton Mayor Slashes Pay For All City Employees to Mininum Wage – Austerity Comes To America

–   Unfortunately it’s easy for politicians to make deals that they won’t be around to take the heat for.     This kind of ties into the “people want more than they’re willing to pay for” idea.    Sometimes tough decisions don’t make good material for reelection campaigns.

–  I think we’ll be seeing more of this in the years to come as local governments are going to have to keep making cuts in order to stay afloat.   People aren’t going to like it, either.    At the end of the day, there’s usually only so much money coming in and only so much you can do with it so difficult decisions will have to be made.   When a city gets over the head in debt, they’ll go to the county.  When a county gets in over their head, they’ll go to the state.  When the state is over their head, they’ll go to the federal government.   The economies of many US states are quite large (especially California and Illinois – two states in a lot of trouble) so a state going under will probably have a big effect on international scene, just like Greece has been.     People around the country and within states aren’t going to be happy about bailing out other cities/states.    Should be an interesting ride…





A Small American City

A Small American City


A Small American City is a new podcast from James Howard Kunstler’s protege Duncan Crary.  Accord to the website, the project “aims to re-acquaint listeners with small city life in North America through the voices, stories, history and urban fabric of his home city of Troy, New York.”

For those of you that aren’t familiar with Kunstler, his angle is that we’re approaching a period of oil and capital scarcity that will make our current suburban-centric living arrangement impractical.   He doesn’t believe that we’ll have some miracle Star Trek technology that will save the day.   A lot of his writing has to do with urban planning and he’s really in to the idea of smaller cities and villages with walkable communities with natural features like good farmland in the surrounding area and navigable rivers.  I highly recommend checking out some of his books for his take on what he believes is in store for us.   He has some fiction books like A World Made By Hand that give some insight into the consequences of some of the problems we face right now.   I have several of his books in the Amazon store under “politics/society”.   A lot of what he has to say isn’t pleasant, but he’s raising a lot of questions that need to be addressed.  Crary comes from a similar mindset as Kunstler and believes that Troy, NY is well-positioned for the future as a small city on the Hudson River with classic architecture from a period when buildings were made to last and designed for pedestrians, not automobiles.

No offense to Troy, but I’ve never thought much of it.   I wouldn’t expect the average Trojan to have put much thought into Des Moines, either.    I wouldn’t listen to a podcast from the Troy Chamber of Commerce telling me the selling points of the city every week, but Crary’s podcast uses Troy as a template to discuss broader issues of sustainability, urban planning, community life and localism.    Right now most of us live in a world where we go to work for a large corporation to earn money to buy things from China and pay bankers in New York, come home to a home in a neighborhood that looks like every other home in every other neighborhood all around the country, eat food from halfway across the world, get on the internet and argue with some guy in Florida about what they’re doing in Washington then entertain ourselves with TV shows from Los Angeles or sports in some far away city.   Then we wonder why so many people feel disconnected from reality and alienated from everyone around them.   Would there be so many mental health problems in the country if people had vibrant communities that they felt connected to around them instead of holing up to consume mass-marketed media and entertainment?

So far I think it’s entertaining.   There’s been a couple of guests so far with ancedotes about their experiences around the city and although the show sounds well-polished, it does have the aura of sitting around a barstool and listening to two dudes talking.   He said he’s going to have some interviews with inland sailors, which I think will be interesting.  Kunstler believes that someday in the near future our inland waterways will become important again due to oil scarcity and rust-belt places like Troy on the Hudson and the Great Lakes region could become more desirable.   I used to go to Duluth, MN (largest inland port in the US) and I always thought the nautical culture there was pretty cool and watching the barges come in Lake Superior.

The idea of the show really got me thinking about Des Moines, where I live.   I like it here and I think Des Moines has a lot going for it.   It’s bigger than Troy (about 200,000 to Troy’s 60,000) but it’s definitely geared towards automobiles.   There aren’t many parts of the city that would be ideal for pedestrians as things are right now.

Culturally, people from Des Moines always seem to be comparing our city to our neighbors (Minneapolis, Omaha, KC) and throwing around the “for a city this size…” qualifier.   On the “Shit People From Des Moines Say” video I got a chuckle out of the frequent use of “per capita”.  It’s true.    We’re kind of awkward size – not really big enough to be a big city but not small enough to settle for small city status.   It leads to a chip-on-the-shoulder mentality, but sometimes that makes this city ambitious.   I’ll admit that I have that mentality and throw around per capita’s and for-a-city-this-sizes with the rest of them.    When it comes down to it, it seems like as a city we’re more interested in trying to be a scaled down version of somewhere else instead of just existing as we are and letting things take their course.    We’re probably better off focusing on what we like to do, who we are, what we produce and what comes naturally to us as a city instead of wanting a bunch of those cool, unique fusion resturants with one word names just like they have everywhere else in the developed world.    Hell, they even designated a part of town to be an entertainment/pedestrian shopping district and called it the “East Village” instead of something truly indigenous to the area.

I know I’m guilty of tuning out my surroundings in order to partake in something global/national.   It’s Friday night and I’m blogging about a podcast about a city halfway across the country.   I’d like to see a larger trend towards localism and regionalism and I suppose if I want to see that, I should start with myself and do more around here.

Anyways, I recommend at least checking out the first episode which is a little more broad in subject matter if you’re not interested in hearing the in’s and out’s of life in Troy.   I would like to see Crary maybe branch out and interview some people that live in other similar cities around the country.

Red Dawn 1984 vs Red Dawn 2012

A lot of people have asked me about my thoughts on the Red Dawn remake.   Overall, I thought it was an ok movie.   I think a lot of people already wrote it off before seeing it.  I figured it wouldn’t be as good as the original, but I didn’t rule out the possibility that it could be a good movie.   As a true Red Dawn aficionado, I looked forward to seeing it and made it out to the theater the day it came out.

First, I’ll say that the plot is a lot less goofy than I figured it would be when I first heard that there was going to be a Red Dawn remake.    I figured it was going to be something of a campy nod to Cold War paranoia and the bad guys would certainly be some kind of terrorist cell a la Invasion USA with Chuck Norris.   I was glad to hear that China was going to be the protagonist – not because I’m a Sinophobe or anything but because it adds a little more realism to the plot when there’s a tangible enemy.   Without something like that, you might as well have the Joker and the United Underworld invading the United States.    I understand why they would change the enemy from China to North Korea (because they would miss out on the large Chinese film market and diplomatically it just isn’t nice), but it knocked a ton of realism out of the plot.

If you want an idea of how the prospect of Chinese bad guys would have went over in China, look back to the 2006 Turkish film Valley of the Wolves (in Turkish Kurtlar Vadisi – Irak) where Turkish forces take revenge on an American unit operating in Kurdish Iraq who detain some Turkish commandos.   It’s based on a real-life event where US forces actually did show up and detain some Turkish commandos, even going as far to blindfold and cuff them, which caused a lot of outrage in Turkey.   Anyway, the film gives an alternate ending to that story.   The American State Department was not at all happy about the film and the American actors (Gary Busey, for one) involved in it were shunned.   I know Netflix refused to carry it and I don’t think any official copies saw the light of day in the US.   I tried to keep an eye out for a copy in Istanbul two years ago, but no dice.   It can be found on the internet.  I’ve seen the first 10 minutes or so and it doesn’t look that great.    They made a sequel about the flotilla to Palestine incident a few years ago that caused a bit of a stir as well.     The film did well in Turkey, around the Middle East and Germany (large Turkish population) but was more or less shut out of the American market and missed out on a ton of revenue.   The guys who did the Red Dawn remake probably didn’t want to get shut out of China.   If you’re banned from North Korea, who cares?

I think the biggest difference between the original and the remake was the overall tone and style.   The original is very dark and grim.  There’s a sense of dehumanization to every aspect of life, which leads to indifference to life and cynicism.   The Wolverines achieve some victories over the Soviets, but it comes at a high cost.   We see and hear of shocking acts against American civilians.   Life in occupied America looks an awful lot like life in many other places throughout the 20th Century that suffered war and occupation.    In the remake, there’s a few scenes of civilians being killed but overall life seems to go on as normal, just with the addition of some checkpoints and censorship.   The Wolverines maintain something of a sense of teenage normalcy amongst each other to the point where it really does seem like an episode of Degrassi High with guns.    With all due respect to Tomorrow When The War Began, the remake reminded me more of this movie than it did the original Red Dawn. 

I think that in the remake the audience weasels out of some of the more disturbing themes and imagery of the original.   We don’t see as many dead civilians, the civilians look more like they’re annoyed by the whole ordeal than scared shitless as they do in the original,  there isn’t much news of really horrific things happening around the world and there’s less bloodshed on the good guys’ side.   SPOILER ALERT!!!   The scenes involving Daryl and his end were completely milquetoast compared to the original.   The ending where Matt goes on to form this huge resistance movement and leaves the viewer feeling optimistic has a lot different vibe than the ending of the original, where it’s implied that the US ultimately won but at a very high cost.

I thought the remake had a few good points.    The relationship between Matt and Jed was a lot better developed in the remake, with a lot of sibling rivarly between the two.   I got the vibe that there was some of this going on in the original, but it wasn’t as blatant as it was in the remake.   I also really liked the opening sequence involving a series of newsclips (some of them were even real) laying out the world’s geopolitical situation.    I thought it was cool that Jed was a Marine.  Not just because I’m a former Marine, but I always thought that Jed’s character in the original would have made a little more sense if they had him as a guy who did four years in the military after high school and came back to Calumet to settle down.  It would have been hard to make him a war veteran in the original (unless of course he stormed Grenada with Gunny Highway), but making Jed a veteran in the remake made some of the technical aspects easier to explain.   I also liked some of the references to the original.   I can’t think of specific examples right now, but there were a few well-played subtle ones.

I’ve heard that the original Red Dawn had a scene in a McDonald’s, but the stills I’ve seen make it look like a place ran for the amusement and recreation of the invaders, not a place where the townsfolk could stop in and grab a Big Mac and fries on their way back to the internment camp after a hard day of street sweeping and grave digging.   In the remake there was a scene where the Wolverines stumbled into a fully-functioning Subway, full of dining civilians who appear like nothing out of the ordinary was going on outside.   Come on…   I hope whoever made this got a really big check from Subway for putting that scene in there.

Another minor thing I didn’t like was one of the characters that came with “Andrew Tanner”, the one who kept making comments about shit sandwiches and calling people “motards” and all.   I think this guy was the most awkward Marine Corps archetype I’ve ever seen in film, and I’ve seen ’em all.

When Red Dawn came out in 1984, it was deemed the most violent movie ever released.  The remake might have just as much violence if not more, but it falls flat compared to the original and comes off as just another action movie.  My intrepretation of the original is that it brought a lot of the real-life horrors of the 20th Century to the American audience and gave a reasonably realistic account of what war looks like when it’s on your doorstep to a nation that has only collectively experienced war at more than an arm’s distance.   The original challenged the notion of American exceptionalism and reminded us to remain vigilant while the remake seemed to reinforce the idea of American exceptionalism.   I don’t think that the remake had anything deeper to it than what’s at the surface, just like about everything else coming out of Hollywood these days.   In other words, I probably won’t write “Wolverines: Reflections on the Red Dawn Remake”.   I think you’re pretty much seeing about all of my “reflections” on it right now.

I think that America could use another Red Dawn to remind us what the true costs of war are as well as the dangers of what happens when we get too complacent as a society and count on the “it can’t happen to us!” mentality to shield us from danger.   A lot has happened since the 1984 release of the original.   Although I was entertained for the two hours I was in the theater watching the remake, it wasn’t the Red Dawn that I feel America needs right now.

Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression


One of the books I read recently was Little Heathens:  Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression by Mildred Armstrong Kalish.   It’s a series of disjointed chapters about various aspects of her childhood in rural Iowa during the depression.   The book has been out for a few years, but I stumbled upon it this fall in the gift shop of Seed Savers’ Exchange and put it on my to-read list.    The other day I posted something about reading about the siege of Leningrad and how I think it’s a good idea to read historical/actual accounts of people coping with hard times in order to get ideas and stimulate your brain a little bit.   I can assure you that I got more out of this book than I did any of the fiction ones involving a karate expert with a heart of gold navigating a post-apocolyptic world.

This book was like talking to grandma (coincidentally my grandma did grow up on a farm in Iowa during the depression!) but maybe after a few drinks.  I’m not sure if this will make sense, but Kalish tells her story in a heartfelt manner yet at the same time she’s not caught up in being too sentimental.   By that I mean that she seems very honest.   She’s not writing a yarn about walking to school uphill in a blizzard both ways or pining about “the good ol’ days”.    I didn’t get the impression that there were any tall tales in the book.   She wrote about some of the hardships her family faced, some of the good times they had and most importantly, some of the routine things in their daily lives that often get lost in history between the yarns about how bad things were or good ol’ days recollections.

One example of the everyday things she writes about is the subject of cussing back then, a subject near and dear to my heart.    Although I’ve wondered about how people talked to each other in their day-to-day lives, I was never able to muster the courage to say “Hey, Grandma, did you guys ever say ‘fuck’ back then?”.   Now I know.    Another similar subject is outhouse usage and toilet humor of the day.   Kalish is very frank and vivid in her recollections of daily life during her childhood and leaves the reader with few questions unanswered.

The book is entertaining.   She’s a good storyteller and has some good anecdotes about the depression and life back then.   Although the book wasn’t meant to be a how-to manual, I think it has a ton of value in the way of passing on bits of folkish wisdom that have been obscured by the good times between the depression and today.   I checked the book out from the library, but I’ll probably end up buying a cheap used copy of the book so I can go through and highlight some stuff for future reference.

I’ll throw out some examples of stuff I’ve learned – so as part of  13 in 2013, I’m planning on tracking down at least five new wild edibles and using them.   Kalish talks about going after ground cherries and how they used them.   So now I know that they really are in my part of the world and I have an idea on how to use them when/if I find them.   While I didn’t buy the book from SSE’s gift store when I initially thumbed through it, I did pick up a pack of ground cherry seeds (among a lot of other stuff).   Maybe I’ll do a bit of guerrilla gardening?  She also talked about dandelion greens, wild fruits and nuts and the kinds of things they would do with them.   Foraging was an important part of their lives.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve had problems making yogurt.   Kalish mentioned that they used to set their yogurt on top of the stove in order to stimulate the bacteria.   I had a duh moment when I read this.   The other day I tried making yogurt again and ended up with a great batch of it.   I put it on a heater vent and then a warm stove.  It had it setting in no time.   I looked at the recipe I’ve been using and notice that it says “put in a warm place”.  I’ve been just counting on room temperature being good enough.   So I think I’ve got that one down now.

There’s a ton of stuff about cooking and the things they ate.   Simple, hearty and economical foods in tune with the seasons and what they had available.   No one ever talks about Midwestern fare or writes it off as being bland and boring, but it’s based on necessity.   They needed foods they could produce on-site or store in bulk that would give them enough energy to go about their daily tasks, often in cold weather.    It’s probably not a good idea to start your day with ham, eggs and biscuits and then roast with potatoes a few hours later for lunch if you’re sitting at a desk from 9-5, but it makes a lot of sense if you’re engaged in physical labor all day.   Most of the recipes given would have a lot of conventional dieters freaking out, but I imagine their rates of obesity were pretty low back then.

I also learned a few important tips on chopping down trees.   As a kid I had about an acre or two patch of woods behind me and my only experience with chopping down trees was the time we took down a small maple with a hammer and a small section of rusty iron bar.   Kalish gives a few valuable tips that novice apsiring lumberjacks might overlook.

The chapter on how frugal they were was pretty impressive.   One example was that when they would wear out a pair of socks, they would darn them up and pass them down to the next smallest person to the point where a pair of socks would last through several owners.   The ankle part of the sock usually doesn’t wear out, it’s usually just the toes and heel.   The “hoarder” mentality is common enough among today’s elderly, but when you think about how many of them grew up with the “make do or do without” mentality of the Great Depression you can see how that can happen.   Especially when you consider how in today’s climate we assume that things will be worn out and tossed away and a lot of things are cheap and plentiful.

I got a chuckle out of a part where she mentions that her family were “hearty-handshake Methodists”, meaning that they frowned upon things like hugging or other physical or verbal public displays of affection.   I’ve got a little bit of this background and I’m notorious for being awkward with hugging and uncomfortable with things like hand holding and other such indulgences.   It’s kind of funny for me to see this in writing.

I found this book really cool.   Not only was it entertaining, it was full of a ton of useful stuff.   I think that anyone interested in homesteading, basic skills, self-reliance, traditional Americana, agrarianism, frugality, preparedness, rustic cooking and probably a dozen or so other niche markets would get something out of this book.   I’m glad that Kalish unflinchingly shared her story with the world so that all these little details on daily life wouldn’t get lost.

In addition to this book I’m currently reading The Grapes of Wrath.   Somehow I made it through high school and college (with a liberal arts major) without reading this.  I’m about halfway through it and really enjoying it.   I also ordered a depression-era cookbook from a lady that had a series of popular YouTube videos on the kinds of things they ate back then.  I posted one of her videos last year, it’s worth checking out (link).   I wouldn’t be surprised if I post some more things about the Great Depression in the coming month or so.

13 in 13 Update 1/3/12

I’ve been off work for the past couple of weeks, which has been nice.   I did a few small things around the house, did the Christmas thing, spent a lot of time catching up on sleep and relaxing,  spent some time at the dog park and got a lot of reading in.    

So I’m a few days into 13 Skills in 2013.   Here’s what I’ve got done so far:

– Read some books and listened to a few podcasts on meteorology and observable astronomy.   I started compiling some notes and bought a cloud guide off Amazon.  I’ve learned a little bit and scratched the surface on this one.   I’m going to quantify this one by being able to identify weather through the clouds and interpret all the data that a site like Weather Underground (www.wunderground.com) gives.   

–  Ordered two nuc hives of Russian bees from a guy who lives about a mile away from me.   These will be ready to pick up late in May.   I haven’t ordered my hives yet, but I’ll get around to that soon.   This guy is starting a home-based business selling bees and beekeeping equipment.  I’m glad I’ll be able to have someone nearby for “tech support” and to pick up supplies if I need them.   So I guess I haven’t done anything on this one except commit myself to it.    There’s a relatively high entrance cost to beekeeping, so I’m justifying it by unloading a lot of books, cds and dvds I’ll probably never read again on Amazon.   So far I’ve done alright in that department.  

– Winter gardening.   I said I’d consider it a success if I had a salad on New Year’s Eve and that happened on New Year’s Day.   Arugula, spinach, dill, cilantro and green onion.   Very nice.   We’re still going.   I might be able to make it through the winter and get a good start in the spring.   It can get colder than it has been, but usually not that much more.   The days are getting progressively longer too, although the days are still short this time of year.

– Spanish.  Started listening to some instructional podcasts from the beginning.   As long as I stick to it consistently I’ll be fine.   I’ll have to try not to cram a lot into one sitting.

–  Woodworking.   I put knife and jigsaw to wood the other day to get a feel for the saw.   Maybe tomorrow I might try to make something simple instead of just playing around.

– Dairy.   Picked up a bottle of kefir the other day.  It said it had four servings and I meant to just try a sip on the way home.  Ended up downing the bottle by the time I got home.   I’m going to try to make “the champagne of dairy”.   Flipped through a book on cheese making, looks like I’ll probably have to get some cultures and maybe make a press (woodworking!).   Right now I’ve got some yogurt sitting out that I’m going to use to try my hand at yogurt again.


There’s Nothing I Love More Than Some Good Siege Literature

I’ve been off work for a couple weeks and have had a lot of time for reading.    Among the things I read was Anna Reid’s Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-44.  I briefly mentioned the siege of Leningrad in Wolverines: Reflections on Red Dawn and had it in my mind, so I figured it would make some great Christmas-time reading.   I’m not going to review the book, but I think it’s a good idea for those of us into the world of preparedness to read and study accounts of times in human history where the shit really hit the fan for people instead of just fictional accounts.  I can’t think of much else more horrific in modern history than the sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad besides Nanking.  I’m sure there are a ton of other smaller and equally brutal events that have been forgotten amongst the widespread destruction of the past century.  

After reading it I increased my food storage and was thankful that I have the option to do that, being born in this place during these times.  Let me list a few things off hand that the citizens of Leningrad ate to survive during the siege:

– Humans.  They ate corpses and there were even some cases of people killed for a bit of “long pig”.

–  Dogs.   There was one story of a family with a much-loved pet dog who had to kill it and eat it.  They gave the intestines to a friend for his help slaughtering it.

– Cats.  

– Horses. 

– Rats.

– Pidgeons.

–  Joiner’s glue.  It’s made from animal parts.

– The paste from book bindings.  It’s flour and water.

–  Sawdust bread.   Certain types of sawdust was added to bread to stretch it.

–  Crumbs scraped from cracks in kitchen tables.

–  Cattle feed, like cakes of flax seed.

–  Wheatberries recovered from a sunken ship that were moldy.

–  The paste from behind wallpaper.   Flour and water.

–   Leather

–   The dirt from underneath a confectionary that burned down.   Apparently there was charred sugar in the dirt.   People actually paid for it too.

–  Flour scraped off the walls of a bakery and from underneath the floorboards. 

The book also mentioned the citizens foraging for dandelions and nettles in any available space.  

Cash became worthless, but gold and silver still had value.   It’s kind of funny how when you get into precious metals you really notice these things when you read historical accounts.    Unfortunately for the folks who had gold and silver in Leningrad, the price of food and some crucial bribes skyrocketed beyond the cost of the metals and luxury items.  I’m a big fan of precious metals but from a preparedness standpoint I think you’re a lot better off trying to acquire the things you think you’ll exchange them for in a barter economy now than counting on having all kinds of doors open for you because you’ve got a pocketful of silver dimes.   I also think it’s a good idea to try to be able to be the guy (or gal) with some kind of valuble skill/product/service on the receiving end of the silver than just a consumer with silver to exchange.   Money, even silver, runs out if you don’t have a flow of it coming in.    I think the best way to think of precious metals from a preparedness standpoint is for all of those little things you’re forgetting.  

At any rate, I think it’s worth digging into the past to find out how people coped with times of scarcity and calamity.   I’m pretty sure that the contemporary writers of dystopian fiction get a lot of their ideas from these kinds of historical events.   


Tincture Time: Making Tinctures

This isn’t the world’s greatest photograph, but we made a tincture the other day:


A couple weeks ago we went to a local prepper’s group meetup and one member of the group gave a good presentation on herbal remedies.    One of the things she did was show us how to make a few different tinctures, so we decided to try this one.

You don’t really hear of people making tinctures often, so if you don’t know what they are I think the most basic definition is a liquid like alcohol, vinegar or glycerine infused with the oils from herbs.   This one is made from cayenne pepper, ginger, onion, garlic and apple cider vinegar.  The lady giving the presentation described this one as kind of a cure-all tonic.

Apple cider vinegar is the liquid medium that extracts the oils.   We picked this over alcohol because, well, neither one of us drink and we don’t keep it around (except for a bottle of two buck chuck for cooking).

Ginger is an antiseptic.   It’s good for circulation, digestive problems and respitory conditions.  It’s good for things like upset stomachs, colds, flu, nausea, etc.   I think it’s one of the more useful natural medicines I know of.   I think the aroma has a stimulating effect just like basil does.   I know when I was chopping it I was glad to have the smell on my hands later on.

Cayenne pepper is one of my favorites.  Just like ginger, it has a warming effect on the body due to the capsaicin.   After consuming cayenne you can really feel your circulation improve.   I’ve started putting a little bit of dried cayenne in my pre-workout drink and I think it does help improve performance.   For medicinal use it can help with infections in the digestive system and bringing down a high fever.    I might do a more in-depth post about the wonders of cayenne shortly.

Garlic is the other wonder herb.   I think it does just about everything. It’s good for circulation, digestion, fighting infections.  It’s a good antiseptic and people even use it topically for ear infections.   I’ve heard that if you ask herbalists what their #1 choice would be, most of them will say garlic.

Onions have medicinal uses too.   I guess the more color to the onion, the better it is (i.e. red are better than yellow and yellow are better than white).   They’re anti-inflammatory, diuretic (cleansing through increased urine flow), antibiotic  and an expectorant.

She added horseradish to hers.   I couldn’t find any, but I might be able to acquire some tomorrow.    Horseradish is a diuretic and increases perspiration, so it’s great for common ailments like colds, flu and fever.

The tincture was made by chopping up everything, putting it into a mason jar, filling it with apple cider vinegar and sealing it up.   I shake it up when I think about it and in about a month I’ll strain it and put it into a smaller bottle.   It’s very easy to make.  When we feel something coming on, we’ll take a few drops of it every day until it goes away.   The tincture will store for a long time in the right conditions (out of sunlight and extreme temps).     When spring comes and the dandelions start coming up, I might make another one she showed us of dried dandelion root and leaves with milk thistle.

I think this tincture will be nice because it covers just about everything in the way of illness.    I have a blend of tea from herbs I grew (peppermint, lemon basil, chamomile, catnip and bee balm) for when I need something calming and/or sleep-inducing.

I’m not trying to push these links just for the sake of Amazon associates’ commissions, but I think it’s a good thing to have some information on hand about herbs.   Sure someday if all hell breaks lose and we go back into the stone ages you might need some self-medication but it also helps improve your diet, health and general well being right now to use herbs.   I’ll probably post more on this subject because it is something that’s interesting to me.  I find myself flipping through this one quite a bit:

and this one:

The Natural Health Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine is very comprehensive and a good reference for anything to do with herbal medicine and Your Backyard Herb Garden covers general uses of 50 of the most common herbs; things like growing them, preserving them, using them in cooking, aromatherapy and medicinal use.    There’s a lot of good free info out on the internet as well.

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