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March 31, 2010

Morning tulips

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It was overcast this morning, a soft, pale light streaming through the kitchen windows as I sat, drinking my coffee. I looked at the flowers sitting on the counter and began thinking about how best to use the light. For this shot I closed a sheer roller blind to the left of the vase, creating deep shadows, then underexposed two stops to bring the highlights down.

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Three pink tulips nestle together, softly glowing, separated by a spray of verdant leaves.

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A yellow tulip, just beginning to open, bashfully hides from view as its pink cousin revels in the attention.

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The green leaves seem to glow quietly in the background, the purple flower's highlights drawing the eye.

Posted by Mike Lief at 11:00 PM | Comments (3)

March 26, 2010

Coquettish Calla Lily

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The recent rains have rejuvenated the plants in the backyard, awakened them from their Winter slumber, flowerbuds appearing in every corner, slowly unfurling, basking in the suns's warm rays. The sensuous curves of the Calla Lily seem designed to draw the eye -- yet shield the flower's core from view.

Posted by Mike Lief at 12:15 AM

March 25, 2010

Afternoon tulips

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With the return of Daylight Savings Time, the late-afternoon sun shines directly into my front door, bathing the inside of the house in warm, golden hues. I got home from work and grabbed my camera and the latest batch of freshly-cut tulips, intent on taking advantage of the lighting before the sun slipped below the horizon.

Posted by Mike Lief at 06:28 AM

March 23, 2010

Bogie and Roscoe: Afternoon hounds

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I glanced over at Bogie and noticed the setting sun was casting a warm glow on one side of his face, the cool shade from the backyard backfilling the shadows -- and grabbed my camera.

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Roscoe seems to resent not being the focus of attention, so he immediately sat down in front of Bogie.

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Bogie seemed more interested in what was going on outside, while Roscoe peered intently up at me, lower lip thrust forward, as if he was urgently trying to tell me something.

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The sound of the ice cream truck, "Turkey in the Straw" blaring from the battered speakers hanging haphazardly from every corner of the ramshackle vehicle, instantly drew Roscoe's attention to the gaggle of kids running into the street.

Posted by Mike Lief at 08:03 AM

March 14, 2010

The Pacific

Time magazine recently interviewed Tom Hanks, part of the roll out of his new HBO miniseries, The Pacific, the companion piece to the unequaled retelling of the war in Europe, Band of Brothers. During the interview, Hanks appeared to draw a kind of moral equivalence between the Japanese -- running riot throughout the Far East for much of the 1930s and '40s -- and the American Marines, who fought terrible, blood-soaked battles in an effort to roll back the gore-flecked borders of Hirohito's empire.

Hanks said:

“Back in World War II, we viewed the Japanese as ‘yellow, slant-eyed dogs’ that believed in different gods. They were out to kill us because our way of living was different. We, in turn, wanted to annihilate them because they were different. Does that sound familiar, by any chance, to what’s going on today?”

Hanks' remarks drew a swift rebuke from historian Victor Davis Hanson:

Hanks thinks he is trying to explain the multifaceted Pacific theater in terms of a war brought on by and fought through racial animosity. That is ludicrous. Consider:

1) In earlier times, we had good relations with Japan (an ally during World War I, that played an important naval role in defeating imperial Germany at sea) and had stayed neutral in its disputes with Russia (Teddy Roosevelt won a 1906 Nobel Peace Prize for his intermediary role). The crisis that led to Pearl Harbor was not innately with the Japanese people per se (tens of thousands of whom had emigrated to the United States on word of mouth reports of opportunity for Japanese immigrants), but with Japanese militarism and its creed of Bushido that had hijacked, violently so in many cases, the government and put an entire society on a fascistic footing. We no more wished to annihilate Japanese because of racial hatred than we wished to ally with their Chinese enemies because of racial affinity. In terms of geo-strategy, race was not the real catalyst for war other than its role among Japanese militarists in energizing expansive Japanese militarism.

2) How would Hanks explain the brutal Pacific wars between Japanese and Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, Japanese and Filipinos, and Japanese and Pacific Islanders, in which not hundreds of thousands perished, but many millions? In each of these theaters, the United States was allied with Asians against an Asian Japan, whose racially-hyped “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” aimed at freeing supposedly kindred Asians from European and white imperialism, flopped at its inauguration (primarily because of high-handed Japanese feelings of superiority and entitlement, which, in their emphasis on racial purity, were antithetical to the allied democracies, but quite in tune with kindred Axis power, Nazi Germany.)


Despite Hanks’ efforts at moral equivalence in making the U.S. and Japan kindred in their hatreds, America was attacked first, and its democratic system was both antithetical to the Japan of 1941, and capable of continual moral evolution in a way impossible under Gen. Tojo and his cadre. It is quite shameful to reduce that fundamental difference into a “they…us” 50/50 polarity. Indeed, the most disturbing phrase of all was Hanks’ suggestion that the Japanese wished to “kill” us, while we in turn wanted to “annihilate” them. Had they developed the bomb or other such weapons of mass destruction (and they had all sorts of plans of creating WMDs), and won the war, I can guarantee Hanks that he would probably not be here today, and that his Los Angeles would look nothing like a prosperous and modern Tokyo.

4) What is remarkable about the aftermath of WWII is the almost sudden postwar alliance between Japan and the U.S., primarily aimed at stopping the Soviets, and then later the communist Chinese. In other words, the United States, despite horrific battles in places like Iwo Jima and Okinawa, harbored little official postwar racial animosity in its foreign policy, helped to foster Japanese democracy, provided aid, and predicated its postwar alliances — in the manner of its prewar alliances — on the basis of ideology, not race. Hanks apparently has confused the furor of combat — in which racial hatred often becomes a multiplier of emotion for the soldier in extremis — with some sort of grand collective national racial policy that led to and guided our conduct.

An innately racist society could not have gone through the nightmare of Okinawa (nearly 50,000 Americans killed, wounded, or missing), and yet a mere few months later have in Tokyo, capital of the vanquished, a rather enlightened proconsul MacArthur, whose deference to Japanese religion, sensibilities, and tradition ensured a peaceful transition to a rather radical new independent and autonomous democratic culture.

As a lifelong student of military history, and a voracious reader of all things WWII-related, I thought that Hanks' previous effort, Band of Brothers, based upon Stephen Ambrose's oral history of the men who parachuted into Normandy and fought their way across Europe, was the finest long-form film I've ever seen about the Second World War.

Hanks, along with Steven Spielberg, stayed true to the source material, didn't tart it up with invented romances or anachronistic 21st Century political correctness. It was an often brutal, compelling work, and the interviews with the actual members of Easy Company were difficult to watch through the unavoidable veil of tears.

So you can imagine my disappointment when it seemed that Hanks had lost his way in the intervening years.

A review in the Wall Street Journal gives me hope, however, that The Pacific, depicting the experiences of Marines like Eugene Sledge, who wrote the seminal work on fighting and surviving the war against the Japanese, With The Old Breed, and Medal of Honor recipient John Basilone, honors these men and provides an unalloyed look at their courage -- and the brutality of the enemy.

HBO's 10-part miniseries "The Pacific" encapsulates the American war against Japan in a series of four battles, as experienced by U.S. Marines, that took place between August 1942 and the middle of June 1945: the famous ones for Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and the more obscure but also brutal fight to drive the Japanese off Peleliu island. Even those who know already that the Pacific theater was like no other in the war may be shocked by the harrowing combat re-created here.

Stunning in a different way are the three Marines at the center of the series. In their true stories and, more importantly, their individual responses to the demands of warfare, we find a perfect trinity of action, emotion and intellect. Understated as it is here—we must see for ourselves what these men are, and only with effort, in the most fleeting moments—the nuanced humanity they bring to the screen is crucial. Other characters also leave indelible impressions. Yet without these central three, the series might be little more than a balletic action film with psyche-piercing sights and sound effects.

Sgt. John Basilone (Jon Seda), the machine gunner who won the Medal of Honor at Guadalcanal, is the doer, the man without whom no war would be winnable. Although Basilone was a household name in America during the war, we do not often read his mind in "The Pacific," or need to. Yanked out of action after Guadalcanal to go on a lengthy war-bond promotion tour at home, he buries his frustration in a grim pursuit of female flesh. And yet when true romance arrives—only months before he voluntarily returns to action in the Pacific—the ultimate Marine is the most vulnerable of men.

Mr. Seda, whose face invites us in even as it gives nothing away, deserves most of the credit for clarifying a simple mystery at the heart of braveness; how, stripped to his elemental self, a hero is a kind of innocent. Even so, the power of a scene where we see him without clothes—bursting with health even as he faces death, his skin tattooed and yet looking as unblemished as a baby's—owes much to those who so gracefully filmed it.

Pfc. Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello) entered the war later than some, partly because his physician father—who, like many fathers then, had fresh memories of the carnage of World War I—did not want his son to enlist. Sledge's transformation from a clean-living moralist to a battle-scarred realist who needs reminding that he even has a soul can be painful to watch. Precisely because he came to war with a tender, open heart, the price he pays in suffering is a wounded spirit that may never have healed. His story is a reminder that life is not the only thing war can extinguish. Some survive but never regain the capacity to feel unbounded, guiltless joy.

If there is a pair of eyes through which we see most clearly, they belong to Pfc. Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale). He comes to the Pacific already a classic outsider, and although he becomes a crack fighter with close bonds to his comrades, his letters home reveal cynicism and detachment. Some horrors, once seen and participated in, cannot be forgotten, he says. "It is one thing to reconcile these things with God, but another to square it with yourself."


"The Pacific" spends no time on lectures. Two of the series' most fundamental truths are delivered in single lines. One comes when a taxi-driving vet who served in Europe tells Leckie that the men who fought in the Pacific had the hardest war. Another becomes clear at a sunny behind-the-lines military base where flowers grow and buxom nurses abound—and we are reminded that this picture, familiar even now, is a fake. For most, the Pacific was only blood, mud and lonely, unmitigated fear.

As for the meaning of it all, we have Capt. Andrew Haldane (Scott Gibson) and the words: "I want to believe, I have to believe...every man that's wounded, every man that I lose, that it's all worthwhile because our cause is just." And then there's Bob Leckie's more succinct profession of faith: "I believe in ammunition."

I'm relieved -- and looking forward to seeing The Pacific ... when it arrives on DVD later this year. Until then, I think I'll re-read With the Old Breed, along with William Manchester's, Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War.

Posted by Mike Lief at 07:39 PM | Comments (4)