Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

Wednesday Matinee: History’s Sons of Liberty

Well, we have something else for the Saturday Matinee (another Amazon pilot, actually, hat tip to Tam and Roberta), and we finished watching this (six hours, counting five hours of Sam Adams and Geico ads) so we’re going to unload this one this morning. Call it a Wednesday Matinee.

What Sons of Liberty is, is a sort of re-imagining of the Revolution from around 1765 to 1776, an an action flick, with Sam Adams and Paul Revere as the key action heroes. The story does hit some of the high points, including the Boston Massacre and the Battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill; but it omits others, including John Adams’s defense of the Massacre officers and the Colonial seizure of Fort Ticonderoga (and the transport of the guns to the hills overlooking Boston, which forced the British withdrawal). It fictionalizes the historic events, almost beyond recognition in some case, and it includes events that never happened, like a powder raid we’ll mention below, a sexual affair we doubt any historian ever would stand up to claim was real or even likely, and whole battles conjured from the fertile minds of scriptwriters.

As an action film set in the American Revolution, it’s pretty entertaining. Who knew that Sam Adams could swing from balconies, John Hancock blast Redcoats with a pistol, or Paul Revere throw a knife?

The series drops the ball completely on explaining why the American colonies and the Crown drifted ever closer to war in the 1760s and 70s. Apparently fearing that History Channel audiences, brains sapped by a steady diet of space alien and superstitious-inbreed reality-show Scheißdreck, couldn’t follow the conventional explanation of the Stamp Act and Coercive Acts (known in America as the Intolerable Acts), they instead explain the Revolution by making the British leaders craven brutes. (Seriously, the portrayals of General Gage and Major Pitcairn here make The Patriot’s hatchet job on a thinly-disguised Banastre Tarleton look like a careful and respectful treatment of a sympathetic and three-dimensional character).

We are spared another complete temporo-spatial transplantation of a massacre, like The Patriot’s “pre-enactment” of the 2nd SS’s butchery at Ouradour-sur-Glane. So there is that. And again, taken purely as an actioner, the miniseries is pretty good.

Acting and Production

Once you’ve accepted that this is not the history of the American Revolution, but rather Hollywood Generic Action Film Plot 3B framed by some events of the Revolution, you can appreciate what the actors are doing. They’re all pretty good, but Martin Csokas is a standout as a version of General Thomas Gage written and played with the resonant evil of a Bond villain. The guys playing the Sons are mostly young, skilled TV actors (mostly younger than the actual men they’re portraying were, but then, the actual men they’re portraying didn’t need Jackie Chan athletics to found a nation).

The Sons of Liberty, TV style. L-r: Dr Warren, Paul Revere, Sam Adams, John Hancock, John Adams.

The Sons of Liberty, TV style. L-r: Dr Warren, Paul Revere, Sam Adams, John Hancock, John Adams.

The action is constantly moving and usually attractive to the eye. The green-screen, CGI and stunts all advance the story, and are mostly cinema-quality (some of the scenes of ships are not, so much).

It is the script that is the unavoidable irritant here. The constant use of juvenile anachronisms is irritating and makes one wonder if the whole thing was drafted by someone using the free Wi-Fi in a hookah bar in Boulder. No, a senior statesman would not have described one of his allies’ ideas as “batshit crazy.”

It doesn’t go quite so far as Revere telling Dawes, “Yo, dawg, let’s roll!” but it gets close. One character actually uses the metaphor “A Bridge Too Far” for a position beyond which the Continental Congress could readily be persuaded. This metaphor came into the language from the title of a book published approximately two centuries later. We have a first edition. Bought new.

The anachronisms extend beyond the dialogue, and the characters in general act like modern men and women in frilly old costumes.

Accuracy and Weapons

There is a very peculiar thing happening with weapons in the story: while the armorers took great care to get the firearms right for the period, and the director even managed to capture some of the smoke and delay of flintlock firing, the inaccuracy of the plot makes the careful attention given to most period costumes, etc.

The flintlocks appear to all be Brown Besses, but in keeping with the miniseries’s anachronistic nature, everybody calls them, “rifles,” not “muskets” or “firelocks,” as 18th-Century natives would have done. They are all polished bright, which seems to be correct for King’s Regulations of the period.

Cannon are shown here and there — they’re just generic props without much effort at realism. The Redcoats in the show all wear the same color facings.

But while the guns themselves are more or less period correct, the history of how the militia got them is all wrong, as the Journal of the American Revolution explains:

Given all of this, the scene where Adams and Hancock meet a man about acquiring guns and men to fire them is ridiculous. Since Queen Anne’s War, and even before, Massachusetts had a militia law (that was in line with the English Constitution); each citizen had a right to keep privately-owned arms and ammunition. When the Massachusetts committees took a count of their fighting force in 1774, they had thousands of men to call upon to fight—these were colony-trained militia which had existed for well over 100 years. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress had more trouble acquiring artillery and did authorize Warren to talk to men in Boston trained in those types of guns.

These men trained openly, not in the woods as shown in the episode. It was actually the law in Massachusetts to drill every few months. Gage knew this and didn’t make any attempt to stop this from happening. And he did not disarm the population; that is an oft-repeated myth that the series picks up and uses without any critical thought. Gage did not touch privately-owned guns and munitions because seizing private property would violate the law—the very thing Gage held dear.

Lord Percy, one of Gages’ subordinates, and other officers were quite upset about this. Percy noted, “The Gen’l has not yet molested them in the least. They have even free access to and from this town, tho’ armed with firelocks [muskets], provided they only come in small nos [numbers].”

But the historical accuracy of the action is completely lacking. There’s a daring raid on a powder store in an armory modeled on that at Colonial Williamsburg, that never took place. The British leave Boston pursuant to negotiations, but in fact they were forced out by rebel domination of the harbor, once Henry Knox (whose descendants may breathe a sigh of relief that he was not portrayed in the miniseries) delivered the cannon from Ticonderoga. Lexington and Concord are bloodier that small-h history shows, and the TV versions took place in large, empty fields while Lexington in particular was fought in and near the town. In fact, the whole miniseries ends with Washington facing Gage in a pitched battle at New York (in the real world, the Continental Army withdrew). We could go on (it seems like we already have, doesn’t it?), but the Journal of the American Revolution has gone into greater depth for you.

The bottom line

The History Channel seems to have concluded that its viewers want anything but small-h history, and who are we to argue with them? It’s a fun miniseries, but will be more enjoyable the less you know of the actual history.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD instant video page (at $9-10 an episode? Save your money, it’s supposed to be streaming for free on the History Channel website):

http://www.amazon.com/Sons-of-Liberty-Sneak-Peek/dp/B00S2CM0IS/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3782838/

  • IMFDB page:

nothing yet

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (55%, rotten):

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/sons-of-liberty/s01/

  • Wikipedia  page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sons_of_Liberty_(miniseries)

If Guns Don’t Cause Crime… What Does?

question markWe all know the arguments. Sure, a gun in the wrong hands can mete out violence, death, loss, and suffering. But the same gun in the right hands can bring joy. It can be a family heirloom, murmoring comfort across generations. And it can be a bulwark of righteousness, defending the weak from arbitrary cruelties at the hands of the strong and lawless.

The same gun, the very same. So we do not believe that guns cause crime.

If guns do not, though, what does? 

Open wide!

What if free will and bad choices aren’t the only reasons some criminals come to this?

Criminologist Adrian Raine of the University of Pennsylvania has a complex and troubling array of answers in The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime. Raine’s conclusions are equally troubling no matter what preconceptions you bring to the table, whether you’re a fuzzy-headed liberal who think bad penumbras emanating from firearms produce a Boston Strangler, or whether you’re a deterministic right-winger who takes a gunsmithing approach: for the ones we can’t just shoot dead, just apply some Loc-Tite to the loose nut behind the trigger.

The book follows the usual format for a book meant to popularize science data:

  • Some anecdotes draw the reader’s interest. In this case, they’re criminal anecdotes, and a great many will illustrate the story and keep you engaged as a reader. But even in the preface, Raine is used to crime from the victim’s viewpoint. Where he lives, in Philadelphia, one must expect to be robbed and burgled, and anyway, “I like to live close to my data.” He is confident, at least, that none of the Philadelphia Wealth Redistribution Specialists will seize any of his books. What would they want with those? Another criminal encounter, in Bodrum, Turkey, is violent.
  • Then, the data are presented. These include the usual weak tea of social science, where .3 passes for a strong correlation, but also newer science based in genetics — molecular and behavioral genetics alike. While the idea that behaviors have, at least in part, molecular, genetic and therefore heritable components is widely denied in modern society, it’s not the scientists doing the denying.
  • In time, the theory takes shape. Raine’s theory, in a nutshell, is that, “biological factors early in life can propel some kids toward adult violence.” He explores this at length, at the evidence pro and con, and notes that this “Dr Jekyll” view of crime that informs his science is at odds with the “Mr Hyde” view that has come from being a violent-crime victim.
  • To the extent a non-fiction book has a climax, it comes when he suggests paths forward. Like a real (as opposed to social) scientist, though, Raine is careful to show both pros and cons of his view of the future.
  • Finally, the book ends with a call for, what else? More research.

The Anatomy of Violence is a long way from providing a single answer; while we can aggregate crime data and see some trends, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that each crime is a discrete act, which involves discrete individuals, not population groups or a country at large.

MonopolyJailOur answer to the question posed in the title of this post would have been, “Well, duh. Criminals cause crime, what else?” But as attractive as it might be, that simple near-tautology doesn’t answer the real question. And that is the question that Raine has actually addressed: “what causes criminals?” There are surely a multiplicity of causes. but Raine zeroes in on a couple of axes that could be developed from recorded social science data indicators: traumatic delivery at birth, and maternal rejection.

Since criminal records don’t include things like stressful deliveries (he used such proxies as prematurity, fetal-alcohol syndrome, and, surprisingly, C-section) or maternal rejection (he used proxies like the presence of the infant in government sponsored care apart from his mother during his first year), Raine had to find or make studies that correlated data about the same people from different sources — easy in, say, Scandinavian countries where there are no qualms about academic use of Government-gathered cradle-to-grave data points, harder but possible in the Anglosphere, given some imagination.

(When referring to Raine’s criminals, “his” is used advisedly; the study is primarily of violent crime, and women violent criminals are tip-of-the-distro-tail outliers both as criminals and as women, despite centuries of pursuit of equality by all right-thinking people).

You can quibble about the markers Raine chose for this hard-infancy perfecta, you can propose alternatives, you can certainly suspect that he has found a Black Swan of coincidence rather than his true correlation. But the data are striking.

It turns out that the two problems together seem to have a strong and statistically significant correlation with later-in-life criminality, but, and here’s the kicker, each one individually does not. Nearly 10% of babies who had this, as we’ve called it, hard-infancy perfecta, would later wind up as youths in trouble with the law for violent crime.

That is just one of the findings in this fascinating book.

Raine’s book looks back to Cesare Lombroso, the father of criminology, who thought that crime had a biological basis in the brain, and that criminals were throwbacks to primitive hominids. “The theory he spawned turned out to be socially disastrous,” Raine writes, but noted that Lombroso divided criminals into those who could be rehabilitated — for whom he strongly supported rehabilitation — and those that could not — for whom Lombroso’s solution, the death penalty, might be merciful. Lombroso’s approach was rejected in favor of the 20th-Century sociological approach, the failure of which is evident in most inner cities. Raine, while saying all the proper things about Lombroso’s limitations, rejects the sociological approach, and finds the answer to crime in “the dark forces of our evolutionary past.”

The behavior that seems maladaptive in today’s criminal was adaptive in the evolutionary past, and in some cases, it remains adaptive today, genetically speaking.

Raine, for his part, as a solid liberal academic, is appalled at what he has found, but seems determined to follow the data wherever it goes, regardless of his distaste for what he is learning. He seems disturbed to think what sort of social interventions might be excused if the public gets a dim, incomplete or faulty idea of what a biological basis for crime means. He has a point there; even the strongest indicators he find of criminality yield a population that’s 9/10 not criminal. Prophylactically incarcerating everyone with birth trauma and a lousy mother would fill the prisons with innocent men who have overcome these disadvantages — an outcome that the data suggest is more common that being overcome by them.

(That says something about the resilience of human beings, doesn’t it? We’re pretty robust critters, for all the first-world-problems whining by “traumatized” spoiled children).

The answer, of course, is to continue to follow the data and learn, and cautiously to pursue societal interventions, if any, that seem likely to reduce those birthing and infantile traumas and other causative factors. Meanwhile we must continue to deal with crime and criminals the only way a free society can: as individual acts by individuals and small groups of individuals. Courts with their wooly-headed judges, posturing lawyers, and gutter-swept juries are not a perfect system, just better than everything else humanity has tried since Hammurabi’s day. (You wouldn’t want to be governed by his laws; go look them up).

One of the very best predictors of violent crime, for example, is being on parole or probation for violent crime. The societal intervention suggests itself, and the last several decades’ experiment with increased incarceration of the violent seems to have proved out, as most violent crime metrics have decreased as criminals have been disabled from their preferred vocations (or avocations) by being locked up. But whatever we do must be done whilst preserving the natural rights of men — yes, even of criminals. Anything else would be unworthy of the system bequeathed us by the Age of the Enlightenment.

Saturday Matinee 2015 03: American Sniper (2014)

American Sniper posterBy now you’ve already seen the trailer of American Sniper, and a good number of you have already seen the movie. You’ve certainly seen some of the other reviews, and some of the media controversy the film has stirred up. Thus, the question becomes: what can we add, without spoiling it for those who have yet to see the movie?

Hey! Impossible mission? Sounds like it’s right up our alley.

There’s several levels in this story: it’s a bio, a war story, a tragedy. It’s also a tale of a man’s and a family’s progress amid challenges that are expected, and the other kind of challenges, the ones that just happen to you regardless of what your own thoughts and desires might be.

American_Sniper_Bradley_Cooper

Clint Eastwood’s version of American Sniper, starring Bradley Cooper, is an incredibly on point and accurate portrayal of Chris Kyle. It sticks fairly close to the story in Kyle’s book (we’ll mention some of the deviations). We previously reviewed that book in these pages, and we liked it a lot. (We also reviewed his posthumous American Guns). We even reviewed Kyle’s only TV-series appearance, with several other SOF vets and several second-call Hollywood stars, on the “reality” show Stars Earn Stripes, in which a gang of surprisingly nervy Hollywood and sports celebrities competed in military-themed events, with cash donations to military charities at stake. So it’s fair to say that, before his murder, we were watching indulgently as Kyle grinned his way to the strange status of America’s Celebrity SEAL.

Eastwood and, especially, Cooper, have been blueprint-faithful to the character of Chris Kyle, even when they’ve diverged from his true story for the sake of Hollywood storytelling. The movie is, with some irritating exceptions, true to the many experiences of today’s SOF quiet professional: motivations, training, combat, the almost indecent thrill of combat victory and the indescribable heartache of combat loss.

The movie is particularly good about handling the process of reintegration to home, family, and stateside life in general. It is almost too good, almost creepily good. A lot of vets will be watching  some scenes, the impact of which we won’t spoil with detailed descriptions, and think: “Crap, was I like that when I came back? I guess I was.”

You do not have to go far to find a reviewer praising the film for its “message,” or condemning it, for the same reason. These reviewers are missing the story entirely. The message is a deep and personal one. It is that, as Sienna Miller says as Taya Kyle, “You don’t think this war has changed you, but it has.” And that’s the message — how war does change you, but if you’re lucky and grounded, like most of us, like Chris Kyle, with his solid family, it doesn’t change your character. For really, what ever does?

AMERICAN SNIPER MOV

Many of the reviewers who are deep into the politics of the film (politics that are scarcely there in the first place) are merely projecting their own beliefs onto the movie. Eastwood didn’t make an all-American flag-waver, like Wayne’s The Green Berets, here. He also didn’t make a typical Hollywood Iraq War emetic, either. The fans of the latter genre have been bashing American Sniper in close formation; the two most (unintentionally) entertaining were Dennis Jett’s review in The New Republic, which he wrote after seeing the trailer, and some acting coach’s strangled cry of heartache, that gets to his real issue in the fifth or sixth paragraph… George Bush!!1! 

For the record, George Bush does not appear in this movie. But he does show up in a certain kind of review.

Acting and Production

Cooper, most successful as a comic actor until now, is going to have a long and deep dramatic career, if this is any indication. He’s so incredibly good that people may forget that he was “the guy from the Hangover movies” before being cast as Kyle (Cooper also shared production credit). And Sienna Miller is absolutely convincing as Taya Kyle. It was only after seeing the movie that we saw an interview clip which told us she’s English, blonde, and beautiful in a Hollywood-glamorous way. Somehow she made a perfect showing as American, brunette, and beautiful in a girl-next-door way. The usual American or Brit trying to fake the other’s accent is dreadful. Miller isn’t. Hell, after seeing this, she could probably pull off Blofeld in the next Bond. We wouldn’t bet against her.

The rest of the cast is there for the exposition, mostly; Kyle’s ties with his teammates are implied more than shown.

We don’t have any idea how they got some of the shots they did, but I suspect that they’ve done some novel, or at least rare, technical stuff behind the cameras. We saw the movie with Kid and three other friends in an IMAX theater (the smaller sort that’s in a metroplex, not one of the big, purpose-built “real IMAX” ones) and were impressed. The audio was clear, which it isn’t always, these days.

AmericanSniper_firing position

We complain all the time about movies set in “Iraq” or “Afghanistan” that look like they were shot in the same California hills that have seen 500 B-westerns, and in “Hadji villages” that are clearly the same old “Mexican village” or “Dodge city” backlots with a day of half-hearted set dressing. We won’t do that here. The locations that stood in for Iraqi ones were fairly close. There are some giveaways in the picture above, like all the red brick. Still, somebody cared enough to try.

Accuracy and Weapons

Guns are front and center in any sniping story, and you want the guns to be right. The guns that screen-Kyle uses track closely with the ones that real-Kyle said he used in the book. In his early tours, he totes a Remington 700 in .300 Win Mag with a McMillan stock. (You can even read the rollmark, “Remington 700,” on one shot). On his last tour, he does have a McMillan .338. Defensively, he carries a short-barreled M4 (predating the Mk18) or Mk18. He and other SEAL snipers also use gas guns (Mk11, Mk12) and this is all accurate. Other SEALs carry Mk46 and Mk48 machine guns. For pistols, the SEALs carry SIG 226s, which are correct, as opposed to the Beretta M9s in Lone Survivor. The SEALs shoot suppressed a lot, and, mirabile dictu, the sounds are the sounds of suppressed rifles, not the usual Hollywood whifffff. The suppressor is the SOPMOD-correct Knight’s Armament Company QDSS-NT4.

The guns of the Iraqi enemy are not neglected, either. Iraqi snipers use Dragunovs and PSLs, but also, a weapons cache reveals a stashed Tabuk. Not many people in Hollywood could tell a Tabuk from Timbuktu, so somebody went out on a limb to get that detail right. Bravo Zulu, whoever you were. (According to IMFDB, it was film armorer Independent Studio Services, who had Two Rivers Arms Company build the Tabuks). All the other stuff in the cache is stuff you find in a good cache: AKMSes, Russian-pattern ‘nades, RPG-7Vs.

Americansniper-tabuk-1

 

SVD Reticle

This is what an SVD looks like from the operator end. The dashed, curved line lets you range a 1.7m high man from 200 to 1000m. Using the holdover chevrons depends on what range you zeroed at.

One small detail — when they show the view through an American sniper scope, they show a generic mildot reticle, or generic mill-crosshatch. Close enough (and we don’t presume to know what SEAL Team Three was running in Iraq). But they show something similar for the Dragunov, instead of the Dragunov’s crosshair + stadia lines for ranging + hold-over chevrons.

This may have been because, while the information on the Dragunov scope is useful to you if you’ve been trained to use it, it isn’t much use at all if you’re trying to watch a movie through it.

Nobody’s too worked up about reticles. But we’ve heard some complaints because some liberties have been taken with the facts of Kyle’s story, to punch the plot up and to provide some closure. This includes several deliberate departures from Kyle’s book and previous interviews. These include:

  • Telephone calls home on a satphone whilst in combat (but they did get the particular satphone model SOF were carrying during those years exactly right, a detail that amazed us).
  • A sniper duel with a named sniper who was supposedly an Olympic medalist. This appears to have been Hollywood punch-up; Chris was hunting a specific sniper, but didn’t get a chance to get him. According to Wikipedia (yeah, we know, that’s “according to random Internet bullshit), the sniper duel aspect was added to the screenplay when Steven Spielberg was involved as director.
  • An Iraqi torturer who punished “collaborators” with an electric drill. This actually did happen, but it does not appear to have happened to anyone tied to Kyle.
  • A pair of very long sniper shots. One is Kyle’s and does duplicate both the distance and the difficulty of a shot he actually took, but the movie changes the circumstances (sorry for vagueness; trying to avoid spoilers). The other is taken by an Iraqi with a Dragunov at nearly 2,000 meters. In expert hands, with match or sniper ammo, the Drag is a minute-of-angle gun, but in fact Iraqi sniper shots tend to be short range urban shots (<400m, often <200m, and sometimes <100m).

The ugly fact is that, while movies kind of rely on the plot being wrapped up neatly on schedule, for those of us whose tours are not going to be made into movies, there’s no closure to be had. Just a lot of open-ended questions really. You have to work it out on your own. (And come to think about it, Chris Kyle’s real life was like that, even though a version of it has been made into a movie).

The bottom line

American Sniper is the best movie about the Iraq War you’re likely to see in 2015. It’s one of the best depictions of the burden of war on warriors since… hmm… 12 O’Clock High. (Many movies since have gripped the third rail of preachy didacticism instead of the audience heartstrings they were reaching for). It’s also one of the best Eastwood directing efforts, and he’s been doing that a long time (lord love a duck, the guy is 84 years old!) Dulce et decorum est that it has already earned more for its producers than all of the preachy war-is-heck-no,-make-that-ick crap that Hollywood has sluiced out over the last dozen-plus years. Put together.

As a SEAL film, it beats the last quality leader, Act of Valor, on the strength of what Hollywood really does well, when it all comes together: script, acting, direction, cinematography. As a SEAL film, it beats the last box office leader, the deeply flawed Zero Dark Thirty. 

As a Special Forces veteran, we’re profoundly heartened that there is such a thing as a SEAL film genre, and that we have not got one. Frankly, we’d rather be the ones reviewing films about them, than having a bunch of frogmen reviewing films about us. 

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

That’s going to take a while.

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2179136/

  • IMFDB page:

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/American_Sniper

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/american_sniper/

  • Wikipedia  page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Sniper_(film)

 

We’ll Be Watching the Patriots, not the Football

Whether the ball is inflated more or less is a true #FirstWorldProblem, and wasn’t on the menu of the original Patriots for whom Belichick and Brady’s band of spheroidal-ball abusers are named. Fortunately, the original Patriots are coming to TV in a scripted historical miniseries, beginning this Sunday, 25 Jan 15, at 2100 R (2000 Central Time). It will run on three Sundays, for two hours each. No, no; as clarified in the comments, “Three consecutive nights (Sunday, 25th; Monday. 26th: Tuesday, 27th) 9:00 pm – 11:00 pm ET.” Thanks, Qajagon, whoever you may be.

sonsofliberty

We’ve mentioned before that we see the American Revolution as an insurgency, and we think that some of the issues related to that will be covered in the new History Channel miniseries, Sons of Liberty. It covers the initial events of the revolution, taking place in and around Boston in 1772 to 1776, including such high points as the Boston Massacre, the Tea Party, the initial battles of Lexington and Concord, the reinforcement of the Regulars, and the Battle of Bunker Hill. (It culminates, apparently, in the Declaration of Independence).

sonsofliberty_bunker_hilljpg

These battles were a fairly self-contained first phase of the Revolution. They were followed by the Colonial move to seize Fort Ticonderoga in the New York wilderness, and reinforce Charles Town and Dorchester Heights with the cannon (after an epic overland move), forcing the British and the throngs of loyalist refugees seeking their protection to abandon Boston and displace to New York and/or Canada. We don’t think those events are shown in this series, nor are some of the key events we’ve discussed here before, like the expulsion of the court from Worcester, or the raids on Fort William and Mary in Portsmouth. Paul Revere’s Ride is shown accurately (including its ignominious end, under the gun of a British officer; Dr. Samuel Prescott, whom Revere and his fellow rider William Dawes had picked up along the way, escaped and made it to Concord alone).

We grew up around the places where these events happened, and their history used to be taught in depth. As a result, many fictional depictions of the early Revolution sets our teeth on edge. But this one looks to have general historical accuracy, although there will no doubt be other issues with it.

For example, the actors speak in modern accents, rhythms, and language. This is probably intended to keep modern viewers interested.

But we think it will be a pretty good look at the underground and auxiliary, as well as the celebrated “Minutemen” militia that became the armed or guerilla element of the resistance to British rule. There is some effort spent on the intelligence side of the war, including an espionage ring that touched General Thomas Gage himself.

On the plus side, there are some great actors in this show. Fans of Breaking Bad will be pleased to see Dean Norris (“Hank Schrader”) in the role of larger-than-life Ben Franklin. Cousins Sam and John Adams, the radical firebrand and the even-handed lawyer, are played by Ben Barnes and Henry Thomas; John Hancock (Rafe Spall), Dr. Joseph Warren (Ryan Eggold), and Paul Revere (Michael Raymond-James) round out the headlining Patriots. George Washington (Jason O’Mara) makes a later appearance. On the British side, General Gage (Marton Csokas), his American wife Margaret (Emily Berrington), and Major John Pitcairn (Kevin Ryan) are represented. The battle scenes are small and closely shot (cable TV budget, after all) but the props and armory seem reasonable, based on previews.

sonsofliberty_attack

On the minus side, the show’s website is packed with spam and malware, including a pernicious   malware that tries to force connections to cdn.optimatic.com and collect personal information. Optimatic is supposedly an SEO tool (a fly-by-night business that attracts everything but legitimate businessmen in the first place) but testing seems to show it does not work. It does, however, collect information on you. So we’re not linking to the website.

Now, despite the category we put this in, it’s not a real review; we’ve only seen a few promos and squibs. We may have a review after we watch the first episode Sunday.

Saturday Matinee: Cocked (pilot, online TV, 2015)

cocked_paxson_auto_revolver_muzzle So, what’s the gun industry like? If you watch the pilot of Amazon’s potential new series, Cocked, it’s inhabited by some of the weirdest and least likeable people you could ever imagine meeting.

The company at the center of the show, Paxson Firearms, has been so mismanaged so long that it’s about to go paws up in, as one character notes, the best selling environment for firearms in history. Old Man Paxson (Brian Dennehy), who inherited and then built the business in decades out of mind, is out of touch; his son, middle-aged enfant terrible Grady (Jason Lee), is a hyper, unfocused cocaine addict.

They do manage a wry look at the SHOT Show.

They do manage a wry look at the SHOT Show in a rapid-fire montage that pokes fun at gun marketing excesses.

Mason (or is it Stacy?) in a fetching pose.

Mason (or is it Stacy?) in a fetching pose. Hollywood style.

“Beauty, bullets and blow,” he asks the camera, in a FIRE (the show’s clone of SHOT) show demo hotel, after he and two demo dollies, Mason and Stacy, sniff white powder off dummy pistols. “What more could a guy ask for?” One of the bimbos asks if he has a brother. It turns out, he does. But not the kind that will cavort.

Enter younger brother Richard (Sam Trammell), whose happy relationship with a solid family  is a glaring contrast to Grady’s never-grow-up juvenility. (Scots actress Laura Fraser, whom you may remember as crazy Lydia from Breaking Bad, is outstanding as Hannah, Richard’s loving but henpecking wife). A combination of frustration with his thankless role as an underling in a Big consulting firm, and the death throes of Paxson, gets Richard to leap off the partnership treadmill and return to the family business. That’s a slight spoiler, but when it happens it’s been telegraphed with such force and repetition that it’s been foreloomed more than foreshadowed, so we’re not giving much up here.

Grady takes a business meeting.

Grady takes a business meeting. Featuring Stacy and Mason. Or is it Mason and Stacy? Why doesn’t this ever happen to WeaponsMan.com at trade shows? Wait, does this happen to anybody at trade shows?

Grady is what people in Hollywood think top businessmen are like, because in their peculiar business, he’s exactly what top businessmen are like. Except that they’re more likely to be doing coke and banging two preteen boys. So most of the jaundiced view of the gun industry is just the usual Hollywierd suspects projecting. 

A merger is conducted, in this Hollywood gun industry, by threats and blackmail, with an offer rejected by pissing on the documents.

Literally.

In fact, Brian Dennehy urinates not once, but twice, at inflection points in the pilot’s plot. A key subplot revolves around the fact that Grady’s on parole for something involving drugs (hey, isn’t everybody? Robery Downey Jr was not available for comment) and can be required to pee in a cup at any time. (Does the director or one of the writers have urinary issues? Better get his prostate checked. This has been a public service of WeaponsMan.com).

The characters live in a house whose interior is a nightmare blend of Hearst Castle and Bannerman’s Island.

Like most Amazon original TV dramas, it’s trying hard to be more Hollywood than Hollywood, but its anti-gun politics are subdued and off center stage. In Cocked, the didactic message that is central to the show seems to be gun folks are all ate up. If any of you watched last year’ clever Alpha House, about four Senators sharing a Washington townhouse, you saw how a brilliant pilot (the opening scene is TV gold) deteriorated in three episodes into recycled jokes and plotlines from MSNBC and DailyKos. (Including, naturally, anti-gun snark and themes). What happened after about Episode 3, your reviewer is among the 99.999% of Amazon Prime members who couldn’t stay interested enough to learn (despite a fantastic cast led by John Goodman as a burned-out North Carolina senator).

Acting and Production

There’s workmanlike performances by most, especially the two “brothers,” but the presence of notorious Stolen Valor case Brian Dennehy in a top-billed role is an irritant for real vets and anyone who respects them. Dennehy is a solid actor, and his role is a secondary one, as the patriarch of the family. Clearly the main load is going to be carried by the next generation. (Indeed, they’ve laid the groundwork to write him out if Dennehy should kick the bucket. Not that we wish the old fellow that kind of ill).

Sam Trammell and Jason Lee seem to both be at their best, or perhaps best-exploited by this director, in reaction shots. Trammell can say a lot with the set of his jaw, and has to, because his character is one that is prone to deference.

Some money was spent on the production, although locations that are supposed to be in Virginia horse country instead are clearly in the barren, arid scrubland of the Southwest — probably California.

This is the Virginia hills, it says here.

This is the Virginia hills, it says here. Suuuure. What the hell, at least there’s no zombies or vampires (sparkly or otherwise).

The score also needs to be mentioned: it’s crap, especially the intro theme. Crap. Consider it mentioned. The sole exception is when an Allegro from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is dragged out for contrast in a scene with Grady shooting watermelon “heads” off of manikins and blowing up bottles; even this production can’t screw up Vivaldi.

Weapons and Accuracy

There’s no real attempt to depict firearms accurately or even plausibly. The “secret weapon” that Grady totes into the mock SHOT show in the opening scenes turns out to be, in the amazed word of one of the employees, “It’s a revolver… and it’s semi-automatic! I’d leave my wife for that gun. You are a goddamn engineering genius.”

The Paxson Auto Revolver. Man, it's fugly.

The Paxson Auto Revolver. Man, it’s fugly.

But this bizarre mock-up, this undead Webley-Fosbery that’s intended to sell for $1,200, has been copied by a competitor, who offers his knock-off for $599. So in their fictional gun industry, there are two firms (and Lord knows how many customers) who have absolutely no sense of aesthetics.

Richard, a management consultant, brainstorms ways to unload the unwanted semi-automatic-revolvers. The marketing brainstorm he strikes, far from being one neglected by industry, is one that some industry firms have pursued for years, and will leave anybody in the industry going, “What’s the big deal? We have nothing against those people and have taken their money every day for centuries.” But Hollywood can’t imagine a gun industry that isn’t biased against a minority group. (To their credit, they do show minority workers at Paxson, although not to the extent that they really exist in the industry).

There are occasional snippets of gun culture which show that the writers have done a little research, including the sort of over-the-top reaction some have when untutored newbs violate safety rules they haven’t learned yet. There’s a lot of potential here (they really need Rick Taylor, World’s Greatest Tactical Instructor), but it’s hard to imagine them not squandering it.

The fictional companies in the Hollywood version of industry are Paxson Firearms and Rayburn, which was founded by the prodigal uncle of the Paxson family. Paxson’s back story was that it made bicycles and other household appliances and started making guns in 1938. During the war, it made M1 rifles. Lately, it has lost money and fallen behind the industry, in part because of the old man’s preference for unfashionable products, and certainly also because of a lack of professional management, and the immaturity of the heir apparent. Those things can happen, of course, in any industry, and they have considerable entertainment potential.

The Bottom Line

Amazon was looking for a breakout series when they made this. They’re still looking. Last year’s great hope, Alpha House, went from a fun pilot with a great cast to must-we-watch-this-? TV in three episodes. (We don’t know where it went after that. Watching it is free, but the time isn’t).

The show can’t really decide if it’s a drama or a comedy, so it drops unsatisfyingly in the hole in between, mostly on the drama side. In the end, the writers and actors don’t truly respect the sort of people that they are portraying, even to the degree that writers and actors respect their characters who might be horrible criminals, and that makes the whole thing feel inauthentic and phoned-in, despite a lot of hard work by the cast and crew.

If they make more episodes, we would probably watch them. There’s an ironic parallel for Amazon here: a chance here, like the one Richard talks the on-screen business into taking, to reach a demographic that is historically underserved, canine loyal, and flush with wealth that Hollywood can’t tap in to: the People of the Gun. Will they take that chance, or play to the neighbors in Brentwood and Laurel Canyon?

Saturday Matinee 2014 052: The Interview

If you haven’t taken up life underneath a geological feature, you must be aware of the James Franco/Seth Rogen comedy The Interview. Kid dropped the $15 on Google Play to own it, and then he came downstairs, laughing himself silly, and insisting we needed to see it. Like any 15-year-old these days, his sense of humor is attuned to the coarse, even crude comedies being made now, and this one was right up that alley.

TheInterviewPoster3

 

Except for one thing: it was funny.

The laughs begin with the opening, as a cute Korean girl sings a beautiful song, with lyrics (rendered in English subtitles) that start off as typical our-lovely-country anodyne patriotism but soon take a new direction that’s completely at odds with the adorable kid and the pretty melody.

The plot has been telegraphed in many a news story, as well as the trailer: a vain and shallow late-night-show host, Dave Skylark (Franco), and his equally juvenile producer Aaron Rappaport (Rogen), win a chance to interview Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un — which becomes a chance to assassinate him, because while nobody in Hollywood has the least awareness of anything the CIA actually does, everyone on the better side of Pasadena knows it’s an assassination shop, right?

Look, roll with it. The story is less plausible than a Disney cartoon, and those are based on fairy tales, for crying out loud. Nobody watches this for the plot. You watch to see a Franco/Rogen buddy film, and to laugh that part of your anatomy that too many of the jokes will be about clean off.

Acting and Production

James Franco is a remarkably flexible actor, who loses himself in his parts, in this case Dave Skylark, a shallow simpleton of a TV personality who has a shallow, simple show. TV viewers being who they are, it’s a huge hit. In the opening scenes, he helps a very unlikely celebrity break the news that he’s gay (we won’t spoil it), and then we learn that it’s his and Aaron’s 1,000th show together — 10 years on the air. Dave is shallow all the way down, but Aaron is troubled by doubts about the seriousness of what he’s doing — even as he revels in it. Numerous small details from the first act go dormant in your mind, but they’ll be fulfilled in the third.

 

If you’ve seen Pineapple Express you’ve seen similar performances from Rogen and Franco, with Rogen’s character the one struggling to occasionally act like an adult (and often falling short), and Franco’s not even trying. They’re great as a buddy pair, and better in this dopey comedy than in Pineapple’s doper comedy, which could have been done by Cheech and Chong. (The problem with Cheech and Chong is that, unlike Rogen and Franco, doper comedy is all they could do).

There are several breakout performances by minor actors. The one everyone’s talking about is Randall Park, who’s killer as Kim Jong-Un, a complex part with layers of layers.

Kim Jong Un (Randall Park, center) in Columbia Pictures' THE INTERVIEW.

Accuracy and Weapons

This is probably not the right movie to pick if we’re going to key on accuracy, and there’s a rather minimal attempt to make things accurate. Yes, the Norks do have Soviet-style weapons, including a T-55 tank (complete with Cyrillic stencilling), but there is more of an attempt to get the Gestalt of North Korea and its armed forces than to nail any particular details.

The-Interview-Tank

There are a few pieces of Western equipment imitating Nork gear, including a Sikorsky S-61 helicopter and VW Type 183 Iltis jeeps, some of which go head to head with the T-55. Would it be a spoiler to tell you who wins?

Wrong helicopter, sure, but this is not the sort of movie that needs the right one.

Wrong helicopter, sure, but this is not the sort of movie that needs the right one.

American weapons include a bizarre assassination poison, that is basically a plot device, and a drone armed with a gadget whose basic raison d’être is another plot point.

 

Indeed, all the weapons used in the film are there to serve certain plot points.

The bottom line

We’d have urged you to see the movie anyway, on defense-of-free-speech principles. But the fact is that we went from laughing, to chuckling and chortling, back to laughing, to roaring with laughter. It is a modern comedy, meaning there’s a lot of unnecessary foul language and a lot of superfluous sex and gross-out content. But it’s a funny comedy.

At the movie’s end, we felt well entertained and didn’t grudge Franco and Rogen (and Evan Goldberg, who shared directorial duties with Rogen) the time. It was an extra sweetener that Kid bought us the movie with money he made at his own job.

Some people find North Korea to be not especially funny. The comical Kims have had a lot of real human victims, and it’s hard to see the laughter in that. Well, we don’t think Charlie Chaplin thought Hitler was really a barrel of laughs when he made The Great Dictator, either. But we think he was on to something. The Norks’ thin-skinned reaction to the film shows that it was right on target. (As do Sony’s and the exhibitors’ craven capitulation). If you want serious news about North Korea, the Volokh Conspiracy has a story about a lawsuit that shows just what sort of man Korean princeling Kim Jong-Un is, and just what sort of principality he rules. The Conspiracy’s Jonathan Adler quotes from the DC Circuit Court of Appeals’s judgment:

Admissible record evidence demonstrates that North Korea abducted Reverend Kim [no relation to the royal family -Ed.], that it invariably tortures and kills political prisoners, and that through terror and intimidation it prevents any information about those crimes from escaping to the outside world. Requiring a plaintiff to produce direct, firsthand evidence of the victim’s torture and murder would thus thwart the purpose of the terrorism exception: holding state sponsors of terrorism accountable for torture and extrajudicial killing.

Yes, dictatorships are serious business indeed. That’s why our best comedians need to be lampooning them. Please reward Seth Rogen and James Franco (and their whole cast & crew) for making The Interview. See their movie.

But if a scheduler for Dave Skylark calls you, you’re not in, m’kay?   

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page :

Not available yet. Try on Google Play:

https://play.google.com/store/movies/details/The_Interview

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2788710/

  • IMFDB page:

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/The_Interview

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page: it has a 49%, “rotten,” rating, driven down by pro critics like Evan Burr at The Boston Globe who are trying to curry favor with the Norks or something.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_interview_2014/

  • Wikipedia  page:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Interview_(2014_film)

 

The Cuban Winchester

These days, with Cuba in the news and our President bowing and scraping to los hermanos pollos Castros, is a good time to reflect on the arms of the Cuban Revolution. A recent biography of one of the many tragic figures of the war, Comandante Americano William Morgan, contained a few brief paragraphs about a homemade gun, the “Cuban Winchester.”

One night, [former Second Front training officer Regino] Camacho came over to Morgan, and the two began talking. The other rebels watched as the two huddled over an old Winchester, piecing together the parts to put it back together. They had patched up their differences.

By the morning, the two had devised a homemade assault rifle. Using the frame of a 1907 Winchester and combining it with other parts, they created a base so the gun could fire with interchangeable barrels, depending on what ammo was available. They called it the Cuban Winchester.

This book (The Yankee Comandante by Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss) does have different details from other sources, but the authors have made scant attempt to document their sourcing, and no source at all is given for this. On top of that, Sallah and Weiss clearly have no interest in or understanding of firearms; a picture showing Comandante Morgan posing with his rebel girlfriend describes their arms, an M1 Thompson and an M1 Carbine, as “assault rifles.” But it interested us enough to track down other references to the Cuban Winchester, such as they are, and to tentatively conclude that the gun was a one-off for propaganda purposes.

We were able to find a video online from which we’ve taken some stills of the actual weapon. The actual video is embedded near the end of this post. (The images do embiggen but they’re originally pretty grainy scans from halftone, from Guns magazine in October, 1959[.pdf]).

cuban_winchester_closeup

Remembering something about this, we hit the Unconventional Warfare Operations Research Library, and in its needs-better-organized 3,000+ volume stacks, we found the following in Robert K. Brown’s Merc: American Soldiers of Fortune from the 1980s:

As Morgan later related in an interview with author Brown: “The Cuban Army periodically sent out two thousand to three thousand troops in offensive thrusts into the mountains to hunt us down and destroy our small bands. We were always outnumbered at least thirty to one. Some twenty or thirty of us would stay on the soldiers’ backs; we wouldn’t let them alone. As soon as one group would break off another would take up the attack. That was how we had to fight. Why? We needed the guns.”

Weapons were indeed a problem. The 26 July Movement was getting most of the foreign support going to the Cuban revolutionaries. Their public-relations personnel and contacts in the United States were better than any other group at the time. Even when weapons were shipped to the Second Front, Castro’s men frequently managed to intercept them.

Morgan found an experienced gunsmith who had seen action in the Spanish Civil War and in a number of South American revolutions and intrigues. Captain Camacho, as he was called, scrounged up welding equipment, lathes, and a forge, to set up the revolution’s army. He invented unique, effective weapons to compensate for the guerrillas’ shortfall, making them out of parts available or captured locally. An inventive genius, one of his more widely known items was called the “Cuban-Winchester” by those who used it. He used the frame of a .44 lever action Winchester rifle produced in the 1890s and combined it with parts from Winchester semi-automatic rifles, M-1 Garand rifles, and a few handmade parts. He reamed out his own barrels and, depending on what ammo was available locally, the user could select .45 ACP, U.S. .30 carbine, or 9mm caliber by switching barrels. The weapon could utilize many different types of pistol magazines, including the efficient Luger 32-round “snail drum.”

Morgan reported that this gun bad limited accuracy, but was highly regarded due to its firepower. He himself preferred British 9mm submachine guns, due to their light weight and the light weight of the 9mm ammo. During the guerrilla experiences, he noted the difference a heavier gun and ammo made when trying to move fast and far.

Morgan’s interview with Brown was previously used in a brief Guns Magazine report in October, 1959 (p. 17); Guns has put the entire issue online (.pdf), and here is the story:

THEY “‘ROLLED THEIR OWN” IN CUBA

CUBAN CHOPPER WAS ASSEMBLY OF WINCHESTER RIFLE. M-l CARBINE. AND HAND-MADE PARTS IN THREE OPTIONAL CALIBERS.

PRODUCT OF CUBAN ingenuity and Yankee drive is the “Cuban Winchester,” emergency weapon of the revolution. Commandante William Morgan, an American fighting with the Revolutionary Army, thought up the idea in searching for greater firepower. Together with Captain Camacho, grizzled old gunsmith who had fought in the Spanish Civil War, the recent Venezuelan fracas and other South American scrapes, they put together 10 of the conglomerate arms pictured — prize creation of Camacho’s machine shop in the hills which also turned out grenades, machine guns, home-made cannon and anti-tank mines. It took three or four men about two weeks to complete one gun. In this little gem, the slide. recoil and trigger mechanism are a blending of M-l Carbine and handmade parts inside a Winchester .351 Self-Loading frame. The stock is whittled out by hand. Rebored interchangeable barrels allowed Morgan’s men to fire .45, 9mm, or .30 Carbine ammo, depending on what was for supper that night. Ammo capacity depended on the type of magazine used: either altered Star pistol clips or a drum.

According to Morgan, the short barrel length limited accuracy to “about 25 yards. However, it threw enough lead to allow us to even up the odds a little, as well as give confidence to the men,” the 30-year old ex-paratrooper told me. “Morgan’s combat experience included a world wide assortment of weapons, but he prefers the British Sten or improved Sterling submachine guns. He described the British weapons as having less recoil and weight yet a greater effective range than the American Thompson or M3 grease gun. “Furthermore,” he emphasized, “weight difference between 9 mm ammo and .45 makes a hell of a difference in favor of the 9mm when you’re off on a 40 mile hike in the Cuban backwoods.”

cuban_winchester_stripped

The gun is also mentioned, briefly, in Aran Shetterly’s The Americano: Fighting with Castro for Cuba’s Freedom, another bio of Morgan. Shetterly describes Morgan (pp. 160-161) as

[P]osing with a “Cuban Winchester” (a regular bolt-and-lever Winchester rifle that the weapons doctor, Regino Camacho, had turned into a semiautomatic).

Previously, Shetterly introduced Camacho (p. 56):

 Like young baseball players being handed their first uniforms, bats, and gloves, Menoyo’s men thrilled at the sight of the shipment of arms. It was an odd assortment of weapons from shady dealers and pawnshops from Miami to New Jersey. There were 50 Italian carbines, a Thompson submachine gun and two English Stens that could fire 550 rounds per minute, two Springfield rifles, a Garand, five Remington semi-automatic rifles, one M1 and two M3’s, carbines, and thousands of rounds of munition [sic]. Menoyo handled the Sten to Morgan, knowing that he was one of the few men in the group who could handle a submachine gun.

In addition to the weapons, there were tents, uniforms, knapsacks, lanterns, and other essential tools and supplies, including a few old military helmets. One of these was a big, heavy Nazi helmet that a pawnshop proprietor had tossed in with the guns. Only one young man, a country boy named Publio, had a head big enough to wear it – and he did.

Every piece of hand-me-down war refuse would find a home. The weapons that didn’t work would be investigated and retooled by a bespectacled Spanish machinist named Regino Camacho. Camacho could turn a rifle into a submachine gun, or fit the clip of an American repeating rifle into the equivalent Italian firearm.

The single “Cuban Winchester” ever seen in photos appears to have been made from a .351 Winchester 1907 semiauto, based on the photos, not a lever action. This was a simple blowback design, meant to be a less expensive competitor to Remington’s expensive Browning-designed Model 8. It is fitted with a new stock including a pistol grip, a new forearm with the operating handle relocated to the right side, a cut-down barrel, and a strange drum magazine made from the drum of a 1st Model Luger TM.08 “snail” drum, and the body of a straight magazine of some kind.

The weapon is claimed to have been made in a quantity of 10, but Morgan’s Second Front were excellent propagandists and poor narrators, so all we know for sure is that one was made. No image shows more than a single firearm.

Moreover, no picture we have shows more than one single firearm or any variation that suggests more than one existed. In addition, no photo shows anything that might be the interchangeable barrel mechanism, and all pictures appear to show the same 1st Model TM.08 snail drum, a unit that was designed for the 9mm cartridge and would not adapt well to some of the rounds claimed for the “Cuban Winchester.”

Is this, perhaps, a propaganda weapon designed to promote the 2nd Front? Or, perhaps, even, to conceal the 2nd Front’s actual weapons sources? Did it even function? In some details it resembles the gangster specials of the 1930s, like the Hyman Lebman guns made for the Dillinger gang, as recounted here in 2013.

Replica of the Hyman Lebman Dillinger Gun, which may have inspired Camacho.

Replica of the Hyman Lebman Dillinger Gun, the original of which may have inspired Camacho.

A tragic figure, Morgan was a subordinate leader to Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo in something called the Second Front of the Escambray, a revolutionary group whose opposition to Batista was grounded in Enlightenment republican thought and values, as opposed to the Movimiento 26º de Julio whose values were those of Marxism-Leninism. They quickly came into opposition with the dominant Communists after the Revolution, and tried to play double-agents between the Communist Castro brothers and Che on the one hand, and the staunchly anticommunist Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo. Morgan and Menoyo had been betrayed by the US Ambassador, who at the time was operating under the sway of Castro’s and Che’s ostensible charisma. Not knowing whether or not they could trust Morgan, Castro and Che solved the problem their usual way, having Morgan shot after their victory. His wife was allowed to emigrate to the United States in the Mariel boatlift. Menoyo escaped to the USA, but would be betrayed on a later mission to Cuba and spend decades in prison.

Despite Morgan’s boast to Brown of being an “ex-paratrooper,” he was no such thing. Morgan was an Army veteran, but as if often the case among would-be mercenaries, he was a failure as a soldier, earning only a dishonorable discharge. The state of Cuban guerrilla training in the late 1950s was such that even such an undistinguished and brief career made him a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.

None of these books is entirely trustworthy about Morgan. The Brown book lapses into mercenary fandom, and the new biography, written by two Toledo Blade journalists, commits the usual journalistic sins; true to newsroom culture, they don’t let themselves be distracted from good storytelling by a meaningless quest for accuracy. For example, while there are multiple legends of such things as Morgan’s death, the narrative-happy journos pick the one that most serves their narrative arc, and don’t even inform their readers that there are others.

Here is the video, from JMantime, whose channel has a lot of weapons-related content. We’re not aware of any photos of the Cuban Winchester other than the handful in this video, which were all in Brown’s Guns magazine article.

 

Sources:

Brown, Robert K., and Mallin, Jay. Merc: American Soldiers of Fortune. New York: McMillan, 1979.

Sallah, Michael, and Weiss, Mitch. The Yankee Comandante: The Untold Story of Courage, Passion, and One American’s Fight to Liberate Cuba. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2015.

Shetterly, Aran. The Americano: Fighting with Castro for Cuba’s Freedom. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2007.

Apart from the sources listed above and linked in the article, there’s a trove of Morgan-related material at LatinAmericanStudies.org, including a good bit of primary source material, and many of the Toledo Blade stories that were fleshed out into Sallah and Weiss’s book. Retrieve from: http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/morgan/

Simple Sabotage Field Manual

simple_sabotage_field_manual_coverWe thought for sure we had featured this already, but if so, we can’t find it on the site. This is a sabotage manual  dating to 17 January 44 . It was classified SECRET but was declassified long ago — 14 June 76, to be precise.

It is only 32 pages long, typeset but with no illustrations. It’s rather typical of OSS training materials in that it seems to use a sort of Socratic method, where the book, film or other training method is not aimed to teach people simple rote skills, but to spur deeper discussions and thought.

Despite its limits, there is a lot to be had here, including from the introduction by BG William Donovan to the closing suggestions, “General Devices for Lowering Morale and Creat­ing Confusion.” (And yes, it does seem like that last part of the manual has been in use by everyone in DC for quite a few years).

Some of the suggestions border on the whimsical:

Saturate a sponge with a thick starch or sugar solution. Squeeze it tightly into a ball, wrap it with string, and dry. Remove the string when fully dried. The sponge will be in the form of a tight hard ball. Flush down a W. C. or otherwise introduce into a sewer line. The sponge will gradually expand to its normal size and plug the sewage system.

Here is the book in .pdf:

SimpleSabotageFieldManualStrategicServicesProvisional.pdf

Or, if you want it in .mobi for Kindles and Kindle-reader apps, or, in .epub for iBooks, or several other file formts, you can find it at web.archive.org.

 

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Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week: full30.com

You may have been to Full30.com already, as it’s the home of InRangeTV, which we’ve been remiss about promoting, and have been meaning to plug. We’ll let Ian and Karl explain what InRange is:

InRange is a collaborative project between Ian McCollum (Forgotten Weapons) and Karl Kasarda. After watching the gun program landscape of cable television decline into a wasteland of explosions and ginned-up drama, they decided to produce a show that would appeal [to] the intelligent and sophisticated gun owners and gun enthusiasts worldwide.

In an internet video world that’s dominated by the childish play of FPSRussia and the soporific ramblings of 30-minute gun reviews, is there room for a show for the thinking gun enthusiast?

Here’s a far-out example: Karl in a 2-gun match with an updated FG 42. Before you laugh at the idea that a 70-year-old design can keep up with a “modern” AR (which is, after all, a 60-year-old design), watch to the end and see how Karl did out of 47 shooters. And here’s a follow-up with Karl and Ian discussing the features of the modernized FG. It’s like hanging out with two fellow gun nuts — in HD. “We’re putting out this video because we think this is an awesome gun,” Ian says.

In addition to those, there are a handful of other videos from InRange already posted. They’re all good, whether it’s Karl describing the forgotten battle at Dragoon Springs where a small Confederate foraging patrol found itself overwhelmed by… Apaches, one of their patented historical-gun matchups at a live 2-gun match, or an interview with AR pioneer Jim Sullivan.

“But wait!” our inner Ron Popeil cries out. “There’s more!”

Because Full30.com isn’t just the host of InRange TV, even though InRange is our favorite channel there (imagine a cable network with different channels; that’s what Full30 is for people interested in gun-related videos).

Some of the bigger guns (pun definitely intended) of YouTube notoriety are here, including MAC (the Military Arms Channel) and Iraq Veteran 8888. Here, for an example, is a very thorough video by MAC about the FN F2000 and especially FS2000 rifles that hits all the high points (ergonomics, for example, forward ejection makes it ambi-friendly) and low points (STANAG mags only, thank you very much) of the system. The video actually made us want one.

 

Rotten Read Review: Berenson: The Shadow Patrol

Berenson Shadow PatrolThere is a downside to having the sort of personal characteristics that Special Forces either selects for, or develops in, a guy. Prominent among these characteristics is a level of persistence that is not normally found in neurotypical human beings.

That sounds like a wonderful thing, and it is, when you’re trying to cover 12 miles in 2 ½ hours with a broken rucksack frame, after a week with little food and no sleep. It comes in handy when you’re dealing with such persistence-killers as the cable monopoly and the Registry of Motor Vehicles, too. Or trying to train a teenager, or a dog. But you can probably imagine some circumstances when it’s maladaptive. For a bunch of guys who probably hold some global collective divorce percentage record, we have a tendency to cling to exes that ought to be set free. And we tend to finish every book we start, even if the book stinks.

In middle age, we can remember every single book we didn’t finish — fewer than 20 –, and we’ve probably averaged four books a week since childhood. We have no illusion that’s normal, even if Dogged Book Syndrome lacks a definition in the DSM-IV.

And that was our exact problem with Alex Berenson’s The Shadow Patrol. (New York: Putnam, 2012). That mindless compulsion to finish a book that we did not like.

It started off well enough. The book has an attractive jacket, with mountains that really look like Afghanistan, unlike so many illustrations that draw their inspiration from the Southwestern USA — or from Warner Brothers’ cartoon version of Road Runner fame. True, the four or five mosques cheek by jowl is a bit puzzling, but we put it down to an artist who thinks Islam is just like Christanity and so various mosques cluster like churches in a New England town square, Sunni and Shia and Ismailis nodding to another on their way to prayers like Lutherans and Congregationalists and Episcopalians (whom you can tell, as their nods are a bit shallower and more uptight).

That’s not a view anyone who’s lived among the Moslems of Southwest Asia might take, but, we can cut the artist some slack. No Afghan mountain tribesman lives in a society more rigid or isolating than the New York arts and publishing circle, after all.

But the book, per the sort of glance one gives a blurb and front matter in a store, had more promise. Many reviewers praised Berenson as a spy novelist. There were red flags, if we’d caught them. Berenson’s a New York Times reporter who’s covered three stories the Times has done a lousy job on: Iraq, Katrina, and the Madoff fraud. Anybody writing for the Times has to be assumed to be hostile to, and mystified by, today’s military. But… against that, there is this: a dedication To all the men and women still fighting. And an acknowledgement of an embed with American troops. Could be promising.

And all those reviewers said he was the best since Len Deighton, Graham Greene, Eric Ambler.

Nope.

While the story starts off promising, with a much-altered retelling of the incident in which a supposed agent turned out to be a double and eliminated a number of CIA officers and contractors with a suicide bomb, it quickly devolves into a canned retelling of all the 99 bad movies about troops smuggling drugs in Vietnam.

Even his infantrymen come right out of bad Vietnam movies — poor, minority, stupid, in the Army only because they lack any other options in life. The rogue troops doing the drug smuggling — how they do it is never made really clear — aren’t even bright enough to do crime on their own, but they have to be led by, wait for it… rogue CIA agents.

It’s one more tale in which the valiant guy with the pedigree like a New York Times writer has met the enemy, and they are, naturally, the renegades and bloodthirsty, soulless vampires of the Stryker Brigades and, naturally, Delta.

Here’s an example of the sort of bullshit Berenson writes:

Francesca would be bummed when this tour was finished. It was his third and last. Not his choice. The Army gave you only three. In the three tours, two in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, he’d racked 56 kills, a good number, especially with the drones doing so much work these days. Maybe good was the wrong word. Francesca wondered whether all that killing had changed him. Course it had. Back home, civvies called guys like him serial killers. The more he pulled the trigger, the easier it came. He’d given up waiting for God or anyone else to punish him. He hadn’t been hit by lightning or gotten cancer or gone blind. He was in the best shape of his life. Plenty of money in the bank, and more coming. The Joes treated him like a minor god.

He wasn’t too worried about payback in the next world either. He’d watched close through his scope for souls leaving the man he killed. Hadn’t seen a single one. Only the red mist, the cloud of blood and tissue that shrieked from the body when a bullet cut through. The afterlife was a fable for little boys and girls. Not real men like him.

Yeah, that’s definitely how snipers think. And that’s why they start smuggling drugs and murdering Americans.

If you’re some assclown with a cube on 43rd Street, that’s how you think they think, anyway.

Berenson’s dim insight into the inner lives of his own characters doesn’t end there; it’s pretty universal. Another character is supposedly a convert to Islam, a conversion that not only is never explained, but that makes no visible impression upon the character, who can’t even bestir himself to salat. It seems more likely that what we’re seeing is Berenson’s projection of his own wishy-washy and disbelieving relationship with his own ancestral faith, whatever it isn’t.

The guy can write reasonable dialogue, and he can write a reasonable action scene, although some of his stuff, again, indicates he slept through his embed and falls back on movie fandom to understand guns and gunfights. In one crucial scene, a character sneaks up on a sniper team armed only with a Makarov and no spare mag, and a knife. (It’s OK, though, because his Makarov fits ten rounds in the eight-round mag; yes, there’s allegedly a 10-round Mak magazine out recently, but you won’t find it in Afghanistan).

Realistic? Did we tell you he kills them?

…even though they detect his approach?

…. and without any injury to himself?

… and… and…  (here’s the best part) … he sneaks up to them on a motorcycle?

That’s how dreadful this book is.