The Irishman

The Good Soldier Schweik (or Švejk) is the most translated Czech novel in history. A satirical comedy written by Jaroslav Hašek entitled in full (but not in Czech) The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War, the war referred to is WWI set in motion when Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo. 15 million combatants died, 140,000 of them Czech. In that war, Hašek himself served in the 91st Infantry Regiment of the Austro-Hungarian Army of a corrupt and disintegrating empire and spent a good part of the war as a POW.

The message of the send-up is that war is absurd and pointless. It is also an exercise in futility. The men fighting and dying in the war do not know what they are dying for. And they all are fighting for a polity towards which they feel no loyalty. They are simply taught to obey orders, otherwise they would be shot. The specific target of the satire is military discipline.

Schweik is either an imbecile or a brilliant pretender who feigns incompetence to frustrate the will of his commanders. He enters the scene as a dealer in stolen dogs (Frank Sheeran in The Irishman begins as a dealer in stolen meat) who becomes an over-the-top enthusiastic recruit for the war. Frank commits one hit after the other. Schweik encounters one adventure after another, including his arrest as a spy and/or deserter and then his re-arrest for getting into a street fight, following which he is promoted.   


Yesterday, we spent three hours at the site of the second bloodiest battle of the American Civil War after Gettysburg. In the battle of Chickamauga, immediately south of Chattanooga, a battle spread over about 9,000 acres, two armies clashed, that of the Confederacy and the other, the Union Army. We toured specific sites on the largest Civil War park in America guided by a park ranger who was writing his master’s thesis in history.

The war had come to southern Tennessee on the northern border of Georgia. The Union Army decided that the best way to break the back of the Southern rebels was to divide the west and east wings of the confederacy and also capture the gateway to the south, Chattanooga, where four rail lines crossed at this juncture of the Tennessee River. This would also open the gateway to the deep south and Georgia’s munitions factories and the industrial heartland of the Confederate war machine. Gangsters fight to secure and expand their turf just as armies do. And momentous events mark their histories.

On 23 August 1863, Union major general William Starke Rosecrans made a feint across the Tennessee River, drawing Confederate Braxton Bragg to redeploy his Army of the Tennessee, allowing the union army to cross the river and capture Chattanooga. Bragg could count another defeat in his long retreat from Virginia and Kentucky. But Bragg kept his army intact to fight another day.

On 20 September, Bragg prepared to counter attack and recapture Chattanooga. According to our park ranger guide, if I recall correctly, Bragg had number on his side – 72,000 men compared to 65,000 for the Union Army of the Cumberland. However, when I checked later, it seemed that Rosecrans also had 25,000 men under the command of General Burnside stationed at Knoxville to the north. On the other hand, Bragg evidently had only 35,000. However, the guide was correct for before the Battle of Chickamauga, Bragg was reinforced by Confederate troops from Knoxville. In the process, he gained an advantage in cavalry of 15,000 to 11,000 Union mounted soldiers. Further, he had better and much more secure supply lines as well as prosperous farms versus the Appalachian mountains virtually barren of farms to feed Rosecrans’ army. However, as our guide pointed out, the Union forces were equipped with Enfield repeating rifles that could get away a shot every 3 seconds compared to the Confederate muskets that could only get a shot away every 20 seconds.

Numbers counted. The quality of equipment counted. But the most important elements seemed to be leadership, strategy, tactics, courage, morale and luck – and the corresponding absence of stupidity, cowardice, insubordination, lack of discipline and desertion. The Union soldiers respected, even adored, their commander, General Rosecrans. He had led them to a series of victories before. On the other hand, as our guide noted, the Confederate Army of the Tennessee was riven with dissension and distrust of their Commander, General Bragg, in particular, by his two key subordinates, Lieutenant Generals Leonidas Polk and William J. Hardee, The latter transferred to Mississippi. Polk, demonstrably incompetent, was left in place because of his close friendship with President Jefferson Lee of the Confederacy. His errors almost sabotaged Bragg’s counterattack.  

Further, the Confederates were largely led by wealthy plantation holders defending slavery whereas the Tennessee yeomen had little interest in fighting to preserve slavery. Thus, although numbers counted, loyalty mattered more. But numbers still counted, just under 65,000 Confederates under arms faced almost 61,000 Union soldiers. Rosecrans had decided to pursue Bragg’s retreating army though risking his own army being bush wacked. Instead, of choosing to consolidate and reinforce his position, he moved his army south of Chattanooga, dispersing his troops along a wider front than ever before and divided into five distinct groups. Bragg saw an opportunity to counterattack. The Battle of Chickamauga was the result.

Each side, as our guide informed us, made critical errors. The rest of the tour exposed a few of the key mistakes of each side as well as small victories snatched from the hands of defeat once the direct engagement of the two armies began on 18 September 1863. One error on the Confederate side was the result of a loss of a real battle on the first day that allowed Rosecrans to both consolidate as well as discern Bragg’s intentions. On the Confederate side, a force on the very north of the line did not attack at dawn as ordered but four hours later, thereby losing the element of surprise. On the Union side, Rosecrans, tired and sleep deprived on the third day of battle, gave a contradictory order to his two groupings on the south, ordering them to close ranks with the group immediately north and also commanding the southern unit to be a backup force. In following the second command, they opened a wide gap in the Union line through which Bragg’s troops would pore through. In the end, Rosecrans lost the battle of Chickamauga, but Bragg failed to follow through and attack the Union army that had retreated to Chattanooga.

Rosecrans was relieved of his command to be replaced by Ulysses S. Grant who would go on to win victory after victory and eventually become President of the United States. What an absolutely different account of war than that found in The Good Soldier Schweik! About the only common feature of both was luck and the huge number of casualties. There were 34,000 at the Battle of Chickamauga. As the ranger relayed the tale, the men deployed were the brothers and sons and relatives and neighbours with whom they fought and most were fighting for a cause in which they believed alongside soldiers whom they trusted. But both accounts differ radically from the violence and conflict on display in The Irishman and both the loyalty and betrayal of blood.

Martin Scorsese’s film, which we saw last evening, is a flashback by a good soldier, Frank Sheeran, an American of Irish descent who learned to speak Italian after 141 days of battle in Italy in WWII. At an early point in the movie, he recalls how he was given orders by a nod and a wink to take no prisoners and we see on the screen two Italian soldiers digging a very deep hole. When they come up out of the hole, Frank Sheeran, played by Robert de Niro, shoots them. He will spend most of the rest of his life working for both the mob and Jimmy Hoffa. largely as a messenger and a hit man.   

I very much looked forward to seeing the movie. However, at one point, I fell asleep for five minutes. The movie drags and is far too long. The film is based on a 2004 book by Charles Brandt adapted by Steven Zaillian entitled, I Heard You Paint Houses, a euphemism for I learned you are a hit man. The film is full of the same winks and nods that Frank Sheeran learned to obey in the army. His career after the war, it was implied, was just a continuation of what he had learned during the war. Unlike The Good Soldier Schweik,which celebrated disobedience and anarchy, The Irishman is about following orders and not getting out of line. It is not about courage. It is not about discipline. It is not even about intelligence of the intentions and plans of the other side. For a mobster does not have to discern the intentions of others; he need only suspect that those intentions and consequent behaviour do not align with one’s own.

Frank is adopted by the mobster Russel Bufalino, played superbly by Joe Pesci, whom he serves loyally all his life. He is subsequently also adopted by Jimmy Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters played with extraordinary force by Al Pacino who has ties with the Bufalino crime family of Philadelphia. The movie is literally littered with other real crime bosses and “soldiers.”  Divided loyalty even more than divided forces, each with their own loyalties, is a central thread running through the movie – loyalty to the mob versus the union, to one crime family, the Bufolinos of Philadelphia versus the Genovese crime family of New York, loyalty to one union boss over another, and to the mob versus one’s family. All the while, Frank maintains a stoic mien as these tensions fight within him and are always settled with the message, “It is what it is.” You accommodate to circumstances and the need to survive. There is no higher principle in life or in war.

National politics is reduced to the same equation as the narrative is set against the election of Jack Kennedy over Richard Nixon, with each being backed by a different crime boss with the determining factor being the Chicago crime family in cahoots with Mayor Richard Daley who backs Jack Kennedy. The mob expects a payoff, the ouster of Fidel Castro and the recovery of the mob’s casinos and other riches expropriated by Castro. The result is the Bay of Pigs imbroglio. The mob never forgives or forgets Jack Kennedy

Ironically, the result is also the naming of Robert F. Kennedy, Jack’s brother, as Attorney General, who declares war on both the mobs and the crooked Teamster Union. But Jack is assassinated – hint, hint, through the machinations of the mob – Robert Kennedy is out and the siege of the mobsters and the Teamsters Union is lifted. All through the film, typed copy appears on screen in front of a mobster or teamster indicating the date they were snuffed out and how. Over and over and over again, through the cars, through the elaborate costuming and sets, we are told that this film is an authentic representation of reality. But it is a reductionist reality boiling down to the quest for power and the need for survival and politics is but an extension of the same ethos.

What mostly disrupts this “rational” order are impetuous personalities like Jimmy Hoffa and Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo, boss of the New Jersey crime family. It is they who attract the attention of the legal authorities. Both seek the limelight.  And both attract the attention of political and police authorities to themselves and their criminal activities. Jimmy Hoffa eventually loses his roost and is convicted of jury tampering. Teamster Frank Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba) replaces him. Neither smart nor tough, but a likeable guy, he retains power by making loans to the mob from the union pension fund. Hoffa who had supported Richard Nixon against Kennedy in 1960 with street muscle and campaign financing, is pardoned by Richard Nixon in 1971. One is reminded of Police Agent Bretschneider in The Good Soldier Schweik, as Robert Kennedy repeatedly tried to get Hoffa. Bretschneider ended up being eaten by his own dogs.

Hoffa himself reminded me of Oberleutenant Lukáš in The Good Soldier Schweik who is genuinely liked, even loved, by Schweik, but it is Schweik’s incompetence that eventually undermines and destroys his career, just as Frank’s competence as a hit man ensures the end of Hoffa, at least in Scorsese’s version of history. Instead of a pretentious brilliantly acted and produced mobster epic, The Irishman could easily have been a satire. But it is not. Nor is it an insightful exploration of how and why men become gangsters and how they perform in such roles. There is neither courage nor cowardice, neither good nor faulty intelligence, neither rational or erroneous plans except as minor and almost irrelevant notes – Joe Pesci does not know that the person whom he is telling to eliminate a pest on the West coast is wearing a wire.

The message that mob and union violence is absurd, pointless and futile, since we all end up old and eventually dead, does belong to satire, but not to a film with pretentions of historical authenticity. In Scorsese’s film, there is no ultimate loyalty. We all end up alone and dead whether we live in the underground or on the top of the world in business and politics. And what we want most is respect rather than money or power. Honour and glory are not signs of courage, but markers of recognition. Not “I couldda been a somebody,” but rather, “I wanna be a somebody.” That is what drives these men. Perhaps that is why they pretend to play soldiers while lacking most of the key attributes to succeed in fighting real wars. The Irishman is a movie of cynicism in the guise of a very expensive and ultimately celluloid thin tale with a moral message that we ought not to glamorize or humanize gangsters and mobsters as Scorsese had done in his previous films. Why critics viewed is as deep, I cannot tell. And overwhelmingly they rave over the film.

As a gangster film set against a political background, it bears no comparison to Peaky Blinders. It is not about crime. It is not even really about betrayal. It is about obedience, blind and untrammelled obedience. It is also both a tribute as well as inversion of Scorsese’s previous mob films as if, like Frank in his old age, he wants to redeem himself from his life’s work and is offering a confession to his Catholic priest. However, there is not a thrilling moment in the film, a key element in the gangster genre. Along with the acting and the production qualities, that could have turned the movie into a single marvellous one.


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