Irresponsible Speculations about Inglourious Basterds, which I haven’t seen (but seriously, WTF is with glorifying scalping and terrorism?)

by zunguzungu

I was trying to figure out what to make of Tarantino’s decision to make scalping a motif of Inglourious Basterds. Talking about historical accuracy with reference to a Tarantino movie does miss the point in an important way, as David Denby’s New Yorker review is probably right in noting. Still, this dose of Tarantino’s usual craziness got my attention:

“I’m actually equating the Jews in this situation, in World War II, with the Indians,” he says. “It’s not nothing that they’re doing Apache resistance. It’s not about dying. It’s about killing. They ambush their guys. They trick the enemy. It’s not a straight-up fight. And then they go and they just completely desecrate the bodies to win a psychological war.”

Let’s put aside the interesting fact that we have the story of a kind of terrorism waged by dark skinned people against the United States government being used as a model for a counterfactual story about Jewish resistance against Nazi Germany. No, wait, let’s not put that aside. That’s really, really a surprising parallel for him to basically demand us to make. If ever there ever was a “good war,” it was WWII, right? And even if it was only retroactively that it was waged on behalf of an unjustly victimized people — since the historical record shows that the Allies knew what was going on long before it was public but did very little about it — the fact of the holocaust does make it hard not to make Nazi Germany the very picture of The Worst Possible Example of the Most Evil Country Ever. Yet at the same time, aren’t we the ones who are now fighting a War on Terror? Which is to say, isn’t Tarantino’s bizarre historical allegory one in which the United States of now is subtly identified with Nazi Germany?

Not that it’s the first time people have made that kind of parallel, however irresponsibly so (seriously, we’re much more like imperial Britain, or Imperial America in the Philippines). But that last one is a lot more interesting and totally different question than where I started, which was, basically was “WTF was with scalping in American history? Who did it and why?” So even though — in my abundant spare time — I’m going to try to sort through the historiography on this question (which, preliminarily, seems to be a debate between Axtell and Churchill), I want to first add this post to the continuing series of posts in which I make enormous claims about how a contemporary movie which I haven’t actually seen manifests its bad politics through misuse of historical allegory. Or something. Because, seriously, WTF is with this long quote from an interview for the cover story of the Jewish Journal:

“He’s been fighting fascism since he got into the war,” Tarantino explained; “Nazis, Kluxers, they’re all the same to him. But he’s a war-history nut, so he knows all about Geronimo’s battle plans and the idea of doing an Apache-style resistance against the Germans. Now he’s using Jewish soldiers for two reasons: One is because he feels that they will turn the mission into a holy war—while Gentiles in the military have the luxury of being soldiers, the basterds are fighting a foe that wants to wipe them off the face of this earth.

“The second reason,” Tarantino said, “is the effect the Jews are going to have in the psychological warfare against the Germans, which is the way the Apaches were able to fight the Mexicans and the Spaniards and the U.S. cavalry for years and years. When you see the boys ambush that German squad, it’s not about the seven guys they kill; it’s about the other guys who are going to see them scalped and ripped apart and degraded and disemboweled. So the Germans are going to know there are killer Jews out there, and it’s the f—-ing American Jews. The basterds are like, ‘Our European relatives could do nothing when the Hun pounded at their door, but we’re the American sons, and we don’t have to endure pain—we can inflict it. We’ve got the right to do that, because we’re f—-ing Americans!’”

In other words “we’re f—-ing Americans” is being glossed as “We can wage a terrorist holy war against a more powerful state opponent?” You’ll pardon me if I didn’t see that one coming. But I await being enlightened by people who have seen the movie.