A NEWSLETTER FROM DAVID CORN
By David Corn April 5, 2022
A Ukrainian serviceman walks by lifeless bodies in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, Ukraine, on April 2, 2022. Vadim Ghirda/AP
A few days ago, I was on Julie Mason’s morning show on the POTUS channel of SiriusXM. We usually talk about the political story of the moment—or my recent work—and I always enjoy being part of her fast-paced and high-energy segments. On this particular a.m., she tossed me a rather open-ended question, asking what I was thinking about. I didn’t respond with a reference to a particular news story, headline, or tweet. As happens on most mornings these days, I awake to WhatsApp messages from sources in Ukraine sharing gruesome and disturbing images of the war. This day, one contact had sent me photographs and videos of death and destruction in Mariupol, Bucha, and other cities. Bodies in the street, mass graves, and hellish deathscapes of bombed-out residential neighborhoods. Whenever I receive such photos and videos, I often post a few on Twitter. People need to know what Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked and illegal war looks like. But some mornings, there are shots that strike me as too graphic to put up. It’s a tough call. (I’ve written about a similar issue with images from a Myanmar massacre.)
The most recent images showed annihilated urban areas. Cities totally wiped out. Roadways littered with corpses. Areas that once were thriving and bustling centers of life now abandoned and in total ruin. It looked like the end of the world. As I stared at them, a thought occurred: one person did this. Yes, all states are bureaucratic structures shaped by the decisions of many and inputs from a wide array of forces. But in this case, it does appear that Putin and his obsessions were the driving force of this calamity: massacres, war crimes, bombings, forced relocations, a refugee crisis, and the destabilization of the global food supply and energy markets. Still, when gazing at these photos of carnage and suffering, it’s nearly incomprehensible to think this is all the doing of just one vengeful man.
When Julie asked what was on my mind, I rambled about all this and how poorly our species has organized itself by creating a system in which a single person can do tremendous damage. Of course, a cursory look at history shows this is nothing new. Many wars—most of them?—are the decisions of one (often misguided) leader. Too frequently, I told Julie and her audience, we don’t consider how the hell we collectively reached this point. Why have the rest of us given a handful of people such power?
This was perhaps too heavy a notion for morning drive-time—certainly, a switch from the usual can-you-believe-what-Manchin-is-doing-now or the latest instance of idiocy courtesy of Marjorie Taylor Greene. With good humor, Julie pointed that out. I assured her that next time I would share a less existentially oppressive point.
But I found it difficult to stop thinking about how few restraints there are on the power of certain individuals to give us war. Of course, in an authoritarian state, there are limited checks—make that none—on the leader. After 20 years in charge, Putin’s dominance in Russia seems supreme. Maybe military or civilian officials—or a combination of oligarchs and generals—could have blocked the war. Maybe, we can hope, that will still happen. Yet the world does appear to be, to a degree, at the mercy of this murderous and repressive thug who has threatened nuclear war.
In the United States, the Constitution grants Congress the sole authority to declare war but hands the president the responsibility to wage war. That has led to confusion and conflict. For instance, several presidents prosecuted the Vietnam War without ever receiving a declaration of war from Congress. In 1973, Congress, responding to President Richard Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia without congressional consent, passed the War Powers Resolution, a measure intended to limit a president’s ability to initiate or escalate military actions. (Nixon vetoed the bill, and Congress overrode the veto.) The legislation requires a president to notify Congress within two days of sending armed forces into military action and to seek congressional authorization or a declaration of war to deploy troops overseas for more than 60 days. The goal was to prevent a president from waging a war on merely his or her own initiative. (The resolution does not block a president from taking military action in self-defense or from retaliating in response to an attack.) But presidents have sidestepped the measure, and Congress has generally not been eager to enforce the resolution. It has often preferred to not be on the hook for a military action (for that could mean sharing the blame). In 2011, the GOP-controlled House did vote to declare that President Barack Obama had violated the resolution with his contribution of US troops to NATO operations in Libya. Not many people cared.
Nuclear weapons pose an extreme version of this question: How can one man or woman have the ability to blow up the world? The American president has complete authority in this regard. If he pushes the button—which really isn’t a button—the launch orders cannot be countermanded by any military commander or civilian leader. When Donald Trump was in the Oval Office, this was obviously a major worry. Arms control experts have long pondered this unnerving issue of sole agency. Last year, two nuclear nonproliferation experts, David Jonas and Bryn McWhorter, writing in Arms Control Today noted:
[T]here is surely merit in taking this potentially apocalyptic decision out of the hands of one individual. History shows that, at times, prior presidents acted while impaired, be it John Kennedy under of the influence of pain killers or Richard Nixon intoxicated from alcohol. In the case of Trump, many questioned his decision-making processes, viewing him as emotional and acting on impulse, often ignoring his advisers. Because of Joe Biden’s age—at 78 years old, he is the oldest man to be elected president—some people wonder how long he will be able to bring clarity and stamina to the job.
They proposed a system under which a president could not launch a first-strike nuclear attack without the consent of the vice president and the defense secretary. (This would not cover situations in which the US or its allies are under attack with nuclear weapons and a decision about retaliation must be reached within minutes.) That certainly makes sense to me. If a decision might lead to the destruction of humanity, better to have three people involved, not one.
There are similar proposals circulating. A year ago, Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) introduced legislation prohibiting a president from launching a nuclear first strike absent a declaration of war by Congress. In the Atlantic, Jon Wolfsthal, a member of the Science and Security Board at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and a former adviser to President Barack Obama, recently contended that to launch such a nuclear attack, a president should have to “gain concurrence from a Senate-confirmed official such as the secretary of defense or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” He points out the necessity of enacting this restriction before Trump, who has engaged in frighteningly loose talk about nuclear war during the Ukraine crisis, possibly regains control of the United States’ nuclear arsenal of 4,000 warheads. (We—and the world—survived one Trump term in the White House. Could we make it through a second?)
None of this would affect the destruction underway in Ukraine. And limiting a president’s ability to fire nuclear missiles won’t inhibit his or her ability to wage so-called conventional war. But it would at least set up one roadblock to possible global devastation and elevate this issue of individual control of immense killing machines. The war in Ukraine presents a host of immediate and long-term policy questions: how to end it, how to help the Ukrainians, what to do about Putin and Russia, how best to secure Europe. It also provides a shocking reminder of the ravages of war and the unending challenge faced by humanity to contain the power to unleash those furies.
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As I noted in the last issue, the Our Land gang is going on spring break. After all the news of the past few months, Moxie has a bad case of burnout. We expect to return with a bundle of hope and bright ideas. And a reminder: If you enjoy this newsletter, please share it by forwarding issues to your friends, colleagues, relatives, and social media contacts, and let them know they can sign up at www.davidcorn.com. Here’s a lovely song that references spring.
On Saturday night, I attended the annual Gridiron Club dinner, where the journalists who are members (with the help of several ringers) put on a show poking fun at Washington officials of both parties and the media. This year there was a tribute to Ukraine, with the band playing a Ukrainian song (“A Prayer for Ukraine”) and the club honoring Ukrainian ambassador Oksana Markarova, who was present. One highlight of the show—which is on the record but not televised or recorded—was a skit depicting Trump as King George III singing the wonderful song from Hamilton “You’ll Be Back,” slightly changed to “I’ll Be Back.” Too soon?
But the show-stealer was GOP New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who provided the Republican speech. Sununu dropped the F-bomb on Trump and had the audience gasping. (Never before in the history of the club, which dates back to 1885, has “fuck” been uttered in an official manner.) Trump, he told the well-dressed swells (gowns for ladies, white-tie-and-tail for gents), was a man of “experience,” “passion,” and “integrity.” He paused for a moment, as audience members scratched their heads. Then he shouted, “Nah, I’m just kidding! He’s fucking crazy!” The crowd roared with laughter. Sununu added, “I’m going to deny I ever said it.” But this wasn’t an off-the-cuff comment. He was reading from notes. He had prepared this anti-Trump blast. Then Sununu continued with his preplanned stab: “The press often will ask me if I think Donald Trump is crazy. And I’ll say it this way: I don't think he’s so crazy that you could put him in a mental institution. But I think if he were in one, he ain’t getting out!” More laughter—and astonishment that a Republican governor from an important presidential state was saying the quiet part aloud.
Sununu wasn’t done with Trump and recounted a 2017 interaction with him. In the Granite State for a rally, Trump insisted Sununu ride with him to the event. Approaching the site, they passed people lining the road, with some waving American flags. Trump pointed and declared, “They love me.” But, as Sununu noted, the man Trump had pointed to was holding a sign that read, “Fuck Trump.” The message: Trump is an oblivious narcissist. Later in the night, Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who gave the Democratic speech, quipped, “Gov. Sununu’s eloquent profanity is the kind of insurrection the GOP needs today.”
Sununu’s bit got the pundits at the dinner flapping their gums about a possible challenge from the governor to Trump in 2024. Sununu, one presumes, knew that these Trump jokes would receive attention in the political press, which they have, and could well trigger you-know-who. (As I write this, there’s been no response from Mar-a-Lago.) In fact, Trump ally Corey Lewandowski, a Granite Stater, groused about Sununu’s jabs at Trump and said, “If the right Republican were to run against him, I’d be willing to bet Donald Trump would endorse [Sununu’s] opponent.” Two months ago, Lewandowski said Trump was “very unhappy” with Sununu and believed Sununu has “never been loyal to him.” Sununu’s Gridiron appearance won’t change that impression.
In 2020, Sununu proclaimed, “I’m a Trump guy through and through.” Yet he appeared before a collection of 630 journalists, politicos, and other notables (Dr. Tony Fauci! Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau!) and SNLed Trump. If this was an opening shot in a presidential bid, well, good luck with that, Gov. There are no non-Trump lanes in the GOP primary if Trump runs. Maybe a bicycle path, at best. On a serious note, if Sununu or other Republican leaders believe Trump is, uh, nuts, they owe it to the citizenry to say so, for there’s nothing funny about having a loon in the White House (again).
The Watch, Read, and Listen List
Deep Water. Years ago, I subscribed to Scenario: The Magazine of Screenwriting Art, a wonderful publication that included several full screenplays of important films in each issue, along with articles about writing and making movies. The publication lasted only a few years. It was never online. But I recall one article, perhaps from the first issue, that was not about the words in a film, but the body language—how actors moved when they weren’t saying their lines. The author, whose name I don’t remember, pointed to the legendary Gary Cooper as the exemplar of being able to convey the emotional force of a scene with his movements and to do so in a way that was not obvious to the casual observer. This writer also suggested that this skill was almost innate with the best actors. That piece changed the way I watch films. I started to pay attention to how an actor walks across a room, picks up a glass, shuts a door, or just sits.
I was reminded of this article when viewing Deep Water, the Hulu-streamed sexual thriller, which marks Adrian Lyne’s return to filmmaking after 20 years. Ben Affleck captures that Gary Cooper quality throughout this movie. He plays Vic Van Allen, a retired and prosperous computer engineer who invented a chip that improved the guidance system of missile-toting drones and now lives in a Louisiana parish. Vic is in an odd open marriage with Melinda (Ana de Armas), a sex-driven, drinks-too-much free spirit who parades about town with a series of young male lovers. An ultra-long-suffering husband, Vic tells their friends he’s fine with the arrangement, but he clearly isn’t, as Melinda taunts and torments him. The relationship is, as they say, complicated. Unfortunately, Lyne, who ruled the erotic psychological flick roost in the 1980s with Fatal Attraction, 9½ Weeks, and Indecent Proposal, doesn’t fully explore what’s at the core of this relationship and the attraction between Vic and Melinda. Why are they together? Was she a trophy wife? Is this a pairing driven by love, obsession, or both? Enquiring minds want to know.
Throughout the movie, which is based on the 1957 Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name, Affleck uses his gestures—the way he holds his body, his wordless expressions—to communicate a contained menace. Every move, every glance, the way he does the dishes—it all packs a punch. The intensity he transmits with each physical twist and turn is palpable. In an early scene, he jokes with Melinda’s current paramour that he killed one of her previous lovers. But is it a joke? Did this rather tolerant family guy—Vic and Melinda have a way-too-cute-and-precocious young daughter—commit murder? Vic’s “joke” becomes the talk of the town, and then something awful happens to another boy-toy of Melinda. Obviously, you-know-who becomes the prime suspect. I won’t say what happens next. The movie is taut, and Lyne hasn’t lost a step in his ability to a direct a scene. But I wish he had dug deeper and delivered more regarding the murky dynamics of Vic and Melinda.
Read Recent Issues of Our Land
April 2, 2022: How Donald Trump just helped Putin’s barbaric and illegal war; good Trump news; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Mike Pence, Lauren Boebert, and Donald Trump Jr.); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
March 29, 2022: Why you should worry that Ginni Thomas is bonkers; The Adam Project and movie-world time travel; The Sea The Sea, an indie-pop-folk duo, shimmers; and more.
March 26, 2022: Do Joe Biden and the Democrats have a Covid problem?; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Special Supreme Court Edition); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
March 22, 2022: John le Carré’s farewell gift to us; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Emergency Edition); the former Kremlin official who spoke out; a disappointing Suspicion;“Kyiv Calling”; and more.
March 19, 2022: How Trump and his crew boost Putin’s disinformation; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Candace Owens, Jesse Waters, Lara Logan, Herschel Walker, Elon Musk, and others); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
March 15, 2022: Tucker Carlson, Vladimir Putin, and me; why you should watch Severance; and more.
March 12, 2002: Putin, Ukraine, nuclear war, and Trump; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Madison Cawthorn, again!); the Mailbag, MoxieCam™; and more.
March 8, 2022: The progressive dilemma in Ukraine; rehabbing West Side Story; does Inventing Anna target or celebrate Instagram culture?; and more.
March 5, 2022: Once again, Merrick Garland should tell us if the DOJ is investigating Trump for his attempted coup; Dumbass Comment of the Week (winner: Ben Shapiro); masks and freedoms, the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
March 1, 2022: From CPAC to Ukraine—how the right went from wrong to crazy; rebranding this newsletter; and more.
February 26, 2022: How we let Ukraine—and the world—down; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Special Useful Idiots Edition); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
Got suggestions, comments, complaints, tips related to any of the above, or anything else? Email me at email@example.com.