This article originally appeared at Consortium News
Many reflections on America’s final days in Vietnam miss the point, pondering whether the war could have been won or lamenting the fate of U.S. collaborators left behind. The bigger questions are why did the U.S. go to war and why wasn’t the bloodletting stopped sooner, as ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern reflects.
Ecclesiastes says there is a time to be silent and a time to speak. The fortieth anniversary of the ugly end of the U.S. adventure in Vietnam is a time to speak – and especially of the squandered opportunities that existed earlier in the war to blow the whistle and stop the killing.
While my friend Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 eventually helped to end the war, Ellsberg is the first to admit that he waited too long to reveal the unconscionable deceit that brought death and injury to millions.
I regret that, at first out of naiveté and then cowardice, I waited even longer – until my own truth-telling no longer really mattered for the bloodshed in Vietnam. My hope is that there may be a chance this reminiscence might matter now – if only as a painful example of what I could and should have done, had I the courage back then. Opportunities to blow the whistle in time now confront a new generation of intelligence analysts – whether they work on Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, ISIS or Iran.
Incidentally, on Iran, there was a very positive example last decade: courageous analysts led by intrepid (and bureaucratically skilled) former Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence Thomas Fingar showed that honesty can still prevail within the system, even when truth is highly unwelcome.
The unanimous intelligence community conclusion of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of 2007 – that Iran had stopped working on a nuclear weapon four years earlier – played a huge role in thwarting plans by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to attack Iran in 2008, their last year in office. Bush says so in his memoir; and, on that one point, we can believe him.
After a half-century of watching such things closely, this is the only time in my experience that the key judgment of an NIE helped prevent a catastrophic, unwinnable war. Sadly, judging from the amateurism now prevailing in Washington’s opaque policymaking circles, it seems clear that the White House pays little heed to those intelligence officers still trying to speak truth to power.
For them I have a suggestion: Don’t just wring your hands, with an “I did everything I could to get the truth out.” Chances are you have not done all you can. Ponder the stakes – the lives ended too early; the bodies and minds damaged forever; the hatred engendered against the United States; and the long-term harm to U.S. national interests – and think about blowing the whistle publicly to prevent unnecessary carnage and alienation.
I certainly wish I had done so about what I learned of the unconscionable betrayal by senior military and intelligence officers regarding Vietnam. More recently, I know that several of you intelligence analysts with a conscience wish you had blown the whistle on the fraud “justifying” war on Iraq. Spreading some truth around is precisely what you need to do now on Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and the “war on terror,” for example.
I thought that by describing my own experience – negative as it is – and the remorse I continue to live with, I might assist those of you now pondering whether to step up to the plate and blow the whistle now, before it is again too late. So below is an article that I might call “Vietnam and Me.”
My hope is to spare you the remorse of having to write, a decade or two from now, your own “Ukraine and Me” or “Syria and Me” or “Iraq and Me” or “Libya and Me” or “The War on Terror and Me.” My article, from 2010, was entitled “How Truth Can Save Lives” and it began:
If independent-minded Web sites, like WikiLeaks or, say, Consortiumnews.com, existed 43 years ago, I might have risen to the occasion and helped save the lives of some 25,000 U.S. soldiers, and a million Vietnamese, by exposing the lies contained in just one SECRET/EYES ONLY cable from Saigon.
I need to speak out now because I have been sickened watching the Herculean effort by Official Washington and our Fawning Corporate Media (FCM) to divert attention from the violence and deceit in Afghanistan, reflected in thousands of U.S. Army documents, by shooting the messenger(s) — WikiLeaks and Pvt. Bradley Manning.
After all the indiscriminate death and destruction from nearly nine years of war, the hypocrisy is all too transparent when WikiLeaks and suspected leaker Manning are accused of risking lives by exposing too much truth. Besides, I still have a guilty conscience for what I chose NOT to do in exposing facts about the Vietnam War that might have saved lives.
The sad-but-true story recounted below is offered in the hope that those in similar circumstances today might show more courage than I was able to muster in 1967, and take full advantage of the incredible advancements in technology since then.
Many of my Junior Officer Trainee Program colleagues at CIA came to Washington in the early Sixties inspired by President John Kennedy’s Inaugural speech in which he asked us to ask ourselves what we might do for our country. (Sounds corny nowadays, I suppose; I guess I’ll just have to ask you to take it on faith. It may not have been Camelot exactly, but the spirit and ambience were fresh — and good.)
Among those who found Kennedy’s summons compelling was Sam Adams, a young former naval officer out of Harvard College. After the Navy, Sam tried Harvard Law School, but found it boring. Instead, he decided to go to Washington, join the CIA as an officer trainee, and do something more adventurous. He got more than his share of adventure.
Sam was one of the brightest and most dedicated among us. Quite early in his career, he acquired a very lively and important account — that of assessing Vietnamese Communist strength early in the war. He took to the task with uncommon resourcefulness and quickly proved himself the consummate analyst.
Relying largely on captured documents, buttressed by reporting from all manner of other sources, Adams concluded in 1967 that there were twice as many Communists (about 600,000) under arms in South Vietnam as the U.S. military there would admit.
Dissembling in Saigon
Visiting Saigon during 1967, Adams learned from Army analysts that their commanding general, William Westmoreland, had placed an artificial cap on the official Army count rather than risk questions regarding “progress” in the war (sound familiar?).
It was a clash of cultures; with Army intelligence analysts saluting generals following politically dictated orders, and Sam Adams aghast at the dishonesty — consequential dishonesty. From time to time I would have lunch with Sam and learn of the formidable opposition he encountered in trying to get out the truth.
Commiserating with Sam over lunch one day in late August 1967, I asked what could possibly be Gen. Westmoreland’s incentive to make the enemy strength appear to be half what it actually was. Sam gave me the answer he had from the horse’s mouth in Saigon.
Adams told me that in a cable dated Aug. 20, 1967, Westmoreland’s deputy, Gen. Creighton Abrams, set forth the rationale for the deception. Abrams wrote that the new, higher numbers (reflecting Sam’s count, which was supported by all intelligence agencies except Army intelligence, which reflected the “command position”) “were in sharp contrast to the current overall strength figure of about 299,000 given to the press.”
Abrams emphasized, “We have been projecting an image of success over recent months” and cautioned that if the higher figures became public, “all available caveats and explanations will not prevent the press from drawing an erroneous and gloomy conclusion.”
No further proof was needed that the most senior U.S. Army commanders were lying, so that they could continue to feign “progress” in the war. Equally unfortunate, the crassness and callousness of Abrams’s cable notwithstanding, it had become increasingly clear that rather than stand up for Sam, his superiors would probably acquiesce in the Army’s bogus figures. Sadly, that’s what they did.
CIA Director Richard Helms, who saw his primary duty quite narrowly as “protecting” the agency, set the tone. He told subordinates that he could not discharge that duty if he let the agency get involved in a heated argument with the U.S. Army on such a key issue in wartime.
This cut across the grain of what we had been led to believe was the prime duty of CIA analysts — to speak truth to power without fear or favor. And our experience thus far had shown both of us that this ethos amounted to much more than just slogans. We had, so far, been able to “tell it like it is.”
After lunch with Sam, for the first time ever, I had no appetite for dessert. Sam and I had not come to Washington to “protect the agency.” And, having served in Vietnam, Sam knew first hand that thousands upon thousands were being killed in a feckless war.
What to Do?
I have an all-too-distinct memory of a long silence over coffee, as each of us ruminated on what might be done. I recall thinking to myself; someone should take the Abrams cable down to theNew York Times (at the time an independent-minded newspaper).
Clearly, the only reason for the cable’s SECRET/EYES ONLY classification was to hide deliberate deception of our most senior generals regarding “progress” in the war and deprive the American people of the chance to know the truth.
Going to the press was, of course, antithetical to the culture of secrecy in which we had been trained. Besides, you would likely be caught at your next polygraph examination. Better not to stick your neck out.
I pondered all this in the days after that lunch with Adams. And I succeeded in coming up with a slew of reasons why I ought to keep silent: a mortgage; a plum overseas assignment for which I was in the final stages of language training; and, not least, the analytic work — important, exciting work on which Sam and I thrived.
Better to keep quiet for now, grow in gravitas, and live on to slay other dragons. Right?
One can, I suppose, always find excuses for not sticking one’s neck out. The neck, after all, is a convenient connection between head and torso, albeit the “neck” that was the focus of my concern was a figurative one, suggesting possible loss of career, money and status – not the literal “necks” of both Americans and Vietnamese that were on the line daily in the war.
But if there is nothing for which you would risk your career “neck” – like, say, saving the lives of soldiers and civilians in a war zone – your “neck” has become your idol, and your career is not worthy of that. I now regret giving such worship to my own neck. Not only did I fail the neck test. I had not thought things through very rigorously from a moral point of view.
Promises to Keep?
As a condition of employment, I had signed a promise not to divulge classified information so as not to endanger sources, methods or national security. Promises are important, and one should not lightly violate them. Plus, there are legitimate reasons for protecting some secrets. But were any of those legitimate concerns the real reasons why Abrams’s cable was stamped SECRET/EYES ONLY? I think not.
It is not good to operate in a moral vacuum, oblivious to the reality that there exists a hierarchy of values and that circumstances often determine the morality of a course of action. How does a written promise to keep secret everything with a classified stamp on it square with one’s moral responsibility to stop a war based on lies? Does stopping a misbegotten war not supersede a secrecy promise?
Ethicists use the words “supervening value” for this; the concept makes sense to me. And is there yet another value? As an Army officer, I had taken a solemn oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
How did the lying by the Army command in Saigon fit in with that? Were/are generals exempt? Should we not call them out when we learn of deliberate deception that subverts the democratic process? Can the American people make good decisions if they are lied to?
Would I have helped stop unnecessary killing by giving the New York Times the not-really-secret, SECRET/EYES ONLY cable from Gen. Abrams? We’ll never know, will we? And I live with that. I could not take the easy way out, saying Let Sam Do It. Because I knew he wouldn’t.
Sam chose to go through the established grievance channels and got the royal run-around, even after the Communist countrywide offensive at Tet in January-February 1968 proved beyond any doubt that his count of Communist forces was correct.
When the Tet offensive began, as a way of keeping his sanity, Adams drafted a caustic cable to Saigon saying, “It is something of an anomaly to be taking so much punishment from Communist soldiers whose existence is not officially acknowledged.” But he did not think the situation at all funny.
Dan Ellsberg Steps in
Sam kept playing by the rules, but it happened that – unbeknown to Sam – Dan Ellsberg gave Sam’s figures on enemy strength to the New York Times, which published them on March 19, 1968. Dan had learned that President Lyndon Johnson was about to bow to Pentagon pressure to widen the war into Cambodia, Laos and up to the Chinese border – perhaps even beyond.
Later, it became clear that his timely leak – together with another unauthorized disclosure to the Times that the Pentagon had requested 206,000 more troops – prevented a wider war. On March 25, Johnson complained to a small gathering, “The leaks to the New York Times hurt us. … We have no support for the war. … I would have given Westy the 206,000 men.”
Ellsberg also copied the Pentagon Papers – the 7,000-page top-secret history of U.S. decision-making on Vietnam from 1945 to 1967 – and, in 1971, he gave copies to the New York Times,Washington Post and other news organizations.
In the years since, Ellsberg has had difficulty shaking off the thought that, had he released the Pentagon Papers sooner, the war might have ended years earlier with untold lives saved. Ellsberg has put it this way: “Like so many others, I put personal loyalty to the president above all else – above loyalty to the Constitution and above obligation to the law, to truth, to Americans, and to humankind. I was wrong.”
And so was I wrong in not asking Sam for a copy of that cable from Gen. Abrams. Sam, too, eventually had strong regrets. Sam had continued to pursue the matter within CIA, until he learned that Dan Ellsberg was on trial in 1973 for releasing the Pentagon Papers and was being accused of endangering national security by revealing figures on enemy strength.
Which figures? The same old faked numbers from 1967! “Imagine,” said Adams, “hanging a man for leaking faked numbers,” as he hustled off to testify on Dan’s behalf. (The case against Ellsberg was ultimately thrown out of court because of prosecutorial abuses committed by the Nixon administration.)
After the war drew down, Adams was tormented by the thought that, had he not let himself be diddled by the system, the entire left half of the Vietnam Memorial wall would not be there. There would have been no new names to chisel into such a wall.
Sam Adams died prematurely at age 55 with nagging remorse that he had not done enough.
In a letter appearing in the (then independent-minded) New York Times on Oct. 18, 1975, John T. Moore, a CIA analyst who worked in Saigon and the Pentagon from 1965 to 1970, confirmed Adams’s story after Sam told it in detail in the May 1975 issue of Harper’s magazine.
Moore wrote: “My only regret is that I did not have Sam’s courage. … The record is clear. It speaks of misfeasance, nonfeasance and malfeasance, of outright dishonesty and professional cowardice.
“It reflects an intelligence community captured by an aging bureaucracy, which too often placed institutional self-interest or personal advancement before the national interest. It is a page of shame in the history of American intelligence.”
Tanks But No Thanks, Abrams
What about Gen. Creighton Abrams? Not every general gets the Army’s main battle tank named after him. The honor, though, came not from his service in Vietnam, but rather from his courage in the early day of his military career, leading his tanks through German lines to relieve Bastogne during World War II’s Battle of the Bulge. Gen. George Patton praised Abrams as the only tank commander he considered his equal.
As things turned out, sadly, 23 years later Abrams became a poster child for old soldiers who, as Gen. Douglas McArthur suggested, should “just fade away,” rather than hang on too long after their great military accomplishments.
In May 1967, Abrams was picked to be Westmoreland’s deputy in Vietnam and succeeded him a year later. But Abrams could not succeed in the war, no matter how effectively “an image of success” his subordinates projected for the media. The “erroneous and gloomy conclusions of the press” that Abrams had tried so hard to head off proved all too accurate.
Ironically, when reality hit home, it fell to Abrams to cut back U.S. forces in Vietnam from a peak of 543,000 in early 1969 to 49,000 in June 1972 — almost five years after Abrams’s progress-defending cable from Saigon. By 1972, some 58,000 U.S. troops, not to mention two to three million Vietnamese, had been killed.
Both Westmoreland and Abrams had reasonably good reputations when they started out, but not so much when they finished.
Comparisons can be invidious, but Gen. David Petraeus is another Army commander who has wowed Congress with his ribbons, medals and merit badges. A pity he was not born early enough to have served in Vietnam where he might have learned some real-life hard lessons about the limitations of counterinsurgency theories.
Moreover, it appears that no one took the trouble to tell him that in the early Sixties we young infantry officers already had plenty of counterinsurgency manuals to study at Fort Bragg and Fort Benning. There are many things one cannot learn from reading or writing manuals — as many of my Army colleagues learned too late in the jungles and mountains of South Vietnam.
Unless one is to believe, contrary to all indications, that Petraeus is not all that bright, one has to assume he knows that the Afghanistan expedition is a folly beyond repair. So far, though, he has chosen the approach taken by Gen. Abrams in his August 1967 cable from Saigon. That is precisely why the ground-truth of the documents released by WikiLeaks is so important.
And it’s not just the WikiLeaks documents that have caused consternation inside the U.S. government. Investigators reportedly are rigorously pursuing the source that provided the New York Times with the texts of two cables (of 6 and 9 November 2009) from Ambassador Eikenberry in Kabul. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Obama Ignores Key Afghan Warning.”]
To its credit, even today’s far-less independent New York Times published a major story based on the information in those cables, while President Barack Obama was still trying to figure out what to do about Afghanistan. Later the Times posted the entire texts of the cables, which were classified Top Secret and NODIS (meaning “no dissemination” to anyone but the most senior officials to whom the documents were addressed).
The cables conveyed Eikenberry’s experienced, cogent views on the foolishness of the policy in place and, implicitly, of any eventual decision to double down on the Afghan War. (That, of course, is pretty much what the President ended up doing.) Eikenberry provided chapter and verse to explain why, as he put it, “I cannot support [the Defense Department’s] recommendation for an immediate Presidential decision to deploy another 40,000 here.”
Such frank disclosures are anathema to self-serving bureaucrats and ideologues who would much prefer depriving the American people of information that might lead them to question the government’s benighted policy toward Afghanistan, for example.
As the New York Times/Eikenberry cables show, even today’s FCM (fawning corporate media) may sometimes display the old spunk of American journalism and refuse to hide or fudge the truth, even if the facts might cause the people to draw “an erroneous and gloomy conclusion,” to borrow Gen. Abrams’s words of 43 years ago.
Polished Pentagon Spokesman
Remember “Baghdad Bob,” the irrepressible and unreliable Iraqi Information Minister at the time of the U.S.-led invasion? He came to mind as I watched Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell’s chaotic, quixotic press briefing on Aug. 5 regarding the WikiLeaks exposures. The briefing was revealing in several respects. Clear from his prepared statement was what is bothering the Pentagon the most. Here’s Morrell:
“WikiLeaks’s webpage constitutes a brazen solicitation to U.S. government officials, including our military, to break the law. WikiLeaks’s public assertion that submitting confidential material to WikiLeaks is safe, easy and protected by law is materially false and misleading. The Department of Defense therefore also demands that WikiLeaks discontinue any solicitation of this type.”
Rest assured that the Defense Department will do all it can to make it unsafe for any government official to provide WikiLeaks with sensitive material. But it is contending with a clever group of hi-tech experts who have built in precautions to allow information to be submitted anonymously. That the Pentagon will prevail anytime soon is far from certain.
Also, in a ludicrous attempt to close the barn door after tens of thousands of classified documents had already escaped, Morrell insisted that WikiLeaks give back all the documents and electronic media in its possession. Even the normally docile Pentagon press corps could not suppress a collective laugh, irritating the Pentagon spokesman no end. The impression gained was one of a Pentagon Gulliver tied down by terabytes of Lilliputians.
Morrell’s self-righteous appeal to the leaders of WikiLeaks to “do the right thing” was accompanied by an explicit threat that, otherwise, “We shall have to compel them to do the right thing.” His attempt to assert Pentagon power in this regard fell flat, given the realities.
Morrell also chose the occasion to remind the Pentagon press corps to behave themselves or face rejection when applying to be embedded in units of U.S. armed forces. The correspondents were shown nodding docilely as Morrell reminded them that permission for embedding “is by no means a right. It is a privilege.” The generals giveth and the generals taketh away.
It was a moment of arrogance — and press subservience — that would have sickened Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, not to mention the courageous war correspondents who did their duty in Vietnam. Morrell and the generals can control the “embeds”; they cannot control the ether. Not yet, anyway.
And that was all too apparent beneath the strutting, preening, and finger waving by the Pentagon’s fancy silk necktie to the world. Actually, the opportunities afforded by WikiLeaks and other Internet Web sites can serve to diminish what few advantages there are to being in bed with the Army.
What Would I Have Done?
Would I have had the courage to whisk Gen. Abrams’s cable into the ether in 1967, if WikiLeaks or other Web sites had been available to provide a major opportunity to expose the deceit of the top Army command in Saigon? The Pentagon can argue that using the Internet this way is not “safe, easy, and protected by law.” We shall see.
Meanwhile, this way of exposing information that people in a democracy should know will continue to be sorely tempting — and a lot easier than taking the risk of being photographed lunching with someone from the New York Times.
From what I have learned over these past 43 years, supervening moral values can, and should, trump lesser promises. Today, I would be determined to “do the right thing,” if I had access to an Abrams-like cable from Petraeus in Kabul. And I believe that Sam Adams, if he were alive today, would enthusiastically agree that this would be the morally correct decision.
My article from 2010 ended with a footnote about the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence (SAAII), an organization created by Sam Adams’s former CIA colleagues and other former intelligence analysts to hold up his example as a model for those in intelligence who would aspire to the courage to speak truth to power.
At the time there were seven recipients of an annual award bestowed on those who exemplified Sam Adam’s courage, persistence and devotion to truth. Now, there have been 14 recipients: Coleen Rowley (2002), Katharine Gun (2003), Sibel Edmonds (2004), Craig Murray (2005), Sam Provance (2006), Frank Grevil (2007), Larry Wilkerson (2009), Julian Assange (2010), Thomas Drake (2011), Jesselyn Radack (2011), Thomas Fingar (2012), Edward Snowden (2013), Chelsea Manning (2014), William Binney (2015).
Time is running out for Holocaust survivors | Society
Shimon Redlich, an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor and author of the book Together and Apart in Brzezany, said: “As long as the survivors are alive and can remember, their testimonies must be recorded. Every story is unique.”
Edith Bruck is a 90-year-old Auschwitz survivor. Hungarian-born, she writes in Italian, and is the author of classics such as Who Loves You Like This? In a recent interview, she said: “Our lives do not belong to us. They belong to history.”
The survivors of the Shoah have allowed us to look into the abyss of the incomprehensible. They have brought generations of readers closer to an experience that can be transmitted, but not shared. However, as the years go by, the era of the witnesses is coming to an end. With their passing, something irreplaceable will disappear.
Boris Pahor passed away last May at the age of 108. A Slovenian born in Trieste, Italy, Pahor was deported as an anti-fascist resistance fighter during World War II. He is the author of one of the most prominent books on the Nazi camps, Necropolis. “My every word [was] driven by the fear of slipping into banality,” he writes.
The fear of banality and the impossibility of transmitting what was suffered has been a constant in Holocaust literature since the publication of the first great literary testimony of the camps, If This Is a Man by Primo Levi.
Another fear that many witnesses have conveyed is the empty space they will leave behind when the last of them disappears… the incommunicable experience they will take with them.
In an interview with EL PAÍS in 2000, the now-deceased Buchenwald survivor, Spanish writer and politician Jorge Semprún, reflected on the disappearance of those who witnessed the Holocaust: “Do you know what is the most important thing that happened in a concentration camp? Do you know the most terrible thing, the only thing that cannot be explained? The smell of burning meat. What do you do with the memory of the smell of burning meat? For those circumstances, there is, precisely, literature. But how do you talk about it? Do you compare? And what about the obscenity of the comparison? Do you say, for example, that it smells like burnt chicken? Or do you try to reconstruct the general circumstances of the memory, going around the smell, round and round, without facing it? I have inside my head, alive, the most important smell of a concentration camp. And I can’t explain it. And that smell is going to go away with me, as it has already gone with others.”
“We have been talking about the end of the survivors for almost three decades,” says Alejandro Baer, professor of sociology and director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota. “That concern has spurred memory in the form of the creation of archives of oral and audiovisual history of survivors, documentaries, even virtual reality projects. But whoever has had the opportunity to meet the witnesses knows that nothing will make up for their absence. Because it is not just about the information they provide, but about the nature of the encounter and the transformation it produces: becoming a witness of the witness. If we look for something that approaches that experience, we will not find it in technology, but in testimonial literature.”
If This Is a Man was published in 1947. Levi himself explained that the publisher went bankrupt and that the book remained forgotten for more than a decade: the first printing of 2,500 copies went unnoticed. Society was not yet ready to read about those horrors, not only because the stories about the extermination confront us with the idea that anyone can be a victim, but because they force us to consider that we too could have been executioners. That same year, 75 years ago, The Diary of Anne Frank was published in the Netherlands under the title The secret annex. Its translation was rejected by various American publishers until Judith Jones of Knopf insisted on publishing it. The diary became an international success in the 1950s.
In the Federal Republic of Germany, Auschwitz did not become a household name for most of the population until the late-1970s, when the series Holocaust was released. That five-episode telefilm sparked a heated debate between those who saw it as a product of popular culture that trivialized the Holocaust by turning it into a family melodrama, and those who thought it did more than any eyewitness account to make Germans stand up to their dark past.
“It is an insult to those who survived. What appears on the screen has nothing to do with what happened,” wrote Nobel Peace Prize winner and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, the author of Night. However, a survey published after its broadcast revealed that 70% of German young people between the ages of 14 and 19 said that they had learned more about Nazism from the series than at school.
This debate revealed another dimension to the horror of the camps: Is it legitimate to put yourself in the shoes of someone who has suffered something that cannot be explained? Is it possible to use the Holocaust to write fiction?
John Hersey wrote the first American Holocaust novel, The wall, between the 1940s and 1950s. It took place in the Warsaw ghetto; Hersey had met with survivors and visited the ruins of the Polish capital. However, his biographer, Jeremy Treglown, wrote that Hersey was faced with similar questions about authenticity: “Who owns the narrative? Can a young privileged white Anglo-Saxon from New England put himself in the shoes of the suffering of European Jewry under Nazism?”
Since the success of The boy in the striped pajamas, this debate has only grown. Novels with “Auschwitz” in the title have multiplied. The latest one is titled The dressmakers of Auschwitz. Some, such as The librarian of Auschwitz, by Antonio Iturbe, have sold hundreds of thousands of copies and received critical praise. Others, like The tattooist of Auschwitz, have been scrutinized by experts. The Auschwitz Memorial made a resounding statement about this best-seller by Heather Morris: “Because of the number of factual errors, it cannot be recommended as a valuable work for those who wish to understand the history of the camps.”
“This popular literature, which is so successful, simplifies the history and reality that is so difficult for us to understand,” says Yessica San Román, director of the Education and Holocaust department at Madrid’s Centro Sefarad-Israel. “The result is a trivialization of the facts. What should concern us when we read books like these about the Holocaust is that they resort too much to stereotypes, both for the Jews and for the perpetrators. The perpetrators were not all monsters or psychopaths. They were much more normal than we like to admit. The Holocaust was committed by men and women.”
“I haven’t read The Tattooist of Auschwitz,” explains Shimon Redlich. “I don’t like kitsch books about the Holocaust. However, I believe that films like Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah or Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List have had a significant effect on the dissemination and understanding of the Holocaust.” Asked by email about the books he considers essential, the survivor and author cites four: the works of historian and survivor Saul Friedländer, The years of persecution (1933 -1939) and The years of the extermination (1939-1945); An interrupted life, the diaries of Etty Hillesum, who was murdered at Auschwitz; and Anatomy of a genocide: the life and death of a town called Buczacz, by Israeli historian Omer Bartov.
Bartov’s book is part of a series of recent essays that are helping to deepen knowledge of the genocide. They mix detective-like investigations with the handling of thousands of documents. In the face of all-encompassing books like Raul Hilberg’s The destruction of the European Jews, a new generation of authors is focusing on smaller-scale stories.
“Most of the witnesses have disappeared and the investigators must become indirect witnesses, with the material they handle,” Dr. Wendy Lower, Director of the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights in Claremont, California, explains by phone. “We work with the material we have access to… [over] the last decades, we have been compiling documents, testimonies…. such massive archives have been amassed and so many testimonies have been recorded that no historian would be able to listen to them all. When there are no more witnesses, there will be a lot of material to work on: archaeology, forensics, documents, recordings…”
Eyewitness testimonies were not always considered such important material. “In the beginning, when researchers strove to establish the history of the Nazi genocide, they did not always welcome the voices of the survivors,” says Dr. Sara R. Horowitz, a professor of literature at York University in Toronto and the author and editor of numerous books on the memory of the Holocaust, including Voicing the void: muteness and memory in Holocaust fiction and Shadows in the city of light. “Historians preferred to rely on documentary evidence and were reluctant to base historical accounts on memory: they saw it as unreliable, fallible, and limited in scope. But relying on documents also has its limitations. In the decades immediately following the war, many survivors expressed frustration that they had not been heard. And the historical record was impoverished by this exclusion.”
“More than ever, it will be the power of literature– novels, poems, memoirs– that will preserve and continue to shape the memory of the Holocaust, in the different languages and the memory of each country. Writers like Aharon Appelfeld, Ida Fink, Elie Wiesel, Charlotte Delbo, Jorge Semprún, Sarah Kofman, Imre Kertesz and others,” Horowitz notes.
“Literature is essential,” advocates Marina Sanfilippo, a professor at Spain’s National University of Distance Education. She specializes in female testimonies of the Shoah. “It has never been possible to understand the reason for the Holocaust, as Primo Levi narrated in that famous phrase in which a German guard at Auschwitz blurts out: here there is no why. It is something that only literature can answer.”
Sanfilippo maintains that she has studied the literature written by surviving women “because the canon of the Shoah is above all masculine”– Primo Levi, Paul Celan, Kertesz, Elie Wiesel, Victor Klemperer, Viktor Frankl, and so on. She cites authors and works such as Liana Millu’s Smoke over Birkenau, Ruth Klüger’s Still alive, Charlotte Delbo’s None of us will return, or Daniela Padoan’s Like a frog in winter.
Padoan’s book is a journalistic investigation that collects the testimony of three women – Liliana Segre, Goti Bauer and Giuliana Tedeschi – who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau. “The experience was very different for men and women, because in the camps, people suffered from the body and bodies are different. What did it mean to have your period in the camp? Or to stop having it, or to think that you would never be able to have children? What did it mean to be the subject of medical experiments? The survival strategies were also different,” says Sanfilippo.
The survivors’ voices are also kept alive through the stories of their relatives. The most famous of these cases remains the comic book Maus, now a classic, in which Art Spiegelman tells the story of his father, an Auschwitz survivor, and at the same time describes the relationship – not always an easy one – between the two. The librarian and author Javier Fernández Aparicio maintained a Holocaust literature reading club in Madrid for eight years with fellow librarian Javier Quevedo Arcos, from which the book The culture of the abyss arose. They assure their readers that no book was as interesting as Maus, perhaps because of its dialogue between the past and the present.
In the house where Primo Levi died in 1987 on a wide avenue in Turin – it will never be known whether he committed suicide or fell down the stairs – no plaque remembers the writer. However, his last name still appears on the intercom, as if he could be called and his voice could emerge from the past to remind us of some of the many lessons contained in his books.
Levi deeply mistrusted charismatic leaders– those who ask us to renounce reason: “Since it is difficult to distinguish true prophets from false, it is as well to regard all prophets with suspicion. It is better to renounce revealed truths, even if they exalt us by their splendor.”
The voices of those survivors that are slowly dying out remain essential to understanding what happened… but also to warn us about what may happen.
The Rise and Fall of Victoria’s Secret: A dictatorship of perfection and misogyny: a look into Victoria’s Secret’s angels and demons | Society
For the lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret, once the head of an empire, the past decade has been turbulent. Gone are the golden days when the world stood still to watch the brand’s annual show. Its carefully chosen models, the so-called angels, represented a beauty standard unattainable to most women, and they paraded the runway in glittering wings and minuscule diamond-cut lingerie.
The shows, which lasted for 23 years, were considered the Super Bowl of fashion. They featured performances by pop singers including Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, The Weeknd, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé. Until its last edition, held in Paris in 2018, the event represented the fantasy that Victoria’s Secret marketed. It launched the careers of models Gisele Bündchen, Adriana Lima, Heidi Klum and Alessandra Ambrossio, among others.
The women showed off almost superhuman physiques, sculpted through rigorous training and starved in the days leading up to the parade. But the brand’s image no longer has a place in a #MeToo-era society, now more willing to champion body positive, diversity and inclusivity and to denounce sexual harassment and the hypersexualization of women’s bodies.
The new three-part documentary series The Rise and Fall of Victoria’s Secret explores the brand’s shadows. The production, which premiered on June 18 at the Tribeca Film Festival, combines first-hand accounts with deep investigation to reveal the brand’s inner workings. “Truth is not what it seems, as the underworld of fashion, the billionaire class, and Jeffrey Epstein are revealed to all be inextricably intertwined with the fall of this legendary brand,” reads the summary of the miniseries, directed by Peter Berg and Matt Tyrnauer. It will be available to stream on Hulu starting July 14.
A culture of misogyny and the descent to hell
The film promises to uncover the lingerie empire’s links with sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein. A 2019 New York Times investigation revealed that in the 1990s, a financial adviser close to Leslie H. Wexner, executive director of the company L Brands—Victoria’s Secret parent company—worked as a model recruiter for the brand in exchange for sexual favors. This adviser would later be found to be Epstein, a millionaire accused of sex trafficking who later commited suicide in jail while awaiting trial. Subsequently, Wexner has repeatedly claimed to feel “ashamed” by his friendly relationship with the pedophile.
But Victoria’s Secret’s fall in popularity came before this scandal. In 2018, the company lost almost 50% of its value. That same year, which marked the last parade, the show reached the lowest audience in its history since its start in 1995: 3.3 million viewers compared to the usual 10 million.
That year, the company’s marketing director, Ed Razek, made clear his opposition to gender diversity in an interview with Vogue. “Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show? No, I don’t think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is. It is the only one of its kind in the world,” said the 71-year-old manager, who resigned from his position in 2019.
The rampant misogyny and harassment from company higher-ups was the final straw for the brand. In 2021, the New York Times published an extensive investigation entitled “‘Angels’ in Hell: The Culture of Misogyny Inside Victoria’s Secret,” in which more than 30 executives, employees, contractors and models denounced the company’s practices.
Rebel Angels and a change of direction
The Victoria’s Secret bubble ended up bursting with the resignation of several of its most iconic figures: Adriana Lima hung up her wings in 2018, claiming to be fed up with the dictatorship of perfection and the pressures on her physique. “I will not take of [sic] my clothes again for an empty cause,” she wrote in an Instagram post.
Gisele Bündchen, who signed her contract with the brand at the age of 19, confessed in her autobiography that after years parading in her underwear, she began to feel uncomfortable. She wrote that she felt “less and less relaxed” when photographed on the catwalk in just a bikini or a thong. In the same book, she wrote of suffering from panic attacks and suicidal thoughts during one of the most successful periods of her career.
Victoria’s Secret changed directions in 2020, when L Brands sold the company to the Sycamore Partners fund for just over $1 billion (€953 million), in a last-ditch effort to save the brand.
After Raezk resigned, in a last attempt to save its reputation, the company hired the transgender model Valentina Sampaio. It also included Winnie Harlow, a Canadian model with vitiligo, as an angel, and Lorena Durán became the brand’s first plus-size model.
Seeking to adapt to changing social norms, in 2021, the company announced partnerships with influential figures in culture and sports: American soccer player Megan Rapinoe, Indian actress Priyanka Chopra, Chinese skier Eileen Gu and plus-size model Paloma Elsesser. It also announced that it would no longer refer to its models as “angels.” With that once-unthinkable gesture, Victoria’s Secret finally returned to earth.
Sex education: The creator of CLIMAX: ‘Good sex is like cooking, but there aren’t recipes for female pleasure on the internet’ | Society
Our ways of watching television have changed. No longer do we sit down to see what’s on TV, instead subscribing to platforms where we can watch our favorite content. But can that formula translate to content beside series, documentaries and movies? Can it be used to change the way we experience sex education? CLIMAX, a platform of sex education videos, is trying it out.
The platform started as an explicit educational series dedicated to female pleasure. Far from pornography, it was particularly directed towards women and sought to give advice and ideas for greater self-knowledge and sexual enjoyment. But that was just the beginning. As Camille Mariau, CLIMAX’s director of projects, explains, they are currently working on “a monthly membership platform dedicated to sexual wellbeing. The users will ahve access to periodic new content, ordered by topic (pleasrue for people with vulvas, for those with penises, tantric sex, oral sex, post-partum sex, etc.). We really want to create the perfect guide to help our users deconstruct their ideas about sexuality.” Currently, the platform has partnerships with educational and healthcare institutions, in order to bring education about female sexuality to all parts of society.
Laurène Dorléac is an expert in the technology market and co-creator of CLIMAX. “Not only is female pleasure little understood, but I also realized that taboos around the subject are still very present.” That’s why, despite her lack of experience in the area, she decided to venture into the topic. “Good sex is like cooking: it’s a creative process that requires practice, experimentation and care to have a good flavor. There are plenty of recipes and cooking classes, but we can’t find anything satisfactory about female pleasure on the Internet! That’s what led me to create the platform, so that we can all have access to better sexual education.”
The project brought together international studies, advice from psychologists and sexologists and over 100,000 testimonies. “Pleasure is a very serious thing, and it deserves a very rigorous approach,” she says.
CLIMAX comes to Spain
While the project was founded in France, currently, 40 percent of its subscribers are outside of the country, largely in the United States and United Kingdom. The team is optimistic about the Spanish market. “The market seems to be ready for a project like this. More than talking about pleasure, we really want people to have easy access to safe information about sexual education,” says Camille Mariau. Since the project launched in Spain just a few months ago, most of its users are between 28 and 45 years old, and, surprisingly, they are divided 50/50 between men and women.
To spread the news about the project, they have the help of Teresa Riott, known for her role as Nerea in the Netflix series Valeria, who narrates the videos. “It seems to me like a new idea in education, and it’s very necessary in order to better understand all the possibilities of our pleasure. CLIMAX has also had success in other countries. I’ve learned a lot about female sexuality in the process,” the actress explains.
She emphasizes that “they are videos that you can watch alone, in private, and you can experiment,” which “gives people confidence to explore their bodies without concerns.”
The platform’s content is explicit, but tasteful; obvious, but well-presented. It repeats explanations we have read in plenty of books, but which acquire a new dimension when we can see them on a screen: without drawings, diagrams or taboos, simply showing how to stimulate a vulva. The videos are meant to educate, not to excite, and they have no resemblance to porn. The images are accompanied by Riott’s voice, which explains each step in a clear and simple way, adding touches of scientific information. It explains not only how to stimulate the vulva, but also how and why the stimulation works.
We’ve learned that it’s much easier to exercise at home, or even to do home improvement projects, with the help of a Youtube tutorial video that shows us each step. So it makes all the sense in the world that we can use tutorials to learn how to excite our bodies, moving step-by-step over each part of our anatomy.
The platform is also notable for its diversity, not only in the appearances of the vulvas on screen, but also in the techniques proposed. It includes videos of 19 different masturbation techniques. In Spain, female masturbation has experienced a revolution in recent years. The brand Lelo, specialized in clitoral suction toys, increased its sales by 440% in 2019. The Satisfyer toy was even more popular: it registered an increase in sales of 1,300% in 2020, to the point that it had to resort to European countries to restock the toys during one of the busiest months of the year. Those toys finally normalized female masturbation. Vibrators themselves have also experienced their own revolution. Their technology and shapes have become more sophisticated, and they have become more effective and discreet. And Gwyneth Paltrow’s website Goop now features Viva la Vulva, an “extra-silent” vibrator model that can be used at any time without making any noise. Such devices are proof that manufacturers have taken pains to innovate their products for female pleasure, until recently a forgotten sector. Gone are the old dildos and penis replicas.
Beyond masturbation, with or without the help of toys, the content of CLIMAX “is like an encyclopedia of ideas that you can choose and use to enrich your sexual life. It can help you be more creative, learn moves that women with vulvas might like, etc. It can also be used as a basis to start a conversation with your partner about what you like, what you want to try or not. We want to give people the opportunity to get to know their own body or the body of their partner better,” explains Mariau.
To that end, the first two seasons are entirely scientifically based. To develop the content, 74 international scientific studies, widely referenced and accepted by the scientific community, were consulted. “There is one study that I find special: Shere Hite’s ‘The New Hite Report,’ a bestseller that has sold tens of millions of copies, which describes how women feel during different sexual activities and when they orgasm with greater frequency,” Mariau says.
In addition to a surge in vibrator sales, women have been consuming more porn than ever in recent years. According to a study by Pornhub on porn consumption in the pandemic, women increased the amount of porn they consumed by 17.5%. Audio porn, one of the latest developments in the industry, is particularly popular among women. And websites for pornographic content aimed at women, taking into account the tastes and aesthetics that female arousal requires, have proliferated in recent years.
Mission: equality in pleasure
The work of Shere Hite is one of the great sources of inspiration for CLIMAX. The late writer and sexologist was especially interested in the female orgasm. She interviewed some 3,500 American women, from prostitutes to former nuns, to create ‘The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality’ in 1976. Among her conclusions stood out two ideas: first, that few women reached orgasm through intercourse (only 30%), although they did through masturbation. Secondly, the clitoris was the key to climax.
CLIMAX is organized into several themes, which are available in different subscription packs: external pleasure (10 episodes), internal pleasure (11 episodes) and tantra exercises (7 episodes).
“Our mission is to equalize pleasure in a world where women report being less satisfied than men in their sexual activities, feeling less pleasure and having fewer orgasms. Education will make it possible,” the expert concludes.
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