Wednesday, September 5, 2007

War Actually

They jokingly call prostitution "the oldest profession." That is of course rubbish. But what really is the oldest profession? My money is on soldiering. War seems to be the natural state for most social creatures: from ants to human beings, we organize ourselves into fighting units for defense and for conquest. I can imagine that this was so for homo sapiens long before the first farmers put seed into the earth or the first craftsmen wrought primitive tools.

I have been fascinated by war since being a youngster. I suppose this isn't exactly an original phenomenon, little boys dreaming of heroic exploits upon a field of battle. Throughout the ages this has been the norm. Like countless other boys, I swung imaginary swords and parried with a pillow for a shield. I filled notebooks with images of tanks and planes and guns and weaponry. My brother and I had a gigantic collection of green army men. We ran through the neighborhood defeating evil through our martial prowess.

As a teenager my fascination became revulsion, but war still had no less a hold on me: though I defaced my draft card by scrawling "I wish to register as a conscientious objector" upon it, I still wrestled with its seductive appeal, watching films and documentaries and reading history on the subject. Almost inexplicably, I took the military entrance exam and contemplated enlisting in the Air Force. Something held me back, but still: war has a terrifyingly powerful hold upon the imagination of boys and men.

Clint Eastwood's diptych Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima portrays some of the contradictions of violent struggle. Flags tells the story of three of the men who raised the widely seen flag over Iwo Jima. The picture that became one of the most famous photographs in history was an accident: the first flag raised on that war-torn island was wanted as a trophy, so a second flag was run up. A wartime photographer snapped a hasty shot of this second flag being raised. The picture immediately became an iconic symbol of the American war effort, and the soldiers involved in the picture became pawns in the wartime propaganda machine.

Flags of Our Fathers does not have a strong narrative. Rather, it is told in loosely associated recollections and anecdotes. It is a sad tale of the disconnect between the actual experience of the soldier on the battlefield and the packaging and selling of heroism as a commodity. It was not a great movie, but parts of it were compelling and poignant.

Letters from Iwo Jima tells the same story of the invasion of that tiny island from the Japanese perspective. It is the more formal of the two films, following the traditional plot arc of a tragedy. This is easily the better of the two films, though both are worthy of a rental. The film introduces all levels of the island's defense. Ken Watanabe gives a strong performance as a noble officer, intent upon reconciling honor, duty, and compassion for his men. Kazunari Ninomiya is touching as a baker who was conscripted to fight in the war, already a lost cause by the time he reaches the front. As they prepare for the inevitable invasion, we find the humanity in these men. What follows next is the horror of lethal armed combat.

Which brings us back to fighting. Let us set aside political arguments that weigh the justifications for war for a moment. If using violent struggle to resolve conflict is one of our basic instincts, does that mean we should simply embrace what is natural? I am skeptical. We have so many other instincts as well. But the instinct is very strong indeed: to fight to defend one's family, one's land, one's beliefs, to render aid unto the weak and helpless. These are things that seem as natural as breathing, and inspire boys of all ages to fantasize of heroic deeds. And yet these very justifications become political talking points in the selling of any conflict, and even in the most "moral" of wars, the belligerents commit unspeakable atrocities against the demonized other.


J G-W said...

I wish there were nice, easy answers to the questions you raise at the end of this post. I once might have said that there is no justification in taking up arms, ever. But I certainly don't believe that now and I'm not entirely sure I ever really believed it.

Like everything in life, we have to struggle with moral ambiguity.

Here's the thing: there are few things I can think of more noble than one person being willing to risk his or her life in order to save and protect others.

Here's the other thing: there are few things more craven, disgusting, and wicked than sending such noble souls away to die in an unnecessary, stupid, unlawful war of aggression and greed.

Knight of Nothing said...

Agreed! It's a paradox of the first order: the impulse to protect and defend can be easily perverted into conquest and domination. How does one draw the line?

When I think about the great practictioners of non-violence in of the 20th century (Gandhi and MLK), whom I admire, I can't help but think that their movements had success in large part because they appealed to the morality of their more educated and enlightened opponents. Their movements required a level of social order not always present.

It is difficult to know how a practitioner of non-violence would fare in Darfur or Baghdad. But I cannot imagine they would be effective at this point.

J G-W said...

Well, we have to do the hard work of evaluating the moral context in which a conflict unfolds.

Clearly, for anybody with a brain and a heart, the Iraq war was evil, and so are the people who badgered, lied, and manipulated us into it. Good old Tom Paine thought democracy would bring an end to war, but as we can see, he didn't count on the fact that A) the people can be rapacious and stupid or B) true democracy is easily subverted by the wealthy and powerful.

Even when a really "good" war presents itself, we must accept the fact that most collateral outcomes of any war are evil. War must be waged with the understanding that the war will be bad, and that it can only be justified when the outcome of NOT fighting would be much worse. And since making such a judgment requires prescience, any decision to go to war is always morally risky. We have to accept that we will have blood on our hands, no matter how "good" the war is.

I wish such decisions never had to be made, but they must.

This is one reason why a good rule of thumb is, a defensive war to defend one's own territory from invasion is good; a defensive war to defend an ally's territory from invasion is also good. Invading another country in order to fix "problems" in that country, probably very bad. Intervening in a genocidal civil war to prevent people from massacring each other, inevitably ugly but probably on balance necessary. Finally, I'm inclined to agree with the folks who argue that a war on terror is a contradiction in terms (since, war IS terror); and international terrorism is much better handled through investigation and police work in the individual countries where it is based.

Knight of Nothing said...

Well put, John. Intellectually, it seems morally ambiguous simply talking about a "just" or "good" war, when as you say the "collateral outcomes" can be so hideous. But my gut says "FIGHT!" at times.