A brief passage from a recent UN report describes what could be the first-known case of an autonomous weapon, powered by artificial intelligence, killing in the battlefield.
- Autonomous weapons have been used in war for decades, but artificial intelligence is ushering in a new category of autonomous weapons.
- These weapons are not only capable of moving autonomously but also identifying and attacking targets on their own without oversight from a human.
- There's currently no clear international restrictions on the use of new autonomous weapons, but some nations are calling for preemptive bans.
Nothing transforms warfare more violently than new weapons technology. In prehistoric times, it was the club, the spear, the bow and arrow, the sword. The 16th century brought rifles. The World Wars of the 20th century introduced machine guns, planes, and atomic bombs.
Now we might be seeing the first stages of the next battlefield revolution: autonomous weapons powered by artificial intelligence.
In March, the United Nations Security Council published an extensive report on the Second Libyan War that describes what could be the first-known case of an AI-powered autonomous weapon killing people in the battlefield.
The incident took place in March 2020, when soldiers with the Government of National Accord (GNA) were battling troops supporting the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar (called Haftar Affiliated Forces, or HAF, in the report). One passage describes how GNA troops may have used an autonomous drone to kill retreating HAF soldiers:
"Logistics convoys and retreating HAF were subsequently hunted down and remotely engaged by the unmanned combat aerial vehicles or the lethal autonomous weapons systems such as the STM Kargu-2... and other loitering munitions. The lethal autonomous weapons systems were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true 'fire, forget and find' capability."
Still, because the GNA forces were also firing surface-to-air missiles at the HAF troops, it's currently difficult to know how many, if any, troops were killed by autonomous drones. It's also unclear whether this incident represents anything new. After all, autonomous weapons have been used in war for decades.
Lethal autonomous weapons
Lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) are weapon systems that can search for and fire upon targets on their own. It's a broad category whose definition is debatable. For example, you could argue that land mines and naval mines, used in battle for centuries, are LAWS, albeit relatively passive and "dumb." Since the 1970s, navies have used active protection systems that identify, track, and shoot down enemy projectiles fired toward ships, if the human controller chooses to pull the trigger.
Then there are drones, an umbrella term that commonly refers to unmanned weapons systems. Introduced in 1991 with unmanned (yet human-controlled) aerial vehicles, drones now represent a broad suite of weapons systems, including unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), loitering munitions (commonly called "kamikaze drones"), and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), to name a few.
Some unmanned weapons are largely autonomous. The key question to understanding the potential significance of the March 2020 incident is: what exactly was the weapon's level of autonomy? In other words, who made the ultimate decision to kill: human or robot?
The Kargu-2 system
One of the weapons described in the UN report was the Kargu-2 system, which is a type of loitering munitions weapon. This type of unmanned aerial vehicle loiters above potential targets (usually anti-air weapons) and, when it detects radar signals from enemy systems, swoops down and explodes in a kamikaze-style attack.
Kargu-2 is produced by the Turkish defense contractor STM, which says the system can be operated both manually and autonomously using "real-time image processing capabilities and machine learning algorithms" to identify and attack targets on the battlefield.
STM | KARGU - Rotary Wing Attack Drone Loitering Munition System youtu.be
In other words, STM says its robot can detect targets and autonomously attack them without a human "pulling the trigger." If that's what happened in Libya in March 2020, it'd be the first-known attack of its kind. But the UN report isn't conclusive.
It states that HAF troops suffered "continual harassment from the unmanned combat aerial vehicles and lethal autonomous weapons systems," which were "programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true 'fire, forget and find' capability."
What does that last bit mean? Basically, that a human operator might have programmed the drone to conduct the attack and then sent it a few miles away, where it didn't have connectivity to the operator. Without connectivity to the human operator, the robot would have had the final call on whether to attack.
Key line 2: The loitering munitions/LAWS (depending upon how you frame it) were enabled to attack without data conn… https://t.co/5u89cDDA60— Jack McDonald (@Jack McDonald)1622114029.0
To be sure, it's unclear if anyone died from such an autonomous attack in Libya. In any case, LAWS technology has evolved to the point where such attacks are possible. What's more, STM is developing swarms of drones that could work together to execute autonomous attacks.
Noah Smith, an economics writer, described what these attacks might look like on his Substack:
"Combined with A.I., tiny cheap little battery-powered drones could be a huge game-changer. Imagine releasing a networked swarm of autonomous quadcopters into an urban area held by enemy infantry, each armed with little rocket-propelled fragmentation grenades and equipped with computer vision technology that allowed it to recognize friend from foe."
But could drones accurately discern friend from foe? After all, computer-vision systems like facial recognition don't identify objects and people with perfect accuracy; one study found that very slightly tweaking an image can lead an AI to miscategorize it. Can LAWS be trusted to differentiate between a soldier with a rifle slung over his back and, say, a kid wearing a backpack?
Opposition to LAWS
Unsurprisingly, many humanitarian groups are concerned about introducing a new generation of autonomous weapons to the battlefield. One such group is the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, whose 2018 survey of roughly 19,000 people across 26 countries found that 61 percent of respondents said they oppose the use of LAWS.
In 2018, the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons issued a rather vague set of guidelines aiming to restrict the use of LAWS. One guideline states that "human responsibility must be retained when it comes to decisions on the use of weapons systems." Meanwhile, at least a couple dozen nations have called for preemptive bans on LAWS.
The U.S. and Russia oppose such bans, while China's position is a bit ambiguous. It's impossible to predict how the international community will regulate AI-powered autonomous weapons in the future, but among the world's superpowers, one assumption seems safe: If these weapons provide a clear tactical advantage, they will be used on the battlefield.
U.S. officials suspect a foreign adversary is targeting American personnel with some form of "directed-energy" weapon.
- In recent history, the first reports of a potential directed-energy attack on U.S. personnel came in 2016 from American diplomats working in Cuba.
- There's no "smoking gun" evidence of who's behind the attacks, but some U.S. officials suspect the Russians.
- Supporting that claim is the history of the so-called Moscow Signal, an event in which the Soviets blasted microwaves at the U.S. embassy in Moscow from 1953 to 1976.
Since 2016, more than 130 U.S. government personnel have suffered symptoms linked to Havana syndrome, an acute illness marked by sudden headache, nausea, and the hearing of loud sounds, akin to swarming cicadas. The cause of the illness remains a mystery. But a growing number of U.S. intelligence personnel and researchers fear that some form of "directed-energy" weapon — possibly firing microwave radiation — is to blame.
One of the first cases was reported in Havana, Cuba in 2017. The victim, if it indeed was an attack, was a U.S. Foreign Service officer who was living in a quiet Havana neighborhood among other American personnel. One night she was cleaning her kitchen. If it had been daytime, her kitchen window would have offered a view of a booth outside where Cuban police monitored foreigners like herself.
But at night, the kitchen's interior lights obstructed her view of the booth, The New Yorker reported. As she was cleaning, she suddenly felt a painful burst of pressure inside her head. The pain grew. She had heard rumors of U.S. personnel suffering strange "sonic attacks," and she remembered that a security officer had once advised: to protect yourself, step away from your current position. She did. The pain decreased. But for weeks she suffered headaches, dizziness, and confusion.
Over the past five years, at least 130 U.S. personnel have reported similar symptoms while working in places like China, Russia, and Washington, D.C. The cases vary in severity, but almost all involve sudden headaches and nausea. Some victims may have brain injuries.
A 2019 study published in JAMA found that victims had "significantly smaller" white matter volume and other "significant differences" in brain structure, though it's impossible to determine whether these differences were pre-existing or stem from a directed-energy attack.
What's causing Havana syndrome?
The U.S. hasn't reported a definitive cause of these cases, but intelligence agencies are actively investigating the possibility that bad actors are using some type of directed-energy weapon against U.S. personnel.
A December 2020 report from the National Academies of Sciences found that pulsed radiofrequency energy, which includes microwave radiation, "appears to be the most plausible mechanism in explaining these cases among those that the committee considered." (Other potential causes included infection and chemicals.)
A microwave weapon seems like a fitting culprit. One reason is that sufferers of Havana syndrome often hear loud noises, which is a phenomenon that's known to happen when people are bombarded with high-powered microwaves. In the 1960s, the American neuroscientist Allan H. Frey demonstrated that exposing people to microwaves can make them hear buzzing, clicking, hissing, and speech — even though the microwave device didn't produce any soundwaves. It was all, quite literally, in their heads.
What Americans Heard in Cuba Attacks: The Sound www.youtube.com
How is that possible? Researchers have hypothesized that the noises are induced by thermoelastic expansion of bones and soft tissue in the body: As microwaves strike people, they slightly warm the body, which causes expansion. This expansion might produce sound waves that travel to the ear. Frey and other researchers have proposed different theories about which parts of the body are expanding — those in the head, or those in the ear — but the principle is the same.
To induce auditory effects, a pulsed-microwave weapon needs to transmit 40 joules per square centimeter, according to a U.S. Army report. How much energy is that? Here's how astrophysicist Dr. Ethan Siegel explained it to the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH): "If you are talking about 40 J/cm2 over the entire human body, that's about as much energy as a fully loaded Harley Davidson going 100 mph."
The Moscow Signal
We know such weapons exist, or at least did at one time. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union fired microwaves at the U.S. embassy in Moscow from a nearby apartment building for more than two decades, from 1953 to 1976. The event was dubbed the Moscow Signal.
U.S. intelligence officials initially thought the Soviets were firing the microwaves in an attempt to control the minds of American personnel, but they later reasoned that the Soviets were trying to activate espionage devices inside the building or interfere with the health of the diplomats. To this day, "many questions remain unanswered" about the long-term health effects incurred by Americans who worked at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, according to a 2019 review.
U.S. Embassy in Moscow, RussiaDzerod
A more recent example of an energy-directed weapon is the active denial system, an American technology that uses non-lethal millimeter waves for crowd control. These waves, which the U.S. says are not classified as microwaves, cause a painful heating sensation on the skin. The U.S. is also developing or has developed stronger directed-energy weapons, including microwave weapons that can destroy electronic systems from a distance.
Still, if energy-directed weapons are indeed causing Havana syndrome, what they look like and how they operate remains a mystery.
Who's behind the directed-energy attacks?
There's currently no "smoking gun" evidence for who's responsible for the attacks. But in December 2020, the CIA established a task force to investigate the more than 130 reported cases of Havana syndrome among U.S. personnel. In April, President Joe Biden's administration recently released a statement:
"The White House is working closely with departments and agencies to address unexplained health incidents and ensure the safety and security of Americans serving around the world. Given that we are still evaluating reported incidents and that we need to protect the privacy of individuals reporting incidents, we cannot provide or confirm specific details at this time."
Although the U.S. hasn't officially announced suspects, an anonymous former national security official involved in investigations recently told Politico that Russia is likely behind the attacks. Specifically, the official pointed to Russia's foreign military intelligence agency, commonly called the GRU, whose operatives were present in the locations where American personnel have reported Havana syndrome.
"It looks, smells, and feels like the GRU," said the official. "When you are looking at the landscape, there are very few people who are willing, capable and have the technology. It's pretty simple forensics."
Why Russia would carry out these attacks remains unclear. But the cases have already had a measurable impact on U.S. foreign policy, namely a 50-percent personnel withdrawal from the American embassy in Cuba, a nation that's long been allied with Russia.
U.S. Embassy in CubaU.S. State Department
While U.S. intelligence agencies now seem to be taking these threats seriously, that wasn't always the case. In the first few years after Americans first reported Havana syndrome, some officials were skeptical of the idea that a foreign adversary would launch such brazen attacks, especially on U.S. soil. Some current and former officials say this skepticism has come at the expense of U.S. personnel.
Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA officer who was struck by Havana syndrome in a Moscow hotel room in 2017, told the New York Times about a painting created by a fellow CIA officer and Havana syndrome victim. Called "The Gunshot," the painting depicts a red splatter on a black background.
"It signified his feeling that we all wished we had been shot, a visible injury, so that our colleagues would more readily believe us."
The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
- Conflict and violence cost the world more than $14 trillion a year.
- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
- Research shows that peace brings prosperity, lower inflation and more jobs.
- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
- Report urges governments to improve peacefulness, especially amid COVID-19.
What is the price of peace?
Or put another way, how much better off would we all be in a world where armed conflict was avoided?
To give some context, 689 million people - more than 9% of the world's population - live on less than $1.90 a day, according to World Bank figures, underscoring the potential impact peace-building activities could have.
Just over 10% of global GDP is being spent on containing, preventing and dealing with the consequences of violence. As well as the 1.4 million violent deaths each year, conflict holds back economic development, causes instability, widens inequality and erodes human capital.
Putting a price tag on peace and violence helps us see the disproportionately high amounts spent on creating and containing violent acts compared to what is spent on building resilient, productive, and peaceful societies.
— Steve Killelea, founder and executive chairman, Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP)
The cost of violence
In a report titled
"The Economic Value of Peace 2021", the IEP says that for every death from violent conflict, 40 times as many people are injured. The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
Grounds for hope
But the picture is not all bleak. The economic impact of violence fell for the second year in a row in 2019, as parts of the world became more peaceful.
The global cost dropped by $64 billion between 2018 and 2019, even though it was still $1.2 trillion higher than in 2012.
In five regions of the world the costs increased in 2019. The biggest jump was in Central America and the Caribbean, where a rising homicide rate pushed the cost up 8.3%.
Syria, with its ongoing civil war, suffered the greatest economic impact with almost 60% of its GDP lost to conflict in 2019. That was followed by Afghanistan (50%) and South Sudan (46%).
The report makes a direct link between peace and prosperity. It says that, since 2000, countries that have become more peaceful have averaged higher GDP growth than those which have become more violent.
"This differential is significant and represents a GDP per capita that is 30% larger when compounded over a 20-year period," the report says adding that peaceful countries also have substantially lower inflation and unemployment.
"Small improvements in peace can have substantial economic benefits," it adds. "For example, a 2% reduction in the global impact of violence is roughly equivalent to all overseas development aid in 2019."
Equally, the total value of foreign direct investment globally only offsets 10% of the economic impact of violence. Authoritarian regimes lost on average 11% of GDP to the costs of violence while in democracies the cost was just 4% of GDP.
And the gap has widened over time, with democracies reducing the cost of violence by almost 16% since 2007 while in authoritarian countries it has risen by 27% over the same period.
The report uses 18 economic indicators to evaluate the cost of violence. The top three are military spending (which was $5.9 trillion globally in 2019), the cost of internal security which makes up over a third of the total at $4.9 trillion and homicide.
Peace brings prosperity
The formula also contains a multiplier effect because as peace increases, money spent containing violence can instead be used on more productive activities which drive growth and generate higher monetary and social returns.
"Substantial economic improvements are linked to improvements in peace," says the report. "Therefore, government policies should be directed to improving peacefulness, especially in a COVID-19 environment where economic activity has been subdued."
The IEP says what it terms "positive peace" is even more beneficial than "negative peace" which is simply the absence of violence or the fear of violence. Positive peace involves fostering the attitudes, institutions & structures that create and sustain peaceful societies.
The foundations of a positively peaceful society, it says, are: a well functioning government, sound business environment, acceptance of the rights of others, good relations with neighbours, free flow of information, high levels of human capital, low levels of corruption and equitable distribution of resources.
The World Economic Forum's report Mobilizing the Private Sector in Peace and Reconciliation urged companies large and small to recognise their potential to work for peace quoting the former Goldman Sachs chair, the late Peter Sutherland, who said: "Business thrives where society thrives."
A curated watchlist from Big Think readers.
- We asked Big Think's readers and staff for their recommendations on films everyone should watch.
- A collection of fiction and non-fiction works from around the world, these movies will entertain and expand your horizons.
- The films cover various topics, explore numerous themes, and shed light on several controversial historical events.
Ever find yourself unsure of what movie to watch? Have you spent so much time looking at the options on a streaming service that you could have finished a film in the time it took you to pick one? It's alright. We've all been there.
Thanks to a couple of posts on Facebook and Twitter, we've collected some of your top film suggestions and combined them with a few of our own picks to make a list of 13 films you ought to see. They'll make you laugh, cry, learn, and scratch your head in utter confusion.
This experimental animated film by Richard Linklater explores the life of an unnamed man and his interactions with a variety of people concerning the meaning of life, the nature of reality, and the structure of society. It features cameos and brief scenes with many actors, filmmakers, and philosophers, among others.
The film's surreal and occasionally uncanny animated style was created via rotoscoping, the process of tracing over filmed footage, adding to the dreamlike atmosphere. While this style and the general lack of plot may put off some viewers, the film is highly regarded. Roger Ebert included it on his list of "Great Movies."
Mel Brooks' masterful spoof of classic horror makes fun of the monster films, the phenomena of never-ending sequels to films that don't need them, and cinema techniques from the 1930s.
The film follows Dr. Frankenstein (Gene Wilder), who has just inherited the estate of his infamous great-grandfather, the original Dr. Frankenstein, despite the younger having worked much of his life to distance himself from his family. Upon arriving in Transylvania, he is met by Igor (Marty Feldman), the great-grandson of the original; the young lab assistant Inga (Terri Garr); and the fearsome housekeeper Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman).
Being a Frankenstein, he can't help himself and ends up following in his grandfather's footsteps, much to the local villagers' irritation. The Creature (Peter Boyle) is a monster with a sensitive side and some tap dancing talent.
Note that this is a 50-year-old Mel Brooks' movie, and not everything in it has aged gracefully.
Based on the novella by Stephen King, Frank Darabont's film depicts life in the seemingly hopeless Shawshank State Penitentiary from the perspective of two men on the inside. At once a prison drama, an allegory for Christian Mysticism, and a character study, the film overcame a weak box office showing to become a hit in rentals and video sales.
Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is sentenced to multiple life terms for murder, despite his claims of innocence. In prison, he befriends smuggler Ellis "Red" Redding (Morgan Freeman), with whom he shares a dream of escaping to Mexico. Despite the brutality and corruption of the prison and its warden (Bob Gunton), Andy's hopefulness, resourcefulness, and professional skills help him and those around him to endure.The story is often praised for the relationship between Andy and Red, which is atypical in both the depth of the friendship it depicts and the fairly realistic conditions that spark it. The film is also brilliantly shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins.
Giuseppe Tornatore's brilliant movie about nostalgia, going home again, youth, cinema, and what it costs to be the best version of yourself centers around the projectionists at a small theater in Sicily and their mutual love of movies.
Salvatore Di Vita (Jacques Perrin), a famous Italian filmmaker, is told that his old hometown friend Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) has died. He remembers in flashback the circumstances of his youth that brought the two of them together. The film follows their friendship and mutual love of movies as Salvatore grows older and considers where his life will take him.
Stanley Kubrick's burning satire of Cold War thinking might be the greatest example of a satire ever put to film. While it is laugh-out-loud hilarious, it is also possible to take large parts of the film as a serious and terrifying depiction of what could go wrong with nuclear weapons when the wrong people are in charge of them.
Insane US General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden) exploits a loophole in the nuclear command structure to order a first strike on the USSR in retaliation for their evil plot to fluoridate water. President Muffley (Peter Sellers) and his advisors, including the childishly warmongering General Turgidson (George C. Scott) and "ex"-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove (Sellers again), frantically try to cancel the attack. During these attempts, The Russian Ambassador (Peter Bull) informs them of a Doomsday Machine that will destroy the world if the attack is not prevented.
Oh, and ignore the disclaimer at the start of the film. Everything that it depicts was entirely possible for decades, several of the characters are based on real people, and the Russians really did build a Doomsday Machine.
Sleep well tonight!
A Pixar film by Andrew Stanton, WALL-E is the story of a lonely robot that cleans up garbage. While that might not sound like the beginnings of an animated masterpiece, the film is a beautifully animated story of love, environmentalism, and humanity.
Centuries after an environmental disaster, WALL-E (Ben Burtt) is the last cleaning robot on Earth. His lonesome existence is interrupted by the arrival of a sentry bot named EVE (Elissa Knight). Their adventure takes them into the depths of space, where they encounter the descendants of the people who left Earth so long ago and a host of other robots.While the film's environmentalist and anti-consumerist messages are often the focus of most reviews, the gorgeous animation is also a key element of the picture. Operating with minimal dialogue, the expressions, movements, and physical interactions of the characters carry much of the story. This is done so well as to make the lack of dialogue almost unnoticeable.
Once deemed the "Greatest Film of All Time" and universally considered one of the most influential movies ever created, "Bicycle Thieves" (also known as "The Bicycle Thief") is an Italian film by Vittorio De Sica noteworthy for its extreme realism.
Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), a poor man in post-war Italy, manages to buy a bicycle (which permits him to hold down a job) by selling his family's possessions. On his first day at work, a thief steals the bike. Doomed without it, Antonio and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) pursue the man through increasingly destitute sections of Rome.
The film was made on a shoestring budget, filmed on location, and features non-actors in all the major roles. While most of these actors did not translate their roles into film careers, a young Sergio Leone appears in a bit part.
The second Kubrick movie on our list, "2001" was co-written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. Its story also features input from experts and scientists, including a young Carl Sagan. It explores ideas of extraterrestrial intelligence, machine sentience, emotion in a scientific world, and possible future evolutionary paths for humanity.
While the plot isn't always easy to follow, the film traces the evolutionary history of humanity, from the rise of tool-making apes, to the discovery of evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence and the journey of a crew through space. Among them is humanity's greatest creation, the HAL 9000 computer (Douglas Rain), who will protect the mission he serves at all costs.
The film has long stretches without dialogue and limited performances by most of its actors. It is also the greatest science fiction film ever made and the one to which all others are compared.
Steven Spielberg's film depicts the story of Oscar Schindler, a German industrialist who saved the lives of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.
Schindler (Liam Neeson), a member of the Nazi party, cashes in on military policies in occupied Poland. This allows him to make a fortune, which he uses to save his workers from the Holocaust. His accountant, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), desperately balances the needs of the Jewish workers and his German bosses' greed while trying to keep everyone alive. Both of them interact with Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes), the psychopathic commandant of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp, who often complains of the tedium of his work. All the while, the multitude of people working for Mr. Schindler try to do as best they can in unimaginable circumstances.
The film is a powerful reminder of the horrors of the mid-twentieth century, several of which are depicted in graphic detail.
This is an adaption of the novella "Heart of Darkness" set in Vietnam and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It blends elements of a war film, surrealism, psychological horror, film noir, and a bad acid trip into an epic that dives into questions of morality, sanity, and existential nihilism.
Captain Ben Willard (Martin Sheen) is given a mission to "terminate" the command of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) with "extreme prejudice" as the US army fears the Colonel has gone insane. As Willard travels upriver with the crew of a river patrol boat (which includes a 14-year old Laurence Fishburne), he sees the depravity of the Vietnam War on full display. Along the way, they encounter Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) and his love for Wagner, endless battles fought for esoteric reasons, and a mad photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) who considers Kurtz to be a genius.
Three major cuts of the film exist. In addition to the original, there is Redux, which adds 50 minutes of deleted scenes that provide some extra explanation while smoothing out some transitions. The most recent version, The Final Cut, is director Coppola's favorite and scales back some of these changes.
Our first staff pick is a documentary by Ava DuVernay. "13th" focuses on the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution—which bans slavery while allowing involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime—and the horrors it has wrought.
The film dives into the post-slavery social and economic history of the United States, demonstrating a link between the second half of that amendment and the rise of Jim Crow and mass incarceration. The film features interviews with various intellectuals and political figures, including Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, and Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Our second staff pick is a documentary by Errol Morris on the life and worldview of former United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Often considered the architect of the Vietnam War, McNamara reflects on his philosophy of war and how it can be applied or misapplied in different parts of life and warfare.
The interviews in the film were shot using Morris' interrotron device, which reflects the image of both the interviewer and the subject in a way that allows for the subject to face both the camera and an image of the person they are speaking to at the same time. The effect is that, unlike other interview formats, McNamara appears to be speaking directly to the viewer as he responds to Morris' questions.
The parallels between McNamara's era and today are striking, which makes for an excellent insight into current events.
Our final staff pick is a three-part, five-hour, Spanish language documentary by Patricio Guzmán on the rise and fall of the Chilean government under Allende.
Filming close to the action on Chile's streets before and during the 1973 coup, the crew interview people from all walks of life as the left-wing government tries to guide Chile along the path to socialism through democratic means before being overthrown. The film also includes newsreel footage from Leonardo Henrichsen, a journalist who filmed his own murder.
The film has a clear bias in favor of Allende's government. After the coup, one of the crew members even "disappeared" due to their left-wing politics. The worldview of the filmmakers is obvious and pervasive, but a dedicated watcher can see around it.
James Gillray's 'plumb-pudding' caricature is "probably the most famous political cartoon of all time."
- The fight for world dominance always seems to involve a contest between two superpowers.
- Back in 1805, it was the British versus the French, and this cartoon pokes fun at both.
- Pitt and Napoleon are carving out the big slices of the world-pudding – an image endlessly copied since.
The Great Game
August 1804: Napoleon addresses the Grande Armée in Boulogne-sur-Mer, preparing to invade England.
Credit Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Great Game remains the same: how to gobble up most of the world, or at least more of it than your opponent can swallow. It's just the players that change. In our times, the two top dogs are the United States and China. During the Cold War, it was the U.S. versus the Soviet Union. And in 1805, the year this cartoon was published, the main contenders were the British and the French.
Across the top, the title reads: The Plumb-pudding in danger: - or – State Epicures taking un Petit Souper. The pudding is of course the earth itself, steaming on a plate between the two 'state epicures'. Seated opposite each other and armed with an oversized knife and fork each, they are carving into the pudding, eager to indulge their insatiable geopolitical appetite.
On the left, we have William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. On the right: Napoleon Bonaparte. No longer content to be called First Consul of France, Napoleon had only recently crowned himself Emperor. Both are wearing their 'work clothes', i.e. military uniforms. Pitt is dressed in the red coat typical for the British army of the time. Napoleon is wearing the blue coat of the Imperial French Army.
And it's not just by these primary colours that the artist underlines their opposition. Pitt's hat is a tricorn, Napoleon's a bicorn (festooned with a cockerel-like plume in the French tricolor). And, perhaps most obviously, Pitt is tall and spindly, his French counterpart–true to the caricature already current at the time–short and stocky.
What they're doing to that poor pudding between them is also rich in symbolism. Clearly visible at the center of the globe are the British Isles – obviously, the most important part of the globe, at least to the cartoon's British audience.
Invade or reconcile
William Pitt the Younger and Napoleon, dividing up the world amongst themselves.
Credit: Public domain, via the British Library
Both Pitt and Napoleon are using a carving knife and fork to cut slices off the pudding. Pitt's fork is a trident, reminiscent of British sea power; Napoleon's knife resembles a sword, perhaps referring to French supremacy on land. Pitt is slicing off a big chunk of the ocean, while Napoleon is helping himself to continental Europe.
Napoleon's fork is sticking into a part of Europe labeled 'Hanover' – no doubt a reminder to the British audience that the French now occupied the ancestral home of the Hanoverian dynasty sitting on the British throne. Perhaps also to please his audience, the cartoonist shows Napoleon's piece as significantly smaller than Pitt's.
Pitt and Napoleon each have a golden plate in front of them to put their slice of the world on. Pitt's is emblazoned with the British Royal Coat of Arms, Napoleon's with the Imperial Crown. Pitt's chair shows a lion carrying the Cross of St George, the emblem of England. Napoleon's chair has an imperial eagle holding on to a Phrygian cap, the bonnet that came to symbolize the French revolution.
So, what's going on? The publication date, February 1805, marks a curious lull in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15). A few months earlier, Napoleon had amassed a potential force for invading Britain in Boulogne-sur-Mer. But now he was making overtures for reconciliation with his enemy across the English Channel.
Spheres of influence
'Jack Tar' – the nickname for a British sailor – slugging it out with 'Buonaparte', back in 1798.
Credit: Public domain, via the National Museums Greenwich.
As the cartoon suggested, peace with Britain would entail both parties establishing a sphere of influence: for Britain, the seas and its colonies (the map shows the West Indies but not Britain's recently lost North American possessions); for France, the European mainland.
As it turned out, both the invasion and the reconciliation fell through. Later that same year, Nelson would defeat a Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar, establishing Britain's maritime dominance without having had to resort to political compromise with France.
For a while at least, Napoleon would continue his victorious streak on the mainland – meaning the cartoon was a prediction that came true. But in the end, Napoleon would be defeated – not once, but twice; at Waterloo in 1815 for the final time (see also #1050).
Sold in hand-colored prints, this is likely the most famous work by James Gillray (1756-1815), one of two contenders for the title of Britain's most influential caricaturist – the other being William Hogarth. Martin Rowson, cartoonist for the Guardian, calls it "probably the most famous political cartoon of all time."
Interestingly, it's a thematic elaboration of one of Gillray's earlier cartoons. In 1789, he depicted 'Jack Tar' and Napoleon sitting astride the globe, with the British sailor punching the Frenchman a bloody nose. At that time, Napoleon must have been an unknown in Britain, because he is depicted as a scrawny, full-figured person, not the "little corporal" of later times.
Perhaps this cartoon is less popular than the later one because the world is explained not as a delicious 'plumb-pudding' but as a less appetising 'dunghill'.
Strange Maps #1076
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