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IDF Effectiveness Roundup

[ 0 ] July 26, 2006 |

Billmon on strategic planning:

But, of course, I’m getting the impression from reading between the lines of the official propaganda that the IDF is struggling just to produce these little symbolic victories — they seem to be “securing” the same objectives over and over again. So my guess is that the internal debate will now turn to how many more divisions to commit to the battle, how far north to push, etc. My friend can’t tell, nor can I, if the primary objective is still to smash the hell out of Hizbullah, or whether the Israelis are just looking to save a little face.

Pat Lang on Israel’s newfound taste for air power:

At the strategic level, the IDF under Halutz is following classic “Air Power” theory which holds that crushing the “Will of the People” is the correct objective in compelling the acceptance of one’s own “will” by an adversary or neutral. With that objective in mind, all of the target country is considered to be one, giant target set. Industry, ports, bridges, hospitals, roads, you name it. It is all “fair game.” In this case the notion is to force the Lebanese government and army to accept a role as the northern jaw in a vise that will crush Hizballah and subsequently to hold south Lebanon against Hizballah. Since Lebanon is a melange of ethnic and religious communities of which Shia LEBANESE are a major element and since many Lebanese Shia are supporters of Hizballah, the prospect of getting the Lebanese government to do this is “nil.”

Larry Johnson on clear and hold:

When you are fighting a force like Hezbollah, on terrain it views as its home, you cannot defeat them unless you occupy the land and maintain a force in place. That is a costly and long term proposition. Israel tried it once and withdrew. Israel will discover in the coming weeks that their current operation will leave them once again on the horns of a dilemma—stay in southern Lebanon and fight a long-term insurgency or withdraw and give Hezbollah another notch in its belt. A third alternative—an international force empowered to keep the peace—exists only as a fantasy on paper. No country or group of countries appears willing to assume the burden of a costly, long-term military occupation.

Reuven Pedatzur on unpreparedness in the IDF:

Until the incidents are examined seriously by elements external to the IDF, there is an unpleasant feeling of a whitewash operation going on – and concern that something fundamentally bad is going on in the army. Because what began at Kerem Shalom repeated itself on the Lebanese border: The IDF was again caught off guard, this time in a well-planned Hezbollah ambush. The intelligence failure and the complacency of the men in the patrol and of their officers had grave results. The entry of the tank into Lebanon, in an attempt to delay the escape of the kidnappers of the two soldiers, was also flawed. It is unclear why, at command levels, they did not anticipate that Hezbollah had laid mines to delay the advance of tanks.

Also see the NYT on the likely inadequacy of air power, the reluctance of Israel to commit significant ground forces (although Israel is apparently preparing to occupy a strip along the border), and on the continuing capacity of Hezbollah to resist the IDF.

First, some caveats on all of the above. Whatever mistakes the IDF may be making (and some of the above may be overblown), the US has been down the same road and made the same mistakes on multiple occasions. All military organizations make mistakes, including the IDF. Although in popular lore the IDF has acquired a reputation for invincibility, its performance historically has been uneven. The Yom Kippur War and the Lebanon occupation both revealed serious deficiencies. The question for the future is whether the Israelis will learn from the mistakes and either a) choose operations more likely to succeed, or b) become better at operations they’re likely to choose.

I have to say, though, that what appears to be an increasing commitment to the idea that air power can prevail over all obstacles is a disturbing turn. The idea that an organization like Hezbollah can be destroyed or even seriously damaged even by a long term, intensive air campaign is absurd. The commitment of small ground units helps, but won’t solve the problem. It is deeply troubling that some in the IDF appear overtaken by the same fantasy that continues to afflict the USAF; the idea that air power is the hammer than can drive all nails, even when those nails are screws. This point really reveals the absurdity of much of the blogospheric discussion of the Israeli campaign. Wingnuts are happily cheering on Israeli resolve to fight Hezbollah, while failing to note that the tactics being employed by the IDF stand no chance whatsoever of actually destroying the organization.

I’m a lot less concerned about IDF effectiveness on the ground, as Hezbollah is an effective organization, well trained and capable of laying a good ambush. Falling into such an ambush doesn’t necessarily reveal any deeper problems. But Johnson is correct to say that Israel is on the horns of a dilemma. If they don’t occupy southern Lebanon, Hezbollah will declare victory. If they occupy a small strip of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah will continue its attacks and declare victory. If they end the airstrikes without destroying Hezbollah, Hezbollah will declare victory. Indeed, it’s hard for me to figure out a way in which this will end without giving Hezbollah the opportunity to declare victory, unless a large contingent of foreign troops arrives from somewhere (Fiji? Chile? Mongolia?) to help disarm the militia or at least manage southern Lebanon.

… also read Philip Gordon on the hopelessness of an air power strategy.

… and it should be noted that Israeli ground incursions seem to be increasing in scope and strength. This is not, in my view, a bad thing, as long as the incursions allow Israel to actually engage and destroy Hezbollah forces. I don’t think that Israel can actually destroy Hezbollah through the limited incursions, of course, but it’s still better than an air campaign that won’t do anyone any good.

The Chinese? Say what?

[ 0 ] July 26, 2006 |

A transcript of my remarks from yesterday is here.

The front page of the Herald-Leader reads “UK Professor Rob Farley thinks that the Chinese would be the best choice for leadership of a peacekeeping mission. Find out why online”. I suppose I ought to defend that palpably absurd offhand remark…

The problem is that while deploying a peacekeeping or peacemaking force to Lebanon is a good idea in the abstract, no one knows where the troops will come from. The US cannot supply peacekeepers, and wouldn’t want to even if it could. The Europeans seem reluctant. An Arab-led force seems to me a bad idea; there’s little reason to believe that Egyptian or Saudi forces will take the initiative in controlling or disarming Hezbollah. This leaves relatively few options (although Indonesia and Malaysia have both offered troops).

In this context, a Chinese led mission looks attractive. The PLA has massive ground forces that aren’t doing anything particularly important right now. The Chinese also have relatively good relations with all of the parties concerned, including Israel, Lebanon, Iran, and the Gulf monarchies. With logistical support the Chinese have the capacity to carry out the operation, and can plausibly play the role of honest broker. That’s the upside.

Then there’s the downside. Why would China ever want to do this? The PLA has engaged in several other peacekeeping missions, including Lebanon and Haiti, but none of a magnitude approaching what would be necessary in southern Lebanon. The capability of the PLA to carry out what might turn into a counter-insurgency operation in unknown. On the one hand, the PLA was born as an insurgency. On the other, Mao’s been dead a long time. Moreover, a country retains its status as an “honest broker” by staying as far away as possible from any controversial subject. Beijing might lose diplomatic cred through an extended Lebanese deployment. Finally, there’s likely to be considerable Pentagon nervousness about extending the diplomatic and military reach of China, nervousness that might lead the administration to kibosh the whole operation.

Still, it’s a thought. The PLA could use some experience in a large operation and, if Beijing is interested in stepping up on the world diplomatic stage, this would be a way to do it. I also doubt that Beijing is as casualty averse as many of the European governments.


Ideological Conformity or a Reasonable Foreign Policy?

[ 0 ] July 25, 2006 |

Which wins? You guessed it.

The Bush administration and Congress have slashed millions of dollars of military aid to African nations in recent years, moves that Pentagon officials and senior military commanders say have undermined American efforts to combat terrorist threats in Africa and to counter expanding Chinese influence there.

Since 2003, Washington has shut down Pentagon programs to train and equip militaries in a handful of African nations because they have declined to sign agreements exempting American troops from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

But the policy, which was designed to protect American troops, has instead angered senior military officials, who say the cuts in military aid are shortsighted and have weakened counterterrorism efforts in places where the threat of international terrorism is said to be most acute.

US cooperation with African military organizations is not an unqualified good. In the past, such cooperation has enabled local military authorities to build bases of support and seize power. A powerful military in a weak state is a double-edged sword; the military can hold the state together and defeat local competitors, but at the same time it threatens the stability of civilian authorities. Saddam Hussein understood this, which is why he was reluctant until the end to deploy significant forces in Baghdad, or to create an independent, well trained officer corps.

Nevertheless, connections like these serve some positive purposes. First, a healthy attitude about the proper role of a military organization in democratic society doesn’t simply appear out of nowhere; cooperation with US (or other Western) military officers can serve to create and spread norms of subservience to civilian authority. Obviously this has to be an active effort; such norms don’t appear automatically, and in the Cold War US sponsored military organizations often launched internal coups. However, especially since the end of the Cold War these kinds of missions have included a focus on military subservience, which can only be a good thing in a weak state.

Second, several of the states the US has severed military ties with have genuine terrorist problems. Believe it or not, the administration has cut support for Kenya and Mali, both of which have experienced radical Islamic terrorist attacks. Kenya, as you may recall, was the site of one of the embassy bombings in 1998. While allowing that the US military probably isn’t the best organization to teach counter-terrorist doctrine, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have US officers and non-coms teaching basic light infantry tactics. Many African military organizations are completely inept, which allows small, dedicated NGOs to carve out territorial space and resist government authority.

Third, these missions can serve to increase US military capacity. While it’s unlikely that US officers are going to try to learn tactics from Kenyans, in missions like this they do acquire experience dealing with foreign cultures. This can only help intelligence gathering and interpretation. Moreover, an appreciation of local cultural difference is critical to successful counter-insurgency.

The article also mentions that China has stepped into the void in several of the countries in question. This really doesn’t bother me all that much; the Chinese will probably prove nearly as good at imparting basic military skills and equipment to these organizations, and I’m not ready to cry over lost arms sales for US companies. I’m also unconvinced that these ties lead to long-term diplomatic cooperation. After all, the United States has seen fit to terminate long and productive relationships at the drop of a hat. This sort of behavior would be defensible if it were in response to, say, a military coup or a series of human rights abuses. But we live in Bizzaro world; abuse who you want, but if you won’t promise to never, ever prosecute our soldiers, you’re out.

Losing a Battlestar at the Office

[ 0 ] July 25, 2006 |

Heh. Chuckle.

Intermediate-ish Media Rob

[ 0 ] July 24, 2006 |

I’ll be web chatting at the Lexington Herald-Leader tomorrow from 1-2pm. Israel-Hizbollah Conflict is the topic.

Making it Hard

[ 0 ] July 24, 2006 |

It’s things like this that make it hard for me to be sympathetic to Chavez apologists:

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez hailed the man dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” Monday as he started an international tour by visiting the authoritarian leader of the isolated former Soviet nation of Belarus.

“Here, I’ve got a new friend and together we’ll form a team, a go-ahead team,” Chavez said before one-on-one talks. “I thank you, Alexander, for solidarity and we’ve come here to demonstrate our solidarity.”

To put it bluntly, Aleksader Lukashenko is one hell of a bastard. There is no compelling need for Chavez to cozy up to him; the Russians will sell Venezuela whatever military equipment it desires (including, apparently, 30 Su-30s and 30 helicopters) and economic importance of Belarus is slight. If Chavez really were the great hope that some on the left suggest, he certainly shouldn’t be friendly with Lukashenko. I’m not sympathetic to claims that Chavez is a dictator or a serious security threat to the United States, but any defense of him from a progressive perspective has to account for actions like these.

Oh, and “Bush also talks to nasty dictators” does not constitute a defense.

The Psychology of Tit for Tat

[ 0 ] July 24, 2006 |

Unsurprisingly, there are some psychological obstacles to a “tit-for-tat” strategy:

In a study conducted by William Swann and colleagues at the University of Texas, pairs of volunteers played the roles of world leaders who were trying to decide whether to initiate a nuclear strike. The first volunteer was asked to make an opening statement, the second volunteer was asked to respond, the first volunteer was asked to respond to the second, and so on. At the end of the conversation, the volunteers were shown several of the statements that had been made and were asked to recall what had been said just before and just after each of them.

The results revealed an intriguing asymmetry: When volunteers were shown one of their own statements, they naturally remembered what had led them to say it. But when they were shown one of their conversation partner’s statements, they naturally remembered how they had responded to it. In other words, volunteers remembered the causes of their own statements and the consequences of their partner’s statements.

What seems like a grossly self-serving pattern of remembering is actually the product of two innocent facts. First, because our senses point outward, we can observe other people’s actions but not our own. Second, because mental life is a private affair, we can observe our own thoughts but not the thoughts of others. Together, these facts suggest that our reasons for punching will always be more salient to us than the punches themselves — but that the opposite will be true of other people’s reasons and other people’s punches.

This evokes any number of dorm arguments I had in my freshman year. Whenever we touched on a foreign policy issue, the question of “who struck first” invariably arose as if it were meaningful for resolving the problem. It’s critical to remember that while any foreign policy action of course involves sending a message, the message you send may not be the message that the other party hears. This has obvious implications for any discussion of will, resolve, or reputation.

UPDATE: To spell out briefly what those are (I’m a little embarrassed to find an NYT website link to such a short post), expressing resolve or will requires the sending of a message to another. If, say, the Greek Navy were to seize a Turkish fishing boat, Turkey might seek to demonstrate toughness or resolve by destroying several Greek ships or firing missiles at a Greek port. The Greeks, though, don’t have to interpret this act as one of “toughness” or “resolve”; they can believe, rather, that the Turks are simply expressing hostility and aggression. Since there is always an incentive to deceive when sending a message like this (the Turks will always want the Greeks to believe they’re tough, whether that’s true or not), it is extremely difficult to craft messages that both sides understand in the same way.

The Other Options

[ 0 ] July 24, 2006 |

Matthew asks:

But none of this changes the fact that it is Hezbullah that retains an armed “state within a state” in defiance of UN resolutions and the Taif Accords, that it was Hezbullah that raided across an internationally recognized border and is holding kidnapped Israeli soldiers, that it is Hezbullah that indeed keeps its missiles and rockets in and around people’s homes, and that Hezbullah was quite clearly coordinating its actions with Hamas.

What should Israel’s response have been? I’m waiting for the answer to that, because I haven’t heard a viable alternative yet.

As I’m fond of telling my national security students, there are always options. Israel did not need to embark on its current course; defenses of its policy should be made in reference to the other options available to it, not to the altar of “necessity” (which Matthew, in fairness, hasn’t done).

  1. Go ahead and make a prisoner exchange. Unsatisfying, and invites further kidnappings and attacks. But it’s also the only realistic way to get the soldiers back alive.
  2. Do nothing, other than launch some tit-for-tat strikes against things that Hezbollah values. Indicates that aggression comes with a price, and that kidnapping will not lead to concessions. Kidnapped soldiers die, and problem is not “solved” in any meaningful way.
  3. Launch a series of reprisals more measured than those we have seen; let Lebanese infrastructure targets be. Indicate that further aggression has a large price. Kidnapped soliders die, and problem still probably isn’t solved.
  4. Invade. Only option that has any chance of destroying Hezbollah. Very costly to both Israel and Lebanon, but at least puts Hezbollah outside of reach of Haifa and other major Israeli targets.

None of those options are great, but the course that Israel has embarked upon ain’t great, either. Sadly, the international system does not often present its members with problems that can be easily solved. I would probably have gone with some combination of 2 and 3, although I can appreciate that this would have been difficult to defend to Olmert’s constituents.

Tales of the Sea: Goeben, Part VII

[ 0 ] July 23, 2006 |

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

TCG Yavuz resumed her duty as the flagship of the Turkish Navy in 1930. Much had changed since she was last operational, however. The German Empire had vanished, and the High Seas Fleet lay at the bottom in the British naval base of Scapa Flow. Yavuz was the last remaining German-built capital ship. Technology had also moved forward, as the newest battleships operated by Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom displaced nearly twice the tonnage of Yavuz and carried 16″ guns. The disastrous British experience at Jutland had brought the entire concept of the battlecruiser into question, leaving Yavuz a bit of an anachronism.

In order to forestall a new naval race, the great powers had signed the Washington Naval Treaty in 1922. This treaty limited the fleets of the world, and mandated the destruction of many older battleships. The Royal Navy alone scrapped over twenty older battleships. No new construction battleship construction (with a couple of exceptions) was to be allowed for 10 years, and replacement of old capital ships was allowed after 20 years of service. The great fleets envisioned by Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom remained on the drawing board, and the taxpayers of the world breathed a sigh of relief. The impact of the Treaty has been much debated, with naval enthusiasts and arms control opponents sneering at its failure to prevent the Second World War. On the other hand, the Treaty surely limited the size of the major navies, saving a lot of money that would have been spent on soon-to-be obsolete battleships. A second Treaty in 1930 further reduced the size of the great navies, leaving the USN and RN with 15 battleships, and the IJN with 9.

None of this particularly affected the status of Yavuz. The Greek Navy operated Kilkis and Lemnos, two old American pre-dreadnoughts, that were no match for the Turkish battlecruiser either alone or in tandem. Yavuz could not claim similar superiority over the Russian Navy in the Black Sea, as the battleship Parizhya Kommuna had arrived in early 1930. Nevertheless, Yavuz gave the Turks rough equality with the Russians. In 1936 Yavuz led a Turkish naval squadron to Malta, an event that helped re-inagurate Anglo-Turkish friendship. This meant that the Turks had little to fear from the far larger Italian Navy.

Yavuz’ obsolencence was confirmed in May 1937 with the commissioning of the French battleship Dunkerque. Dunkerque was the first fast battleship, a new type which closed the space between battleship and battlecruiser. Advances in propulsion and hull technology had allowed naval architects to largely solve the speed vs. armor dilemma. Dunkerque could make 31 knots, faster than any battlecruiser in the world, but had as much armor as a World War I super-dreadnought and a respectable armament. Dunkerque and her kin, under construction in Germany, Italy, Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union, were fast enough to catch Yavuz and powerful enough to kill her.

At 9:05am on November 10, 1938, Ataturk died of cirrhosis of the liver. General stress and a lifetime of heavy drinking had taken their toll. TCG Yavuz bore Ataturk’s body to its final resting place. One of Ataturk’s legacies was a preference for a modest foreign policy, and suspicion of the fascist movements in Italy and Germany. Nevertheless, Turkey remained neutral during World War II until February 1945. Even then, the declaration of war against Germany and Japan had no effect other than to secure Turkey’s position in the United Nations. Bulgaria and Rumania had already left the war, securing the Black Sea, and the rump fascist Italian state no longer possessed a navy in the Mediterranean. TCG Yavuz thus engaged in no combat missions during World War II.

At the end of World War II, most of the navies of the world decommissioned their old battleships. The oldest Royal Navy ships were sent to the scrapyard by 1949. The United States either sank or scrapped its most elderly ships. Yavuz became part of an odd sorority of ancient battleships possessed by second rate navies. Yavuz’ new “sisters” included the Soviet Novorossiysk, the Argentine Rivadavia, the Brazilian Sao Paulo, and the Chilean Almirante Latorre. Even among these Yavuz was an anachronism, as she was the only one to have coal propulsion rather than oil. Nevertheless, Yavuz would remain the flagship of the Turkish Navy as Turkey joined the NATO alliance in 1952.

To be continued…

Kristol Destroys the Resolve Argument

[ 0 ] July 22, 2006 |


WALLACE: But isn’t that the result of what’s happened in Iraq?

KRISTOL: No, it’s a result of our deducing from the situation in Iraq that we can’t stand up to Iran. I mean, when we stand up over and over and say Iran is shipping Improvised Explosive Devices into Iraq and killing U.S. soldiers, and Syria’s providing a line for terrorists to come into Iraq and kill U.S. soldiers, and that’s unacceptable. That’s not helpful. And then we do nothing about it. When Ahmadinejad says provocative things, continues to ship arms to Hezbollah, and we say, okay, maybe now we’ll give you direct talks. That, unfortunately, that weakness has been provocative. Ahmadinejad feels emboldened. Now we need to show him, and I think the administration has done a good job the last couple of days of showing him, that he miscalculated. And indeed, this is a great opportunity. I think our weakness, unfortunately, invited this aggression, but this aggression is a great opportunity to begin resuming the offensive against the terrorist groups.

What? We invade Iraq, and it invites more aggression? Who could have predicted? Kristol’s point (his lassez faire attitude about the facts notwithstanding) should serve to destroy any notion that aggressive activity can create a reputation for “resolve”. In this case, we have attacked and destroyed the regime in between Syria and Iran. This action, according to Kristol, has resulted in a reputation for weakness on the part of the United States. Why? Because follow-through has been insufficiently aggressive. What Kristol fails to grapple with is we CANNOT control how countries like Iran and Syria view us; they assume that we are weak, and interpret the available evidence accordingly. Wars like Iraq don’t lend themselves to a singular interpretation, as different actors take away different interpretations. It should hardly surprise us that Iran and Syria interpret the attack differently than we do. But it’s nice to see that the premier neocon is admitting that the invasion of Iraq has failed utterly to give the US a reputation for resolve or strength.

The lesson should not be lost on Israel, either. Many have argued that the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 allowed Hezbollah and the Palestinians to conclude that Israel was weak. This is a strange lesson to learn, when you think about it; an eighteen year occupation ends, with relatively low casualties for the occupying power in spite of extremely high casualties for the occupied, and this is supposed to indicate that Israel is weak? More about this later. The question of the day is “what will Hezbollah learn from the current Israeli attacks?” There is zero chance that the bombing will destroy Hezbollah, and an invasion doesn’t stand a much better hope. At some point the Israeli strikes will end, and there will undoubtedly be elements within Hezbollah that say “Look; the Israelis are weak. They bombed us, but then gave up. They invaded, but then went home. This indicates that they have weak resolve”. This is simply not a game that Israel (or the US) can win; you cannot convince an opponent that you have resolve. You can convince someone that you have capability (there’s lots of evidence that Iran toned itself down after 1991, noting how easily the US destroyed the Iraqi Army), but you can’t convince them that you’re tough.

The insistence of a commentator that “resolve” is key is a good indicator of a shallow and amateurish approach to foreign policy.

Death Row, Japan Style

[ 0 ] July 22, 2006 |


Prisoners are executed by hanging—a process known to produce “gruesome scenes of slow strangulation and even decapitation.” And prisoners sitting on death row don’t even know when they’ll actually die. No one gives them a date. Prisoners aren’t told “this day will be your last” until the actual morning of their execution, which can come at any time—days or months or decades after their appeals process is exhausted. Their families aren’t notified until after they’re dead. Everyone involved lives under the strain of uncertainty.

Thoughts on Shyamalan…

[ 0 ] July 22, 2006 |

Three observations on the Douhat’s preference of Shyamalan over Nolan, Raimi, and Singer:

1. It’s not reasonable to dismiss films about comic book characters. Spiderman and Batman have as rich a literary heritage as virtually any fictional characters available to us. Directors and actors have much to draw on when creating and rethinking those characters, and can, at the best of times, put together complex, nuanced, three dimensional portrayals. Spiderman 2 is probably the best of the lot; Maguire and Molina in particular do outstanding work giving their characters depth and nuance. That the characters are named Spiderman and Dr. Octopus shouldn’t obscure that fact. The universes are also complex; Batman Begins could have been written by Edmund Burke, and the most powerful moment of Spiderman 2 comes not from any webslinging, but as Peter Parker sits down to eat cake with his next door neighbor. In short, it simply won’t do to give credit to Shyamalan because he “pursues his own vision”; Raimi and Nolan also pursue their visions, and make better movies in the process.

2. The “artist with a singular vision” trope should have been left back in the freshman dorm where it was born. Great art is about both vision and discipline, and for every Magnificent Ambersons (which the studio destroyed) there’s a King Kong or Heaven’s Gate (both cases in which reigning the director in would have resulted in a better movie). I have no sympathy for the idea that directors should be given free reign to do whatever they want, especially after seeing all of the awful scenes that Coppola wanted to include in Apocalypse Now. It’s not even as if Shyamalan is some sort of maverick; he makes movies with big budget actors that drip with sentimentality. He’s not exactly on the cutting edge, making small movies for tiny art house audiences.

3. That said, Shyamalan has his strong points. Watching both Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, you get the sense a) that there’s some real talent here, and b) that this guy has some pretty awful movies in him. Shyamalan does a great job with actors; Willis is very good in the first two, Gibson is supposed to be good in signs, and almost everyone has agreed that Giamatti turns in a fine performance in the latest. A bit of the shine has worn off of Haley Joel Osment, but he was genuinely outstanding in the first film. Shyamalan can also create great set pieces; several scenes in Sixth Sense are terrifying, but there are some even better scenes that manage to convey the inner life of characters without dialogue. That’s some good filmmaking. My favorite Shyamalan (and I really can’t emphasize enough how much I love these scenes) is the first fifteen minutes of Unbreakable. The pathetic effort of Bruce Willis to pick up on the young woman sitting next to him on the train, including his own slow realization of how creepy he’s coming off as, is one of the great uncomfortable moments of American cinema. Shyamalan gives Willis a young child as an audience, so that he knows someone is watching him make a fool of himself. The follow up scene, in which Willis and his family walk into the lobby full of victims’ families, is also very good.

But you also kind of knew that Shyamalan was going to turn in some disastrous efforts. He’s way to fond of using children to convey plot turns, which comes off as both clumsy and sentimental. Even his best sentiment-laden scenes border on dreck; the tearful reconciliation between mother and son at the end of Sixth Sense could have been done much better. Since he depends so much on thick plotting to move his films forward, clumsy and jury-rigged plot elements become particularly evident and glaring, and can really shut the suspension-of-disbelief down when done poorly.

Anyway, I’m not planning to see Lady in the Water, but I’ll be one of the first in line to see Spiderman III.

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