Finland used the swastika before the Nazis. Why do they still? (CS MONITOR 9/2018)

When guests, particularly foreigners, enter the soaring hangar of the Finnish Air Force Museum and find themselves confronted by a menagerie of aircraft adorned with swastikas, they are often taken aback.

“We hasten to explain to visitors, our swastika has nothing to do with the Nazi swastika,” says Kai Mecklin, museum director and a former pilot in the Finnish Air Force (FAF). “The Finnish Air Force adopted the swastika as its logo long before Hitler and the Nazis did.”

And while the FAF’s practice of putting swastikas on its aircraft ended decades ago, it is still easy enough to find swastikas on FAF shoulder badges and at the Finnish Air Force Academy.

For Mr. Mecklin, like many Finns, that is as it should be. “To us the swastika is a symbol of freedom and independence,” he says. But some see the persistence of the swastika in Finnish culture as problematic, particularly with Finland situated between two regions for whom the swastika symbolizes not freedom, but its Nazi opposite. And as Finland’s far right becomes increasingly restive, it could force Finns to change the way they consider the symbol’s place in their modern society.

Finland’s adoption of the swastika predates its association with National Socialism. Mecklin tells the tale of how in 1918, the Swedish count Eric von Rosen had a swastika painted on the wings of an aircraft which he donated to the Finnish White Army, which was then fighting against Soviet-backed Red Guards to establish an independent Finland – a battle which the Whites ultimately won.

The swastika became the official symbol of the Finnish Air Force, and remained so until Finland and the Soviet Union – which had just fought a successful war with the United States to eradicate Nazidom – signed a postwar armistice. As part of the new relationship it was understood that Finnish military aircraft would no longer carry the swastika.

But the swastika can still be found in the emblem of the FAF and at least one Finnish army unit today. And Teivo Teivainen, a professor at the University of Helsinki who often finds himself explaining the numerous swastikas on wartime monuments around the Finnish capital to baffled foreign students, argues that needs to change.

What particularly bothers Professor Teivainen is how the armed forces’ continued use of the swastika could create difficulties for Finland if and when a war breaks out with Russia, and Finland is forced to turn to their NATO partners. “How do you think people in the German parliament or French cabinet or the Dutch general public, for whom the swastika means only one thing, might feel?” he asks.

“Let’s say a decision needs to be made very quickly in, say, a Dutch cabinet meeting, and someone flashes a picture of the swastika as the official Air Force symbol of Finland, would this be likely to increase the Netherlands’ kinship with us?” says Teivainen. “There’s always the chance it will send the wrong signal.”

The question of when, where, and how the swastika should be seen in public has become more sensitive with the rise of a small, but increasingly vociferous, right-wing movement in Finland.

Spearheaded by the so-called Finnish Resistance Movement, which the government is currently seeking to ban, the Finnish far right does not use the swastika as its logo. But there’s always the chance that a swastika pops up at a movement rally. If that happens, the question of the Finnish armed forces’ use of the same symbol as Hitler’s Nazis – even if the Germans adopted it later, in the 1920s – could become an explosive one.

Finnish aviation historian Carl-Fredrik Geust writes that such concerns are overblown. “The reason why we still have our FINNISH swastikas in use – and very limited use, mind you – is due to our unique respect for historical traditions and memories – and not just our own.” He points out that even though Finns in general have no love lost for Russia, Russian tourists are still astonished to find a statue of Czar Alexander II in Helsinki’s Senate Square.

“Tradition means something to us,” writes Mr. Geust.

He also points out that the swastika has been used as an ornament and magical symbol since ancient times, and that many Western countries used it as a symbol of good luck during the beginning of the 20th century. It was for that reason that von Rosen, who many consider the godfather of the Finnish Air Force, decided to paint the swastika on the plane he gave to the Finns.

(While von Rosen’s introduction of the swastika to Finland had no relation to National Socialism, van Rosen himself in later years did. In 1923, his sister married Hermann Göring, and he had ties to Swedish national socialist parties in the 1930s.)

Whether the swastika brings the Finnish Air Force, which celebrated its centenary this year, good luck or controversy remains to be seen.

In the meantime, as far as Finnish authorities are concerned, the question is a closed one. “At present time the Ministry of Defense has no plans to restrict or review the use of the swastika,” says Kristian Vakkuri, the ministry spokesperson.

The same, it would seem, goes for the Finnish people. “If they think about it, or are asked about the swastika, it’s perceived as different: a different symbol from that which was used by the Nazis, a different history and a different meaning,” says Eddy Hawkins, an American journalist who has studied the subject. “But most people don’t think about it.”

Maybe they ought to, says Teivainen.

THE TRUTH ABOUT MONTENEGRO (Politico 7/18)

President Donald Trump is no fan of Europe, a point which he made clear during his recent hurricane-like sweep of Northern Europe, where he left a wake of diplomatic destruction culminating in his comic soft-shoe with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. In addition to criticizing the two largest European treaty organizations, the European Union and NATO, Trump managed to spritz the leaders of Germany and Britain, Angela Merkel and Theresa May, respectively, before turning his guns on his own government.

Still, if any of our European allies could be said to have received the bum’s rush from Trump during the course of his tempestuous presidency it is the young Western Balkan republic, and newly christened NATO member, Montenegro.

At a conference of NATO leaders in May of last year, the elbow-happy president brusquely shoved aside Dusko Markovic, the Montenegrin prime minister. Then last week, Trump added insult and calumny to injury in an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson. While discussing NATO’s common defense policy, Carlson asked Trump, “Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?”

The president’s head-scratching response was as follows: “I understand what you’re saying. I’ve asked the same question. Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. They’re very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War Three.”

Predictably, Montenegrin authorities were flummoxed—and outraged—at the smear, as were many if not most of the 642,000 odd inhabitants of this hitherto relatively obscure southeastern European nation. “Today as a new NATO member and candidate for EU membership Montenegro contributes to peace and stability not only on the European continent but worldwide,” the Montenegrin foreign ministry fired back.

“We build friendships, and we have not lost a single one,” sniffed the government, clearly uncomfortable with being forced to play the role of The Mouse That Roared in Trump’s global floor show. “In today’s world, it does not matter how big or small you are, but to what extent you cherish the values of freedom, solidarity and democracy.”

Daliborka Uljarevic, executive director of the Center for Civics Education, a prominent Montenegrin nongovernmental organization, was less diplomatic. Uljarevic describes her reaction, as well as that of many of her friends to Trump’s remarks as “disbelief.”

“I really could not believe that the person I was watching was actually the president of the United States and that he could make such an absurd statement,” says Uljarevic.

What on earth did Trump have against “tiny” Montenegro? Where did he get the idea that Montenegrins were “very aggressive,” no less that they might start World War III? Clearly Trump needs to learn a thing or two about the geography and history of this stalwart U.S. friend.

Toward that end, with the aid of several prominent Montenegrins, including the ambassador to the United States, Nebojsa Kaluderovic, we have compiled the following corrective Montenegrin primer.

1. Montenegro is not tiny

Trump called Montenegro, with its land mass of 5,333 square miles, “tiny.” In point of fact, there are nine European countries that are smaller than Montenegro, including several which legitimately can be called tiny—Vatican City (0.17 sq. miles), Monaco (0.78), San Marino (24), Liechtenstein (62) Malta (122) and Andorra (181)—and three, Luxembourg (998), Cyprus (3,572) and Kosovo (4,212), which could accurately be described as “small.”

2. Montenegrins aren’t “very aggressive people”

Trump was partly right: Montenegrins are a strong and proud people, but they are no more inherently aggressive or war-like than any other European nation.

The president’s description might have been more accurate during the fratricidal period of Montenegrin history extending from the 15th to the 19th centuries, when the mountainous territory was controlled by a congeries of warlike clans. However, even though they proved to be excellent mountain fighters, most of the wars they fought, including the ones they fought with their historic adversary, the Turks, were defensive ones rather than wars of conquest.

Montenegrins—or at least most Montenegrins—could be said to have gotten the war out of their system at the Battle of Grahovac, where Grand Duke Marko Petrovic and his troops defeated an Ottoman force twice their size on May 1, 1858, a victory which continues to be celebrated today.

That watershed induced the Great Powers to demarcate the border between Montenegro and the Ottoman Empire, granting it de facto independence. Montenegro was later recognized as the world’s 27th independent state by the Ottomans at the Treaty of Berlin on July, 13 1878, the day which Montenegro would henceforth commemorate as the Date of Statehood, or independence day.

If Montenegrins have been fighting for anything since then, Kaluderovic points out, it has been to restore the pride of that 40-year interval of Montenegrin history when it was an independent entity. That four-decade passage came to an end after World War I, when the then-Kingdom of Montenegro was forced to become part of the new, larger Kingdom of Yugoslavia at the post-World War I settlement at Versailles.

As the ambassador points out, the United States unsuccessfully fought for Montenegro to remain independent after World War I—a fact that makes Trump’s misrepresentation particularly painful. “The USA was the greatest supporter of Montenegro retaining its independence at Versailles, and the people of Montenegro still appreciate this. The friendship between Montenegro and the U.S. is enshrined in our history.”

World War II brought more trouble, when the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was occupied by the Axis powers. Then, on July 13, 1941, the Montenegrin people rose up against Nazi Germany and its fascist Italian ally in the first armed uprising in occupied Europe, liberating most of their imprisoned part of the occupied Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Ultimately, though, the rebellion was crushed and the country was reoccupied.

After the war, Montenegro changed hands again when it became one of the six constituent republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), and the capital was renamed Titograd in honor Yugoslav President Josip Tito. Forty years later, after the dissolution of the SFRY, Montenegro remained part of a smaller Federal Republic of Yugoslavia along with Serbia.

Then, in the mid-90s, came the horrific Bosnian and Croatian Wars. However, as Kaluderovic points out, Montenegro’s principal role during those wars was an asylum and a haven of peace, when Montenegro took in over 120,000 refugees from the other warring states.

Finally, the resilient spark of Montenegrin freedom rose again on May 21, 2006, by which time the long-suppressed nation was one half of the bifurcated state of Serbia and Montenegro. On that day, Kaluderovic points out, in an arch take on Trump’s slander, “we regained our independence in a pretty ‘aggressive’ way—in a peaceful, democratic referendum supported by the international community” and Montenegro re-emerged into the bright light of freedom.

And so she remains today.

3. Montenegro mostly likely won’t start World War III

Over the past decade, the Montenegrin government has tried to steer the newly independent country toward the West. Montenegro was formally invited to join NATO in December 2015. It officially became a member in June 2017, much to the distress of Russia, which saw in Montenegrin accession the loss of its traditional access to the Adriatic Sea and onetime Balkan ally.

“We worked hard to fulfill the criteria for joining NATO,” Kaluderovic declares. “As the newest member we are committed to fight, together with our allies, the threats that all of us share.” He adds, “We also have our national plan for increasing defense spending by the prescribed deadline.”

That does not mean that Montenegrins are spoiling for a fight.

As Sinisa Vukovic, a native Montenegrin and professor of international relations and conflict management at Johns Hopkins University, points out, Trump’s response to Carlson’s query was as absurd as it was ignorant.

“First of all,” Vukovic says, “Article 5 is a defensive clause and does not stipulate support for aggressive actions of any NATO member state. Just as important, Montenegro is a small country with a population of 640,000 and a standing armed force of approximately 2,000 active personnel. As such, it is in no position to threaten anyone.”

Indeed, he continues, Montenegro, which has lately become a tourist hot spot, is trying to avoid conflict on its soil, or anywhere in the vicinity. “With its long Adriatic coastline and rugged mountain ranges, Montenegro has come to increasingly rely on tourism for revenue,” says Vukovic, “as such any instability in the neighborhood would cause serious problems for us.”

“The last thing we need,” he emphasizes, “is war.”

4. Montenegrin democracy is a work in progress

Like most of the Balkan states, it would be a stretch to call Montenegro a model democracy. On the upside it does hold free elections, and boasts a relatively vibrant and free press. However, it basically has been ruled by one man, Milo Dukanovoic, for nearly 30 years.

Montenegro also has a serious organized crime problem, which, his critics say, Dukanovic has deliberately overlooked. His admirers in the West, while not dismissing these concerns, prefer to focus on the deft way the strongman has steered his young country away from Serbian influence and out of the shadow of the Russia, and toward the West.

Here is how Vukovic, who has few illusions about his homeland, puts it: “Montenegro experienced a great deal of turbulence during the 1990s. With raging wars nearby, the detrimental spillover of these conflicts on its own economy, coupled with international isolation, the country struggled to maintain its statehood and national essence. For the entire Western Balkan region, including Montenegro, the main residue has been organized crime and corruption.”

Mihailo Jovovic, editor of Vijesti, one of Podjorica’s leading dailies, paints an even more downbeat picture of the state of the Montenegrin commonweal. The most accurate way to describe Montenegrin democracy he says, is “democratura—democracy on the surface, but mostly subtle and sometimes open dictatorship,” with rife cronyism, clientelism and corruption, much if not most of it the legacy of Dukanovic’s longtime rule.

For his part, Vukovic, while not denying the problems Jovovic cites, says he is “cautiously optimistic” about his country’s future. “There has been some modest progress” in dealing with Montenegro’s seemingly endemic crime and corruption, the expatriate professor says, with new laws passed as well as a number of indictments against high-profile politicians. Montenegrin democracy is “a work in progress,” he declares, and as such will continue to require the support and advice of other Western liberal democracies—as well as that of NATO.

Indeed, as he and other Montenegrins point out, Montenegro’s NATO membership and its prospective EU membership are the guarantors of the future of Montenegrin democracy.

5. If anything, Russia has been “very aggressive” toward Montenegro

During the run-up to NATO membership, Vukovic points out, Montenegro was “the target of excessively aggressive Russian rhetoric, which deemed Montenegrin membership as ‘an openly confrontational step’ and ‘a prelude to the new Cold War,’ and openly threatened retaliation.”

Vukovic sees a “stark and shocking” resemblance between Russia’s rhetoric at the time, and Trump’s recent anti-Montenegrin—and anti-NATO—rhetoric.

Russia’s less than friendly intentions toward Montenegro were further manifested in November 2016, when a group of Russian nationalists attempted to stage a coup in Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital, on the day of the parliamentary election. According the country’s chief special prosecutor, who investigated the coup attempt, which was thwarted with the aid of Serbian authorities, the plotters planned to assassinate the prime minister, bring a pro-Russian coalition to power, and thereby block the government’s drive to join NATO and the EU. (The government is in negotiations with Brussels to join the latter organization by 2025.) Among the 20 Serbian and Montenegrin citizens arrested in the failed plot were a number who fought for pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Predictably, Russia denied involvement in the coup. Still, it was fairly clear who was the aggressor.

Was Trump aware of the coup, which took place the month before his election? One doubts it. Was he aware of it when he articulated his uninformed, ill-advised response to Carlson? One wonders.

In any case, as Wesley Clark, the retired U.S. general and former NATO supreme commander, points out, the president’s stunning, destabilizing jeremiad must have been music to Moscow’s ears. “Worrying to hear Trump use Russian talking points with Tucker Carlson about Montenegro,” Clark tweeted. “Montenegro has been under continuous pressure by Russia for more than a decade. Trump’s comments weaken NATO, give a license to cause trouble and thereby actually increase the risk of renewed conflict in the Balkans.”

Uljarevic was more philosophical about the president’s remarks about her country, pointing out that it led to “abundant jokes on the Montenegrin social media, led to a lot of people who had never heard of Montenegro to Google it, and provided lots of material for comedy sketches worldwide.”

If anything, she says, the joke of the matter—insofar as one could joke about it—was on the American people “who had the misfortune to elect Donald Trump as president.”

THE KGB LIVES (CS MONITOR, 7/2018)

More than a quarter of a century after the fall of the Soviet Union, the three former occupied Baltic states are still agonizing over the legacy of their harrowing, respective “Soviet times.”

In the case of Latvia, dealing with that legacy is particularly controversial because of its physical nature: a catalog of 4,500 people who served as agents and contacts for the KGB during the 1980s. Ever since it was left behind in 1991 when the Soviets evacuated, as the Latvians were taking back their independence, politicians have wrestled with the question of whether the list should be made public.

One of the reasons is that the catalog is incomplete: It says nothing about what the contacts actually did, or why. Now, in the wake of a report by the government’s KGB Scientific Commission, this Pandora’s box-like issue has come to the fore again.

“Dealing with the aftermath of totalitarianism is a complicated matter for the countries that were under the domination of the Soviet Union during the cold war,” says Pauls Raudseps, an American journalist of Latvian descent who has been working in Riga since 1990. “However in Latvia’s case the issue is even more complicated because of the incomplete nature of the available KGB materials.”

Although the shadow of the USSR and the KGB still hangs over all three Baltic states, the fact that the KGB was unable to remove all its archives from Latvia means that the process of purging the country of the Soviet occupation is somewhat further behind here.

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It is hard to exaggerate the effect that the KGB had on Latvia, says Aiva Rozenberga, director of the Latvian Institute, a government institution that promotes Latvia abroad. “Either at your job or your social activities or when meeting relatives from abroad, you were always surrounded by some ‘eyes’ or ‘ears’ that could put you in danger. There was always a risk that one of your ‘dear colleagues’ or even ‘friends’ could report on what you have said, even what kind of jokes you told.”

This left a hidden layer of “trauma,” as Ms. Rozenberga describes it, one which many Latvians are reluctant to discuss, or even acknowledge, today.

Now, the risk of revisiting that trauma by publicizing the list’s names threatens to wreak havoc on Latvian society, as well as the future of Latvian democracy – which some worry may have been the Soviets’ intent in the first place. That is one of the reasons why Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, who served as president from 1999 to 2007, thrice vetoed the Latvian parliament’s decision to open the archives, once in 2004 and twice in 2006. It is a decision she still stands behind.

“We have to consider the possibility that the KGB deliberately left the incomplete archives in order to create trouble for Latvia,” says Dr. Vīķe-Freiberga. More importantly, “we know that many important files were destroyed and others taken to Moscow” when the Russians evacuated.

Kārlis Kangeris, a former professor and head of the KGB commission, scoffs at the notion that the records were deliberately left incomplete. He says that the manner in which they were left was the accidental result of the haste with which the KGB had to evacuate Latvia – an accident which the government is duty-bound to take advantage of in order to expose the former KGB agents who he feels sure now live and work in Latvia.

Vīķe-Freiberga disagrees. “Just publishing the names of people with an agent’s card seems to me to be insufficient,” says the former president, who remains the country’s best known public figure. “I look forward to getting more information from the commission about exactly how the KGB operated in Latvia.”

Whether that information, or the list itself will become available – as the commission, whose report has been “conceptually” accepted by the parliament, recommended – remains unclear. The imbroglio is further complicated by questions which some have raised about the quality of the Kangeris commission’s work.

“This issue – to open the records or not – continues to be a ‘heavy’ topic for our society, as well as our legislators,” says Annija Emersone, a former journalist who worked as a museum assistant at the former KGB headquarters in Riga, also known as the Corner House, after it was opened to the public in 2014. “However,” she adds, “the challenge of catalyzing the political will and support from the parties in power to enact those recommendations is still ahead of us.”

A POET’S CONFESSION

A core concern for many here is what happens after the list is finally published.

Latvians got an idea of what may be in store in December 2016, when a celebrated poet confessed to having worked for the tormentors of the Corner House. “I was a KGB agent,” said Jānis Rokpelnis, revealing that his job was to report on the mood of civil society groups. “I have a feeling that I am a murderer and that I carry the corpse inside me. I have killed my life, myself, and my honesty,” he said.

Mr. Rokpelnis’s confession astounded his countrymen. Some praised him for his forthrightness. Others branded him a traitor. What would happen if and when the 4,500 contacts on the fateful list are compelled to explain what they did – or did not do – for the still hated KGB?

That question also weighed on the mind of Valdis Zatlers, the president from 2007 to 2011. It weighed even heavier after Dr. Zatlers took the opportunity to examine the KGB archives himself. “To see some of my friends there was a big surprise,” he says. “Some of them did very nasty things.”

However, although he continues to share many of Vīķe-Freiberga’s reservations about the lustration process, Zatlers says that he has changed his mind about whether the list should see the light of day. He feels it is better now to open the records and let the chips fall where they may. “It makes no sense to keep secrets,” he said. “It’s much better to disclose all the documents and end speculation.”

Even if the dossier is published and the names revealed, it remains an open question if Latvia will ever fully face up to its past and finally put the Soviet time, including the depredations of the KGB, to bed. But perhaps that’s not so unusual, says Otto Ozols, a noted Latvian journalist.

“After all it took the French 40 years to fully expunge the taint of the German occupation as well as bring to justice those who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. It seems that it will take just as long for Latvia to purge itself of the KGB,” he says. “France was only occupied for five years. We were under the shadow of the KGB and its helpers for nearly 50.”

THE IMMORTAL B-52 (POLITICO 1/19/18)

In January, 1964, Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Love the Bomb, burst into the cerulean with the force of a surface-to-air missile. Considered one of the greatest political satires ever made, the film centers around an unhinged Air Force Strategic Air Command (SAC) general, Jack D. Ripper, who sends his wing of nuclear-armed Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombers to attack Russia, and the frantic effort to recall them before they can deliver their thermonuclear payload. Said effort fails. Cue mushroom clouds and the WWII English songbird Vera Lynn singing, “We’ll meet again.”

“Released at the height of the Cold War, not long after the Cuban missile crisis, before the escalation in Vietnam,” Fred Kaplan wrote in the New York Times in 2004, “Dr. Strangelove dared to suggest-with yucks!-that our top generals might be bonkers, and that our well-developed system for preserving the peace was in fact a doomsday machine.”

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At the time of the film, the country’s relatively young armada of 700 odd B-52s comprised the fulcrum of that system. SAC kept one third of that armada on quick reaction ground alert, ready to fly to designated targets within the USSR within 15 minutes. In addition-particularly during times of increased tension, as during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis-a number of other Stratofortresses were on airborne alert, ready to launch an immediate retaliatory blow against the USSR, like Ripper’s bomber wing in Strangelove.

Fast forward 50 years to the current nuclear stand-off with North Korea. As Kim Jong Un has upped his nuclear game, speculation has swirled that the Pentagon is considering sending some of the United States’ most recently built model-if 1965 can be considered recent–bombers to partly reprise their Cold War role by placing them back on quick-reaction ground alert, loaded and ready to fly with crews in running range of their aircraft, something the Air Force ceased doing in 1991 when Russia theoretically ceased to be an active threat and the Pentagon decided it was time to finally stand down.

That order has not been given, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein emphasized in October, after a tour he conducted of his fleet of BUFFs, short for Big Ugly Fat Fellas-or Big Ugly Fat Fuckers, depending on your French-as the lumbering swept-wing aircraft are known. The Air Force noted that the bases’s alert facility was being updated in case the order does come down from Air Force Global Strike Command, the command which succeeded SAC.

Meanwhile, in a conspicuous show of force seemingly designed to irk the North Korean leader, last week the Air Force deployed six nuclear-capable B-52Hs to Andersen Air Base in Guam-the same base from which earlier incarnation BUFFs flew bombing missions against North Vietnam fifty years ago. According to the Air Force the surprise move, was part of the U.S. military’s effort to maintain “a continuous bomber presence in the Pacific.”

“Their [the bombers'] presence in theater provides opportunities to advance and strengthen alliances as well as long-standing military-to-military partnership,” said Col. Lori Hodge, a spokesperson for Air Force’s Pacific Command. Translation optional.

At the same time, as The New York Times reported last month, other B-52Hs based in Qatar armed with conventional laser-guided bombs are flying troop control missions against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

What is truly extraordinary about this spectacle of bomber power is that the Strangelove vintage era aircraft are flying at all, no less still on the front lines of American defense. To virtually everyone’s surprise, the Air Force’s workhorse bomber of the 1960s has turned out to be one of the most durable and versatile aircraft ever designed. At the same time, other observers point out, the fact that the B-52 is still needed to fill out the Air Force’s bomber line-up is truly remarkable-both for what that says about both America’s still-vast footprint in the world, as well as its byzantine and defective system for advanced weapons procurement.

“Personally speaking, I don’t think that the alert will take actually place,” says Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and military analyst at Brookings Institution. “The real news here,” Hanlon emphasizes, “is that an aircraft which first entered active service nearly three quarters of a century ago is still flying, as well as playing a significant role in U.S. defense, even if its mission is different from the one it was designed for. I just think that’s stunning.”

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In November 1945, three months after the end of World War II, the Pentagon issued performance characteristics for a new, five-crew strategic bomber capable of flying long enough distances that it would not have to rely on intermediate-range bases controlled by other countries. The projected aircraft, which eventually became the B-52, would complement the Air Force’s other new long-range bomber, the B-47 strategic turbojet. The B-47 had a range of 4,000 miles, roughly the distance for a bomber to fly one way from the U.S. to Russia. . The B-52′s projected range of 8,800 miles would allow a bomber to perform the same mission without refueling.

Overseeing the process was Deputy Chief of Air Staff for Research and Development Curtis LeMay. Then the country’s most famous-or infamous, depending on how one looked at it-air general, “Iron Ass” LeMay as the bluff, no-nonsense general was known to his men was perhaps best known for setting Tokyo on fire with his incendiary-laden B-29s at the end of the World War II. He also was the most prominent member of the so-called Bomber Mafia, which believed that long range heavy bombers in sufficient numbers were capable of winning wars, with the infantry and navy playing supporting roles-a concept also known as strategic air power.

LeMay, who also won plaudits for overseeing the 1947 Berlin Airlift, was intent on carrying the strategic air power mantra forward into the new era of nuclear war and confrontation with the Soviet Union. He expected the new super-bomber under development, the B-52, as well as its sister craft, the B-47, as to be the vessel for realizing that belief. As deputy Air Force chief, he expedited the process for procuring and manufacturing the bomber, including awarding the contract to build the aircraft to Boeing.

In 1948, LeMay’s dream of heading the elite strike force of the nuclear age came true when he became commander of the newly created Strategic Air Command (SAC), the Air Force bomber command responsible for executing the new defense policy of massive retaliation. According to that policy, the Soviet Union-which had also acquired its own smaller, but potent nuclear arsenal-would be deterred from using it by the threat of an all-out nuclear attack by the U.S. spearheaded by SAC’s growing armada of strategic bombers.

That same year, the first B-52-built by Boeing, flew its first successful test mission. In 1954, the first three combat-ready B-52s were delivered to SAC. The next year, SAC had 13 more. By 1957, when LeMay left SAC to become Air Force vice chief of staff, SAC employed nearly a quarter of a million men and its hangars contained over 2,000 strategic aircraft, including over 700 B-52s.

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The elite, increasingly popular fighting force was also the subject of a number of Hollywood movies during LeMay’s tenure, including “Strategic Air Command,” which premiered in 1956, and “Bombers B-57″ which aired the following year, as the four star general was transferring back to Washington.

However unlike Strangelove these films were deadly serious, both in their reverence for The Bomb, as well as the B-52. “These are pictures of the B-52 Stratofortress a SAC instructor solemnly informs his men in “Bombers B-52. It’s the biggest jet bomber in the world. It can fly over six hundred miles an hour, over eight miles high and over six thousand miles without refueling.”

“On a single mission,” he continues, “one of these airplanes-just one-can carry greater destructive force than that of all the bombs dropped by the Allied air forces in the whole of World War Two.”

The SAC men, as they were called, were suitably impressed. The cinematic paean to Air Power, which also included an obligatory air field featuring Natalie Wood–”set against the background of the mighty fortresses of the sky!” as the teaser shouted-was one of the top grossing films of the year. The real star, of course, was the B-52.

****

As an officer who had risen through the ranks with the approval of his civilian superiors, LeMay was aware of and generally respected the traditional American principle of civilian control of the military, a corollary of which held that an officer ought to keep his views on defense policy, including how SAC’s bombers were or were not to be used against the USSR, to himself.

However there is evidence that, like his mad Air Force counterparts in Strangelove, he fantasized about sending “his” B-52s in a pre-emptive first strike against the USSR. Before he left SAC for Washington Robert Sprague, a member of a top secret civilian panel, told LeMay that, because it was out in the open, his bomber fleet was vulnerable to attack by Moscow. According to Fred Kaplan, who interviewed Sprague, the air warrior wasn’t bothered.

“If I see that the Russians are amassing their planes for an attack, I am going to knock the shit out of them,” LeMay told the astonished Sprague. “But General,” the latter interjected, “that is not national policy.”

“I don’t care,” LeMay calmly retorted, “That’s my policy.”

****

As confident as LeMay was of his B-52s to knock the shit out of the Russians, if called to do so,, he did not expect them to be able to do so. So, in 1957, before he left SAC, he put the wheels in motion for a follow-on bomber, the B-70. A supersonic aircraft, the B-70 was intended at once to succeed the B-52 and ensure the future of strategic air power.

However the new president, John F. Kennedy, and his defense secretary, Robert McNamara, disapproved of LeMay’s bombsight view of the world, and, with Kennedy’s backing the practical-minded defense secretary cancelled the B-70, an aircraft of questionable airworthiness-nearly instigating a constitutional crisis in the process. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Kennedy came to blows again with his bomber-minded Air Force chief when the latter’s eagerness to close with the Soviet adversary led him to argue for an air strike against Cuba.

In 1963, the year of Kennedy’s assassination, the Air Force took delivery of the last 14 B-52s ever produced. At the time, the bombers were expected to last another 15 or 20 years at the maximum, the norm for a modern aircraft. In the meantime, the atomic airplane, another would-be follow-on to the B-52 that had also proved to be an expensive boondoggle, was also cancelled.

Two years later, LeMay, whose love for The Bomb had also worried Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon Johnson, was forced to retire, distressed that he had not been able to ensure a successor for his aging, swept-wing progeny. “The B-52 is going to fall apart on us before we even get a replacement,” he lamented in one of his last appearances before Congress in March, 1965.

***

Thanks to its large, rugged air frame, the B-52 proved sturdier and more flexible than anyone, including LeMay, could have imagined. Beginning in 1965, the Air Force made numerous improvements to the original airframe, including re-engining the aircraft, installing advanced avionics, as well as increasing its payload capacity, that extended its service life practically to the point of aerial immortality.

In spite of its size, the hulking aircraft turned out to be remarkably agile. After the increasing sophistication of Soviet anti-aircraft defenses induced the Air Force to take the B-52 down from stratospheric heights in the mid-1960s, the bomber readily adapted to its revised role as a low-penetration bomber against the Soviet Union. Flying at speeds over 400 miles per hour at an altitude of just over 500 feet, it could evade radar and fly along the contours of the ground to deliver its weapons.

In the meantime, thanks to so-called Big Belly modifications that increased the B-52′s bombing capability, the plane played a major role in the air war over both North and South Vietnam. In the north, the planes participated in a series of pulverizing raids against the cities of Hanoi and Haipong. The raids, the first and only instance in which the Stratofortresses engaged in active aerial combat, were not without cost: some two dozen of the surviving bombers were shot down, with a loss of several dozen crewmen killed or captured. Nevertheless, the sorties, ordered by President Richard Nixon, were unquestionably a factor in inducing the North Vietnamese to come to the negotiating table in Paris in January, 1973.

Meanwhile, in the south, other B-52s carried out massive carpet-bombing raids, effectively blurring the line between conventional and nuclear warfare. An old-fashioned, World War II-style box formation of six B-52s dropping their bombs from 30,000 feet, it was found, could destroy almost everything within an area approximately five-eighths of a mile wide by two miles long, Viet Cong included-and causing about the same damage as a tactical nuclear weapon. The truth of the matter was that even though the B-52s had reached the end of their shelf life, no other aircraft could wreak as much destruction as a Stratofortress, whether it carried conventional or nuclear weapons.

During the 1970s and 1980s the B-52s reverted to their prior role as part of the the third leg of the U.S. nuclear triad, alongside America’s land-based ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The remaining 200 hundred or so B-52s were supposed to be replaced by the B-1 supersonic bomber in the 1980s. However once again the Pentagon’s plan for a successor aircraft was undone because of the exorbitant cost of its replacement. So instead of the originally envisioned fleet of several hundred B-1s, only a hundred were built, enough to supplant some but not all of the surviving B-52s. Meanwhile, the Stratofortresses were modified to carry cruise nuclear missiles, as well as other “stand-off” ordnance which could be fired at a faraway target while the aircraft “stood off” from their terrestrial objectives.

Finally, in 1991, as the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War came to an abrupt–and welcome end–and more than a third of a century after the B-52s had entered active service, then Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney ordered the extant B-52s to stand down from their

But there was a new challenge: After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the venerable aircraft was once again pressed into service in a tactical role as part of Operation Desert Storm. B-52s flew more than 1,600 sorties and delivered 40 percent of the total ordnance dropped by coalition forces during the short, decisive conflict. The low-level strikes, in which hundreds of 750-pound “daisy cutter” bombs were dropped over small areas, similar to what happened in Vietnam, had a major demoralizing effect on Iraqi troops. After the initial strikes, the terrifying sight and sound of a flock of B-52s approaching was sufficient to induce thousands of Iraqi soldiers to surrender.

In 1996 the durable, multi-modified aircraft successfully participated in Operation Desert Strike against Iraq again, destroying Baghdad power stations and communication facilities with cruise missiles during a record 34-hour, 16,000-mile round trip from Anderson Air Force base in Guam-the longest distance ever flown for a combat mission.

Three years later, B-52s took part in the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, helping to destroy bridges and industrial plants and other infrastructure sites, while also adding to the considerable military and civilian casualties on the ground.

In 2001, the hardy bombers, then approaching 50 years of operations, continued to outdo themselves, contributing to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan through the use of precision-guided munitions, a task previously reserved for fighter aircraft. Two years later, the B-52s again appeared in the skies over Baghdad, firing hundreds of missiles at Saddam’s infrastructure, and helping to bring the second Gulf war to a thunderous close-at least for a while.

In the meantime, once again, the cost-related delay in getting the designated successor bomber craft onto full production-in this case the B-21 Long Range stealth bomber-forced the Air Force to continue to use its aging B-52s. Amazingly, current plans are for the remaining Stratofortresses to serve into the 2040s, or nearly a century after they were rolled out. Meanwhile, at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where most of the 78 remaining bombers are based, some B-52 pilots are grandsons of LeMay’s original SAC men.

***

Almost no one disagrees that the B-52 is a workhorse of a plane. But what military strategists don’t agree on is whether the B-52 should keep on flying.

“Why not?” asks O’Hanlon. “The economics have always made sense to keep the B-52 in the air, with suitable re-engining and re-winging and so on over the years. Of course, by now it has become something of a flying museum of the evolution of air power, but as long as it is able to perform the missions it is assigned to, so what?”

b52_4.png

Rebecca Grant, president of the defense research company IRIS Independent Research, agrees, pointing to the B-52′s unique combination of ruggedness and versatility. “It can attack terrorists on hillsides, enemy ships at sea, fielded forces or fixed and mobile, high-value sites,” she says. “To me the ultimate message of the B-52 story is that it is ready for conventional and nuclear missions anytime.”

Matthew Bunn, a nuclear and energy analyst at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, is also an admirer of the B-52 but cautions, “We are very lucky that we made it through the period when we had [B-52s] in the air armed with nuclear weapons without a truly catastrophic accident.” Bunn is referring to disasters like the then hushed-up January 1961 incident in which a B-52 broke up in mid-air and dropped its two hydrogen bombs over South Carolina, with one of them accidentally getting all but one of the switches preventing detonation flipped as it crashed to the ground, or the 1966 incident in which a B-52 broke up in flight as it crashed to the ground.

A former adviser to the White House Office of Science and Technology, Bunn believes putting the B-52s back on alert because of the new North Korean crisis would be unwise. “There is no need to return bombers to 24-hour alert,” he says, “which is only relevant if you think there is about to be a bolt-from-the-blue nuclear attack. There are much more urgent priorities-both military and civilian-for the dollars that would cost, and 24-hour alerts carry some of their own risks as well.”

But there is another red flag here, notes Bunn-the fact that the Air Force has been incapable of developing a replacement in sufficient quantity to completely replace the aging complement of B-52s. “The history of current strategic bomber development suggests that the U.S. system for developing new bombers is broken,” he says. “The system tries to add so many features that the bombers become so expensive and delayed that we wind up buying only a few of them. We ended up only using the B-1B as a nuclear bomber for a short time-it’s now dedicated only to non-nuclear missions-and we’ve got only 20s of the B-2s, which became so expensive that Congress didn’t want to keep funding them.”

Robert Haffa, a former Air Force colonel and highly regarded private consultant says it’s time for the B-52s to go. “The re-emergence of great powers with sophisticated air defenses-China, Iran, Russia-now call for the B-52′s retirement and its replacement with a stealthy, long-range platform capable of holding a range of targets at risk in contested airspace,” which the slower, subsonic, easy-to-track BUFFS can not.

As far as what Haffa thinks LeMay would say about the immortal life of the B-52 if he were alive, the retired colonel guesses a part of him would be proud that the aircraft lasted as long as it has. But, Haffa says, “I expect he would also be horrified that the Air Force has failed to modernize its long-range bomber fleet to the point where the B-52 is still a centerpiece after all these years.”

Grant agrees: “He would demand that we build and buy B-21s faster.”

One point on which all the experts agree is that the uncannily long-lived aircraft, arguably the most successful military aircraft ever built, was one of the best purchases Uncle Sam has made.

“Divide the B-52′s development and test cost by ordnance dropped and hours providing deterrence across seven decades,” Grant declares, “and it may be the best air power investment ever.”

“I don’t give Curtis LeMay credit for very much,” says O’Hanlon. “His legacy was mostly a dangerous one. But give LeMay credit where it is due. He certainly bequeathed one hell of a plane.”

Or as Colonel Hodge of the Air Force’s Pacific Command, which now includes the six B-52s which arrived in Guam last week, proudly puts it, “For more than 50 years B-52 Stratofortresses along with their highly qualified air crew and maintainers, have been the backbone of the manned strategic bomber force for the United States. They have been updated with modern technology that will allow them to continue serving into the 21st century as an important element of our nation’s defense.”

This is the original draft of an essay published in the History Department of Politico on January, 19, 2018.

DATELINE DAUGAVPILS (POLITICO 1/5/18)

DAUGAVPILS, LATVIA. IN February 2016 BBC 2 broadcast a film, “World War III: Inside the War Room,” in which ten political, diplomatic and military figures war gamed an imaginary scenario in which Russia inserted itself militarily in Latgale, the heart of Latvia’s Russian ethnic minority population, in the southeastern corner of the country.

In the film, in scenes evidently intended to mirror similar scenes from the Ukraine’s restive Donbass region, a battalion of “green men” adorned in balaclavas storm a local government building, presumably from Daugavpils, the provincial capital and Latvia’s second largest city, and hastily remove Latvian and European Union flags, as an angry crowd of indigenous Russophiles lustily cheers them on.


Nearly two years after the controversial broadcast, residents of the once great Russian Imperial city known as Dvinsk, I found during the course of a five days visit to this overlooked and up-and-coming city, are still livid about it and the fictitious and incendiary picture of their community and how they feel about Russia, as well as their Latvian speaking neighbors and vice versa.


“The film was awful,” says Olga Petkevich, an ethnic Russian journalist and native of Daugvpils, still seething at the memory. “We are not like that.”


“The parallel with Crimea and the Ukraine was a stupid thing,” says Alexander Rube, a journalist at another paper, “For one thing it is gratuitously provocative. For another, it was simply wrong. People here in Daugavpils are worried about a lot of things, but, rightly or wrongly, war and the fear of war between Russia and NATO is not one of them.”


“I suppose you could say that we are the Appalachians of Latvia,” said Petkovich, who also works as a public relations advisor to the mayor, over breakfast at the Plaza, the elegant rooftop restaurant of the Hotel Latgale, the modern ten floor hotel which towers over the city. “including the way people from the rest of the country view us, as well as how foreigners see us.”


“On the one hand people from Riga see us as rubes,” said Petkovich, gazing at the panoramic view of this myth-enshrouded city of 85,000, with its incongruous, but charming mish mash of elegant Imperial Russian, decaying Soviet, and gleaming post-Soviet architecture. ” The other day someone from Riga actually asked me whether we get around on horseback.”


“Meanwhile, the foreign media seem to think that we are pining for Russia to invade and rescue our backward city. The fact is, this a fairly sophisticated city in its own right. And things are quite calm.”

“I’ve never been to Russia and it’s only a few kilometers away,” says Petkevich, who calls herself a “European Russian.”

Jolanta Smukste agrees. A graduate of Daugavpils University, she now works as a guide at Daugavpils’ most famous attraction, the sprawling 19th century Daugavpils fortress, which used to guard the western approaches to the Russian empire, now also the site of the Mark Rothko Art Center, where the work of the expressionist painter and Daugavpils’ most famous son is showcased. 

“I don’t sense any tension between the two populations,” said Smukste, an ethnic Latvian, who also speaks Russian (as do most Latvians), “Sometimes, before elections, there are parties who try to get more votes by riling things up. But in reality people here get along quite well.”

Occasionally, Smukste says, visiting Latvian speakers ask why there are Imperial Russian symbols on the gates to the mammoth fortress. “The truth is that this is our history, we accept it, and we are proud of it.”

“There are many myths about our city and this region,” she continues. “People coming to Daugavpils for the first time, including people from the capital, are often surprised that there are any Latvian speaking people here at all. They expect to find a grey, post-Soviet, aggressively pro-Russian place, when actually it is a normal European city.”

****

TO BE SURE, “normal” is a relative term as applies to Daugavpils. The days of the “wild, wild East” are still a relatively recent memory here. In 2010 Grigoris Nemcovs, a journalist and the deputy mayor of the city was shot in broad daylight in an alley a block away from the campus of Daugavpils University, the city’s major educational institution. The case remains open.

There is a thriving black market in alcohol, cigarettes and other goods, thanks to the city’s location near the Russian and Belarussian borders, as well as lax law enforcement.

One is hard put to describe such things as “normal,” at least by Western European standards.

Nevertheless things in Daugavpils are looking up, say residents of both communities. “The quality of life has definitely improved over the last few years,” says Liga Lazdane. “The roads are better. We have playgrounds now. I am pleased.”

“There are a lot of misconceptions about our city and region,” says Lazdane, who is married to a Russian. “We have our problems. Maybe sometimes we don’t understand each other. But we live side by side.”

That certainly is the impression I got during my quite enjoyable visit to Daugavils. Before I left acquaintances of mine in Riga told me to expect to find a city that was poor and run down. Although Daugavpils certainly has its share of haunted, Soviet-era architecture, I found a city that was up and coming with a palpable sense of pride-as well as a bit of chip on its shoulder because of how others, including both foreigners and Latvians, saw it.

Amongst other things I was pleased to find a number of excellent restaurants in Daugavpils. In fact, I can say that I had the best meal I have had since moving to Latvia at an elegant new dinery called the Art Hub.

Mariah Stewart, a senior at the University of South Carolina who is studying Russian at Daugavpils University,” agrees that the city has gotten a bad rap. “I like Daugavpils,” she says. “It has charm and all the essentials of a city, including a great tram system, a bowling alley, a sports center and malls.”

Also, Smukste points out, “the use of Russian is as much the result of a shared language than Russian sympathies.”

As far as the talk of war, or the fear of it is concerned, Stewart calls it “hype” concocted by both the Latvian and Russian media. “Things are cool here.” By contrast she found Daugavpils Estonian sister city of Narva, the capital of that country’s ethnic Russian minority, which she and her classmates recently visited, “much more” aggressively pro-Russian.

****

SO, if the Latvian and Russian communities are getting along, as it appears and it is a pleasant place to live and study, and the fear of war is overblown, what are the putatively “oppressed” citizens of this city really worried about?

A lot, it turns out. A major concern, as well as a source of considerable anger, is the gross discrepancy between wages and salaries between Riga and Daugavpils. The average monthly income in Latvia is the second lowest in EU-about 700 euros a month. Only neighboring Lithuania is harder off. But wages are even lower in Daugavpils, where residents struggle to get by on 350 to 400 euros, plus whatever they are able to supplement from the black market. 

“Riga wages are a bad joke here,” says Aleksander Rube, the journalist.

The resulting economic hardship in turn aggravates the region’s and the country’s direst concern: the steady and frightening decline in population. Due to the combination of a falling birth rate and economic migration, Latvia has EU’s fastest declining population. According to the Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia, Latvia’s population currently stands at 1,950,000. That’s nearly 100,000 less than just five years ago, an 8% per cent drop.

Migration is the biggest problem. Last year 20,574 Latvians emigrated, mostly to the UK and Ireland. On the positive side, an increasing number of emigres are returning, particularly from the UK.

“Brexit has scared some people into coming back,” says Vladislavs Stankevics, the sturdily optimistic head of business development for Latgale. He cites the daughter of a local furniture maker who returned from England last year and is now working at her father’s business as an example of the wavelet of post-Brexit returnees. “Many Latvians don’t feel as comfortable in England anymore.” 

Brexit or not, not enough Latvians and Latgalians are returning but not enough to make a significant impact in the decline: the latest statistics show that 8345, or nearly half as many returned.

Unsurprisingly the region of Latvian that has the severest population drop is Latgale. Daugavpils itself has lost 20,000 people over the last decade. “Of course all this talk of war doesn’t help matters,” adds Stankevics. “It also scares off the investors we need to create jobs.”

Nevertheless Stankevics is confident that things will turn around soon for Daugavpils. “The quality of life is improving here,” he says. “I am not sure if you would have said that this was a nice place to live five years ago, but it is now.

“Unfortunately, there is still a decline in population here,” says Olga Petkovich. “We still are dying and moving abroad faster than children are being born here.”

That is what we are worried about-not war.”

“Nevertheless,” she insists, “I am happy here. This is a good place to raise children. It’s nice to be able to live near one’s parents.”

“And of course it’s nice to be able to speak Russian and listen to Russian.”

“But,” she emphasizes, “that doesn’t mean we want Russia to come here.”

This is the first draft of an article which was published in the European edition of POLITICO on January 5, 2018.

A GREAT FINNISH FILM (CS MONITOR 1/04/18)

HELSINKI. In a Russian city overrun by Finnish forces, a beautiful Russian girl surprises her conquerors by bursting into dance, then proceeds to seduce one of the Finns.

In the riverine equivalent of the charge of the Light Brigade, a flotilla of Finnish assault boats, guns blazing, move in perfect unison, as Russian artillery bursts around them.

A Finnish sergeant, at the end of his tether after three years of combat, methodically mows down an entire company of Russian ski soldiers with his machine gun, eyes ablaze.

These are some of the scenes which have alternately beguiled, angered, and mesmerized the hundreds of thousands of Finns who have flocked to the latest filmic version of “The Unknown Soldier,” the classic 1954 novel by Vaino Linna about the experiences of a Finnish rifle company during World War II.

Written and directed by veteran Finnish director, Aku Lohumies, the latest-and some say greatest–”Unknown Soldier” cost 7 million euros ($8.5 million) to make, a record for a Finnish film. Whether or not that is the case, the new film has clearly struck a nerve with the Finnish public.

Since Tuntematon sotilas opened in October, over 800,000 Finns-close to 15% of the population- have seen it, making it the most successful Finnish film in recent history. “A national sensation” is how Ilta Sanomat, one of the main newspapers, describes it,

Doubtless one of the reasons for the popularity of the film–which is set during the so-called 1941-44 Continuation War, which Finland initiated in order to gain back the territory it had lost to the Soviet Union after the1939-40 Winter War-is the sheer scale of the production. All told, Lohumies employed over 14,000 extras in the three hour film, and it seems he uses all of them in the movie, particularly in his epic battle scenes, which recall such classics of the war film genre as “Paths of Glory” and “Apocalypse Now.”

In the Helsinki theater where I saw “Unknown Soldier” one could sense the sense the awe and pride of the filmgoers as they watched hundreds forefathers march into battle with “the hereditary enemy from the East,” as Gustav Mannerheim, the commander-in-chief of Finnish forces during World War II described Russia-as well as their horror when their filmic kinsmen were strafed and blown up by the Red Air Force.

However as gripping as the combat scenes in the film are, they are not the only reason for the film’s extraordinary appeal, or what differentiates it from the prior versions, observers say.

“Some of the most moving scenes in the film have nothing to do with combat,” says Michael Franck, a noted Finnish documentarian. “I was particularly struck by the scenes of Roka [the aforementioned sergeant and central character of the film] when he is on home leave on his farm, and I think audiences were too.”

“I tried to go a little deeper than the other versions,” says Lohumies, who says he got the idea for the film when he was in the army himself thirty years ago. Assisting him was his friend, actor Eero Aho whose performance as the alternately possessed and sentimental Roka has also drawn praise.

“I wanted to give a three dimensional picture of war, without glorifying it or condemning it, but showing it like it is, including the toll it takes on the men.”

Another aspect of the film which has drawn high marks was Lohumies’ decision to use a number of Russian actors to humanize the “hereditary enemy,” particularly Diana Pozharskaya, who plays the girl from Petravazavodsk who seduces her conquerors.

“It was a great honor for me to participate in ‘Unknown Soldier,’ says Pozharskaya, who comes close to stealing the film. Pozharskaya, who is based in Moscow, says she read the original novel as part of her preparation for the role, which Louhimies created for her.

“I learned a lot I didn’t know before about the history of our two countries’ relations,” she says. “I knew that we had fought a long war with Finland,” she said, referring to the two back-to-back wars which the two countries fought during WWII. “But I didn’t know that Russia started the cycle.”

The fact that the film appears at a time when tensions in the Baltic region are on the rise may also explain its appeal.

“I saw the film with a friend says Alec Neihum, a student at Helsinki University who recently completed his compulsory military service. “Afterwards we found ourselves talking about the situation in the Ukraine. I don’t think that was an accident.”

Another reason for the widespread interest in the film seems to be a new willingness on the part of Finns to confront the less pleasant aspects of their history. Unlike the Winter War, which Finns consider their finest hour, there is little about the Continuation War to boast of.

For one, the Finns were the aggressors. Also, after achieving their original objective of regaining their lost territory, the rapacious Finns went on to annex part of Russia, before ultimately being thrown back.

As Vera reminds her Finnish lover “You invaded us.”

Also the Finns entered the war as a co-belligerent with Nazi Germany, an inconvenient truth which Lokumies does not gloss over. At one point during the war, in June, 1942, arguably the most infamous moment in Finnish history, Adolf Hitler flew to Finland to help celebrate Marshal Mannerheim, the Finnish commander-in-chief’s 75th birthday. Lohumies includes a portion of the original newsereel of Hitler’s visit in the movie.

“I want to make Finns think about their history,” says Lokumies.

“But above all, I wanted to make a great film, and one that did complete justice to the novel.”

If the response of the Finnish public is any evidence, he certainly has done that.

The above is the first draft of an article published in The Christian Science Monitor on January 4, 2018.