The unmanned drones being used against targets in Pakistan today are controlled from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada (above), about fifty miles from Nellis Air Force Base — just north of Las Vegas, where I live.  This is very surreal, but is it also immoral?  Paul Zahl offers some thoughts on the subject:


Does anyone care about the morality of unmanned drones?  These are unmanned aircraft, mostly controlled from bases in the USA, which are able to kill people from great heights, and with considerable precision.

Drones exist at the extreme end of mediated combat, in that the sole combatant (i.e., the actual pilot of the plane) sits thousands of miles away from the operation, in front of a computer screen.  Talk about the “personal” aspect being removed from the conduct of war.  Well, here 'tis!  Not a single casualty possible, on our side.

In 1965 the Swiss playwright Rolf Hochhuth [above] had a play produced in Germany entitled Soldiers (Soldaten).  It was a long and talky evening, in which the pros and cons of a tactic used by British Bomber Command during World War II were discussed in the setting of a drama involving Winston Churchill and members of his staff.

Halfway through this play of ideas, which concerned the ethics of “carpet bombing” of German cities by the RAF, came a confrontation that introduced the Eternal.  Bishop George Bell made an entrance.

George K. A. Bell [above] was Bishop of Chichester in the Church of England during the Second World War.  In
a now almost canonized but then extremely unpopular speech in the House
of Lords, Bell challenged the Government on its bombing policy.  In the play
Soldiers Hochhuth imagines a personal meeting between Winston Churchill and Bishop Bell, in which they debate the morality of bombing from the air, especially when there is the possibility, even the probability, of civilian deaths.

Churchill believed that the bombing of civilian centers was essential to the Allies' winning the war.  Bell believed it was a war crime.

Soldiers takes its third act to envisage a confrontation between the two men.  While this meeting never actually occurred, the artist conveys an emotional truth: the short-term victory of Power in all things in relation to the long-term victory of Mercy in all things.

Here are a few lines that the playwright puts in the mouth of Bishop Bell.  They are mostly lifted from Bell's speeches and writings, or deduced from them:

“. . . our fury is unworthy.  Are not these actions a betrayal of the ideals that impelled us all?”

Stage Direction:

“BELL, by his quiet strength, has released something akin to shame in CHURCHILL.  This cannot be indicated logically, only portrayed illogically.  The feeling does not last.  The PRIME MINISTER is discomposed for a moment by the knowledge that someone is stronger than he is.”

“The targets change — but what will stay the same is . . . [t]he killing of the defenseless from the air.”

“Save what an Englishwoman brought into being, take your stand by the legacy of Florence Nightingale.”

Final Stage Direction:

“BELL turns away, he is forced to, overcome by despair . . . his voice fades like that of mankind in the tumult of the massacre of history.”

Bishop Bell's unpopular protest against the bombing was unanimously rejected by the Government.  He lost all chance of being “preferred”, as Church parlance puts it, to higher office.  He lost all chance, period.  Now George
Bell is a saint, in memory, of the Church of England. Then, he was a
pariah.  Dresden was still bombed.  The Atom Bomb was dropped, twice. 
[Below, the aftermath of Dresden:]

What about our doings out in the Nevada desert?  What about the kind of impersonal warfare that Lindbergh warned the world about?  What
about combatants who cannot see, for a distance not of 30,000 feet,
but of 10,000 miles, the enemy, let alone the enemy's family, who are
burned in an instant to a cinder?

What would the hero of Hochhuth's Soldiers think about what we are doing today?

I'm glad Bishop Bell is dead.  For his sake.


The Fight For the Water Hole — a narrative image that became a staple in Western movies.  The painting dates from 1903, the year of the wildly popular short film The Great Train Robbery, a Western, which helped establish the story film as the dominant genre of cinema.  This was the era when the mythic iconography of the Old West was becoming codified.  Coincidentally or not, the coda of the Coen brothers' True Grit is set in 1903.


The hinge of the plot of Splendor In the Grass — two young lovers all but destroyed by socially enforced sexual repression — wouldn't work today.  That kind of sexual repression no longer exists.  I'm a little surprised that the plot device worked in 1961, when the film was made.  Though the film is set in the 1920s, its tale of misunderstood teens was meant to speak to audiences of its time, and it did.

1961 was just before the sexual revolution, but it was hardly the Victorian era.  Yet the film is on one level a passionate tirade against Victorian sexual mores, which are viewed as pathological, anti-life.  This was a common modernist narrative, but it had sort of made its point by 1961, even if it had not been universally endorsed by the mainstream culture.

Was the film exaggerating the sense of sexual repression felt by
young people in 1961?  I suspect so.  But why?

William Inge, the author of the
screenplay, was a gay man tormented by his gayness.  Surely his view of
the repression of heterosexual passion was influenced by his rage
against the repression of homosexual passion — so much stronger in
1961 than we can easily imagine today.  Kazan, when he directed the
film, was living a double life — as a married man with a family and as a
libertine engaged in a series of sexual adventures outside of
his marriage.  From the evidence of his autobiography, he was angered by
the guilt he felt about this — seeing it as something imposed
on him from the outside by an overly rigid society.

There is an element of special pleading in the film — a sense that Inge and Kazan are addressing personal issues indirectly through their sympathy with the tormented teens.

Curiously, neither this undertow of dishonesty nor the antiquated plot device diminishes the power of the drama in the 21st Century.  Victorian sexual repression is just a premise, like the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues — it works today like a Maguffin.  What's central is the confusion of youth and the brutal insensitivity of adults.  The film is about the destruction of dreams, and surviving the destruction of dreams.

Those are timeless themes, of course, and the film makes us feel them on a deep level.  Are kids today, in an era of sexual license, any less confused by life and sex than Bud and Deanie?  Are adults any more sensitive to their anguish?  I doubt it very much.  That's why the film still speaks to us.


I'm working my way through the big DVD box set of Elia Kazan's films, and also through his autobiography.  In both, I'm up to Splendor In the Grass.  In his book, Kazan doesn't have a lot to say about the making of the film, beyond reporting the gossipy stuff, as he always does — he was cheating on his wife with the film's second lead Barbara Loden, Natalie Wood was cheating on her husband Robert Wagner with Warren Beatty.  Yawn.

What he does say about William Inge's original screenplay, though, is fascinating.  “His story had the one essential, an excellent flow of incident to a true conclusion.”  He says that the film was easy to direct — “the scenes Bill wrote were the simplest I'd ever done.  People came together, spoke to each other, a point was made, an issue decided, quietly and meaningfully.  Then they parted and the story went on.  That was Bill's talent.”

In a way, that was Kazan's talent, too — investing each scene with meaning, establishing a narrative momentum, keeping the thing moving, emotionally speaking.  It's why Kazan's films are always entertaining, even when they aren't great.  He developed a good eye for images, though he was rarely capable of creating passages of visual lyricism that lift the spirit.  Even his great films rarely arrive at cathartic climaxes which knit the whole narrative together — one tends to remember moments between the characters rather than the whole sweep of the story.

Kazan seems to see Inge's talent as limited, that of a mere storyteller, yet he admits that the last reel of Splendor In the Grass, the climax, is his favorite of all his last reels.  And he's right to feel that way.  Splendor In the Grass, thanks to Inge's skill as a storyteller, and with some crucial help from Wordsworth, is the most profoundly satisfying of all Kazan's films, because of that ending.

Inge (above) did not have the reputation of Tennessee Williams, who could write dazzling, unforgettable endings that packed a punch, but often in a synthetic way, relying on a great exit line, for example, which seems to say more than it really does.  The ending of Kazan's film of A Streetcar Named Desire doesn't break my heart — its poetic, tragic quality feels too neat.  The ending of Splendor In the Grass does break my heart.  It seems far truer, though certainly less grand and eloquent, than anything Williams ever wrote.

Williams was a better writer than Inge, but Inge was a better storyteller.  We don't often think of making a distinction like this with the work of good dramatists, but it's one that sometimes can be made, and it's one well worth pondering.

[Click here for some extended thoughts on the film's plot and theme.]


Remember the mornings I kissed you goodnight . . .

My friend J. B. White composed this song for a script I wrote in the early 1980s,
about Soho, when that part of Manhattan was just coming into its own as a Bohemian enclave, and where I had so many magical adventures.  Thirty years later, none of that Soho remains — it's a Yuppie shopping mall today — though the ghosts, the faces in the windows, are still there, I suppose, my own among them.

The places you
love that you can never return to are also places you can never
leave.  They become part of your own small portion of eternity.

[Song © J. B. White]


My friend Mary decided to “take the challenge” at a strawberry shortcake restaurant near her home in Florida.  The deal is simple — eat twelve pounds of strawberry shortcake within five minutes and the dessert is free.

Mary managed the feat with only seconds to spare.  “I don't even remember eating those last few pounds,” she said.  “I was just on automatic pilot at that point.”


Next Tuesday, as everyone knows, is National Strawberry Shortcake Day.  Stores all over the country are already running short of the berries and the fixings as folks scramble to stock up for the big celebration.

Restaurants which specialize in the magnificent treat, like the one in Florida whose sign is shown above, are gearing up for the biggest crowds of the year.

There's a reason that millions agree — National Strawberry Shortcake Day is the most delicious day of the year!