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History lessons
Many readers of Godfrey Cheshire's review of the movie Enemy at the Gates [March 21] must have been surprised to be treated to a history lesson instead of a movie review. Readers of that review learned that Enemy at the Gates is part of a vast conspiracy by leftist French people, who apparently have turned their attention from throwing bricks at McDonald's restaurants to trying to brainwash the American movie audience.

Sadly, Cheshire's history lessons were probably wasted on most readers, because they will be well acquainted with American mythology. According to that mythology "the 20th century represented a protracted war against totalitarianism and tyrants of both right and left." Never mind that the U.S. government never fought for anything but its self-interest in this protracted war, which fortunately included fighting Hitler and unfortunately also included backing totalitarians and tyrants from Argentina and Chile to Cuba. Never mind that bombs rain down on innocent people, not on totalitarians and tyrants. Never mind that nobody asks these people whether they want to die for "small-d democracy," whatever that is supposed to mean. Never mind that it was not Stalin who defended Stalingrad, but human beings who just happened to be Soviet citizens. Never mind that armies consist of human beings and that this just may be a movie about human beings going through a hell that was inflicted on them by their leaders.

According to Cheshire's version of history, the Stalingrad battle simply consisted of bad guys shooting at each other, hardly a subject worth the attention of the American movie audience. We shudder to learn about those French socialist millionaires, who apparently financed this movie as part of a vast plot to promote class struggle, take over the world and make it speak French. We are horrified to learn that they cast the American actor Ed Harris as--gasp!--a Nazi sniper. It may not have been obvious to us, but now it all becomes clear: Casting an American actor as a Nazi implies that all Americans are Nazis. Why did we not realize this before. Casting the British actor Jude Law as a communist then must mean that all British people are communists. But wait, both actors portray snipers, so apparently all English-speaking people are snipers, presumably all poised to shoot at French people. One wonders what those French socialist millionaires hope to gain from showing this movie to the American audience, but let us at least be glad that Godfrey Cheshire uncovered this vast conspiracy. And let us hope that he will move on to uncover even vaster conspiracies elsewhere. That is, elsewhere than in The Independent's movie section.

I applaud Godfrey Cheshire's dedication to the art of film criticism in reviewing Enemy at the Gates [March 21]. However, his deplorable ignorance of the historical events around which the film is based scream out for comment.

Contrary to Mr. Cheshire's comments, Stalin's inhumanity was underscored in several memorable scenes. These include NKVD (secret police) personnel shooting Soviet soldiers who tried to flee; Soviet citizens being denied passage away from the fighting; a failed general being encouraged to commit suicide; and Ron Perlman's character explaining in detail how he was tortured after attending German sniper school during the 1939-1941 Nazi-Soviet Pact era. These scenes did much to portray the horrors of the Stalin regime.

Accept this film for what it is--the (mostly) true story of a remarkable Soviet sniper during the horrendous World War II siege of Stalingrad. We owe Stalin no deference, but most historians today agree that the Soviet Union could not have survived the Nazi juggernaut without Stalin's severe methods.

Soviet methods of maintaining military discipline were both crude and cruel. Note, however, that they worked. The Russians held in the winter of 1941 at Moscow; at Stalingrad in 1942; at Kursk in 1943 and at Leningrad for 900 days. American troops rarely suffered such reverses against the enemy. Our disasters were short-lived and never threatened our mainland or our national existence.

Do not confuse the movie's snipers with the "ethnic cleansers" of the Balkan conflict. Hitler made it clear that he intended to destroy the Russian people as well as the Soviet state. And, while the Soviet Union stood virtually alone, waiting for "Private Ryan," the Germans relentlessly pounded the Soviet army.

We were allies with the Soviet Union in World War II, something many people are no longer aware of. One highly decorated Soviet female sniper even toured the United States promoting war bond sales. It is true the Soviet troops fought and died for Stalin's Russia; but they also fought and died to save all of us from Nazi tyranny.

After so many decades of jingoistic, banal celebrations of the United States as Europe's sole savior during World War II, rather than at best an important latecomer in the struggle against Hitler, I sighed with satisfaction when I left the theater after viewing Enemy at the Gates. Finally, a Western movie about that war that I would not be embarrassed to have my Russian friends see.

Cultivated in the shadow of the Cold War, American mythology about World War II was silent on the question of the Soviet Union's decisive role in Hitler's defeat. Godfrey Cheshire's stunning ignorance of this history, as demonstrated in his recent review of Enemy at the Gates [March 21], thus comes as no surprise. He denounces the film as a French communist plot to celebrate Joseph Stalin, whom he dismisses as "crazy," "insane," and, in case you still hadn't gotten Cheshire's point, "a genocidal maniac."

This characterization raises two issues. First, crazy or not, Stalin was beloved by millions in his day, and that loyalty went a long way to inspiring young Soviet men and women during the war. It is all too easy to dismiss Stalin as mentally unstable, but what of those who followed him and fought for him? In order to see that history does not repeat itself, we have an obligation to understand the appeal such leaders have for the masses. Enemy at the Gates gives a window of insight into the appeal not only of Stalin, but of the Communist dream. However awry things had gone by 1942-1943, the dream was a captivating and beautiful one to millions.

For the sake of argument, let us set aside for the moment the question of the centrality of the USSR's role in defeating Hitler. Let us even dismiss Stalin as a lunatic. Enemy at the Gates still makes very clear the evils of the Stalinist system and the brutality to which Soviet citizens were subjected. Viewers witness retreating Soviet soldiers gunned down as deserters by their fellow countrymen. A high-ranking officer commits suicide rather than face the requisite, undeserved execution at the hands of the state. We meet a sniper who had trained before the war with the German officer Koenig (Ed Harris), and he tells us about his illegitimate incarceration in a Soviet labor camp. Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins) is presented, somewhat unjustly, as a brazen opportunist who uses the rhetoric of Stalinism both to inspire fear and to muster courage in those around him.

These episodes and others speak forcefully to the system's corruption, immorality and violence. The filmmakers' distaste for Stalinism and the Soviet state is beyond question.

Cheshire seems unable to distinguish between this brutal, oppressive system and the bravery of the Soviet people. Enemy at the Gates celebrates the role of ordinary Soviet citizens who acted in extraordinary ways during a terrible time. Without the requisite sappy music and gushy melodrama found in a Hollywood production, the film restores to the Soviet people the dignity and credit they deserve for their role in winning World War II. Enemy at the Gates gives viewers a captivating glimpse of the war's true turning point, the Battle of Stalingrad, and does so in a way that is historically accurate and faithful to the spirit of the times.

Proud to be animal-free
I truly appreciate The Independent's exploration of vegetarianism, especially the feature on Dilip Barman of the Triangle Vegetarian Society [March 21]. Dilip and TVS demonstrate what a joyful and liberating experience going vegetarian can be. Like many, I was motivated by ethical reasons to become a vegetarian, and this year marks my first decade as a vegan--what I refer to as my 10th Veganniversary.

I would like to clarify one point in Clancy Nolan's article that I fear may mislead readers: "While it is impossible to live completely animal-free, vegans try to live with as few animal-derived products as possible." This is essentially true, but local stores like Wellspring and Weaver Street Market offer an abundant selection of vegan food items, body care, herbal and homeopathic preparations, and household supplies. Clothing, shoes and accessories without leather, wool, silk and fur are readily available around town or over the Web.

Veganism has proven the single greatest life-affirming decision I've ever made. Once you've made the perceptual shift, a vegan lifestyle is not only a pleasure--it's relatively easy to maintain.

Laura Hatmaker made some factual errors in her introduction to The Independent's section on carnivorous, omnivorous and vegetarian eating: "What sets us apart from the other animals--besides opposable thumbs and bipedal ambulation--is the superego, also known as the conscience."

Not so. We share opposable thumbs with many other primates, some marsupials (koalas actually have two opposable thumbs on each paw) and one might argue even birds. Nor is bipedal ambulation unique--kangaroos, ostriches, and rheas immediately come to mind.

Neither is the third "difference"--conscience--the ability to determine right from wrong, necessarily exclusively human. Ask anyone who has caught their dog eating the family dinner off the dining room table. The dog chose "wrong," but Spot's guilty behavior on discovery clearly demonstrated his awareness. Perhaps this is Pavlovian, rudimentary conscience, but that is exactly where we start as children.

People often toss out other supposedly uniquely human qualities or talents in an attempt to separate us from other critters; things like tool use, language, emotion, intelligence ... and possession of a soul. Regarding the first four, common experience and/or research have flatly demonstrated that each of these exists on a continuum. Humans may be at one extreme of that continuum, but there is no safe, clean boundary between animals and us.

Why is it so important to some humans that we are separate from animals? I believe a great part of the answer is just so that we can eat our fellow creatures with minimal remorse. In her opening statement, Ms. Hatmaker stumbled upon the very concept that inspires so many vegetarians to choose as we do. It is simply the radical notion that humans are fundamentally no different from other creatures. The fewer of their deaths in service of our lives, the better. Changing diet is the most effective way to immediately reduce our karmic debt.

A helluva thing
I'm with Melinda Ruley ["Cleaning Up Cain", March 21] in liking Perry Smith's last words before being hanged: "I think it's a helluva thing to take a life in this manner." But my liking those words has very little to do with Smith and everything to do with his victims, who were trussed up like animals and had their throat slit or a bullet put through their head--the last victims having to hear the deaths which momentarily preceded theirs. Yes, it was truly a helluva thing to take a life in this manner.

A creek runs through it
Barbara Solow's article, "Vanishing Point," [March 14] shines light on one of Durham's sleeping assets. Like the cultural legacy of brick warehouses downtown, areas that speak to a distinctive natural heritage still exist in Durham. They will either be preserved through concerted public and private effort or face fragmentation and homogenization by development. Our city's future as a recreationally diverse and livable community is deeply tied to the creative preservation of these last special places.

Ellerbe Creek, which flows from west to east through town, is potentially a unifying element in Durham. The process of restoring and preserving the creek, though just in its beginning stages, is already creating new connections: between people, their neighborhoods and government, between past and future, and between urban dwellers and a rich natural world waiting to be rediscovered right in our midst.


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