Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Messages Of War

(originally published in The Outreach Connection on March 12, 2010)

One day, as they used to ask where you were when you heard about the Kennedy assassination, they may ask where you were when your disappointment with Obama crystallized. For me it was his clinical, politically calculating Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.

“ Make no mistake,” he said, “evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism - it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason…yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another - that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause and to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such. So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths - that war is sometimes necessary, and war is at some level an expression of human feelings.”

The Price Of It All

This is plainly true on some level – the point about Hitler seems apt and proportionate. But the objective looming nightmare that prompted the Second World War monstrously outweighs the ragbag threats underlying current military adventures. Of course Al Qaeda scored a horrific success on 9/11, but it’s never been coherently explained how that justified diverting the national and international conversation to the extent that followed. There’s never been a moment when, for the “average American,” the likelihood of death by terrorist even vaguely approached the daily threats posed by the act of getting into a car, lousy diet, the perils of the average kitchen, and so forth. That kind of point sounds trite to some people, but when our physical, environmental and financial infrastructure is under such threat, and people face such difficulties in getting any kind of functional life together, we owe each other a coherent conversation about what we can expect from life and society, and what we can’t.

Placing a price on human life sounds odious, but we do it in one way or another all the time. As long as people die in poverty, from malnutrition or preventable disease, anywhere in the planet, then we’ve chosen – whether we acknowledge it or not – to accept death. I don’t say that’s wrong – we can only do so much. But it’s puerile, and intensely damaging to our ability to move forward, to fixate on avoidable deaths from certain causes (Olympic warm-ups, Toyotas, natural disasters), while simultaneously sucking up the risks, or the demonstrated bitter costs, of quieter but far more damaging calamities elsewhere. War, as it’s waged by Western society in this century, merely evidences a rush to action against some splashy, exotic threat; a rush the country can’t afford, monetarily or existentially. It’s especially odious since our present-day wars never demand the collective sacrifice that ought to accompany such “necessary” state-sponsored violence. It’s easy for us to say we support our troops when we have no idea who they are or where they come from. I would probably argue now that if war doesn’t warrant some kind of draft or necessary participation, then it can’t have risen to the level of the necessary.

The Messenger

Obama then, to me, with no great finesse, was merely playing the flinty philosopher king. But the very phenomenon of him standing in Oslo delivering this calculated crap reconfirms how war distorts conversations, values and perceptions. It’s noble to give one’s life for one’s country, but shameful to ask someone to do that without a full accounting of how the sacrifice will actually aid “one’s country”. Blind adherence to military culture, values, and notions of honest service carry the real and often-exploited danger of placing too little value on one’s own life and possibilities. I seriously doubt that any 18 or 20 year-old knows enough to be allowed to choose such a path. Even mundane professions demand multiple levels of training and qualification, refining not only technical skills but also the accompanying maturity and sensibility. But since it fuels national dreams of glory while letting the rest of us off the hook, we place no such limits on allowing kids to sign up and throw themselves at horrors that most of us can’t imagine.

The distorted contours of the military are at the centre of Oren Moverman’s very good film The Messenger, which has opened rather belatedly in Toronto (it’s a 2009 release in the US, and was nominated for Oscars for its screenplay and for supporting actor Woody Harrelson). A young sergeant (Ben Foster), injured in an explosion and now back home, is assigned to casualty notification, accompanying an older captain (Harrelson) who informs the next of kin about fatalities. The task, like everything else about the army, comes wrapped in meticulous protocol, some of which contradicts the sergeant’s natural empathy. Off duty, they drink; the older man relentlessly looks for sex; the younger man tries to start a relationship with a young widow (Samantha Morton), struck by her strange disconnected grace at the moment she received the news.

Armchair Generals

After the initial scenes, we see little of the Army except the two men – it’s as if they’ve been cast into some zone of abstraction, purporting (ridiculously) each time to deliver a personal message from the “Secretary of the Army,” repeatedly sparking reactions they didn’t foresee and have no practical way of alleviating. But then, sudden grief is as much a part of the soldier’s iconography as the folded flags and the polished shoes. The Morton character moves the sergeant because she seems to lie outside any normal parameters. When they come to inform her, she’s hanging a man’s shirt out to dry, and the captain lasciviously speculates she’s already moved on to someone else. But the sergeant perceives in her, I think, a quiet complexity that will catalyze his necessary regeneration.

It’s revealed near the end that the captain, for all his mastery of the rulebook, has never seen serious action; he’s a pure creation of the myth and the machine, and internally tortured by the limitations that imposes on him. The sergeant is an official hero, but he knows the arbitrariness of such labels. Because he’s experienced and been damaged by the brutality at the centre of it all, he can afford to define himself less by protocol and more by his own inner truth. When the movie ends he’s only starting to embark on that project, but he knows he’s taken a first step and therefore can go further, perhaps even while remaining in the army. If we’re to find any half-sane place for war in our crazed world, it must be informed more by the humanity it so often makes a mockery of, and infinitely less by the slick babblings of armchair generals.

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