Saturday, April 10, 2010

war and other inhuman activities

I hate war movies and so I don't watch them. There are a whole lot of award winning war movies I have never seen and I like it that way. Especially the modern war movies that pride themselves on being so correct, so anatomically correct, so Painfully. Inhumanly. Correct.

Saving Private Ryan is on TV. I'm trying my best not to watch it even though it has Tom Hanks in it and I think Tom Hanks is one of the the finest actors ever. But as the curse would have it, every time I look up or walk through the room, something gruesome is being portrayed.

Marc, on the other hand, loves war stuff. I can't tell you how many times he has sat through Ken Burns' Civil War. And he watches everything on WWII that is aired. Over and over. I don't get the fascination myself. All that inhumanity to man just makes me feel sick.

The history channel on cable also seems to love the worst of humanity. Most recently, there has been a series of programs about torture, real torture, not the namby pamby stuff we call torture today. Also executions, ancient punishments, cutting the living organs out (and I'm not talking about the Aztecs) which segued into the development of the penal systems. The order of the day was the longer it takes and the more blood spurting pain the better. They were popularly attended. People came early to insure a good seat.

We humans are capable of some incredible acts of compassion, risking all to save others, sharing, giving, loving. But we are also capable of some of the most horrific acts toward each other and apparently extract as much satisfaction from the horror as from the goodness. And yet, we call this behavior 'inhuman' as if it is not of our nature.


  1. I may be the only human that has not seen Saving Private Ryan.

  2. I'm with Gail- refuse to watch "ryan"- saw a little bit of band of brothers on HBO but quickly left the room. I think it may be a guy thing...a genetic flaw, this war business- a throw back when we girls needed a warrior to keep things even keeled while we nursed our young...Whatever, I think that we should be beyond that now...But we are not. We are icky.

  3. It is a thin line, isn't it?

    I don't believe I watched the movie, either. Just recall clips from it.

  4. I'm with you. I can't bring myself to watch a war movie either.

  5. Ditto on watching...just can't do it. I too saw clips of Ryan but never the movie itself.

  6. I'm with you in this, too. I can't bear watching war movies. I can't bear hearing about and seeing all these cruel acts perpetrated in the name of ...

    But I can understand other people's interest. I wonder if to some extent, it's gender based. More men prefer the gruesome stuff to women. Though of course there'd be exceptions in both directions. I don't want to create stereotypes on what must be complex phenomena.

  7. ellen - i see that no guys have chimed in here on this subject but i'll add a disclaimer here - i don't represent all men! what's the fascination with war? i think it's a way for people to confront their own darkness. it doesn't mean they condone it, celebrate it, need it. it means they need to see their own shadow.

  8. I will sometimes watch them with my husband (key word is sometimes) but have to close my eyes during grusome or horrific scenes. Men and women are certainly wired a little differently when it comes to this. My husband has of late been enthralled with "Band of Brothers" and the new "Pacific" - produced by Tom Hanks. Perhaps they are silently giving thanks that they were not part of a generation that had to go to war.

  9. A well-considered and proper response would take several books at least, still, working from the specific to the general...

    1) There is a difference between Ken Burn's Civil War and Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg rationalizes his realistic depictions as an attempt to be realistic, but really, what with the mediocre plot line and cardboard characters, its all about box-office sensationalism. Its war porn.

    Burns is attempting something a bit more academic. As I recall, there's not much in the way of grue and gore. Its really not about that anyway. Its Greek tragedy.

    2) All sane men know war is all hell without ever having served. Actually, quite a few insanes ones as well. Whats' the deal then? Well, if you are a believer, you might want to ask the Almighty why She wired our brains so that reward and pleasure systems kick in when the horror commences, or why all of Nature violates the "Thou shalt not kill" commandment.

    3) Violence pretty much DOES solve everything. But the lesson of history is, you use the THREAT first (its called diplomacy). Its amazing how many wars have NOT been fought.

    4) It's a cliche, but it is still true. We have become a kinder, gentler species. Remember, animal torture was considered family entertainment just a scant few decades ago. I would argue it is no longer within the realm of acceptable behavior.

    5) I just realized I haven't explained anything, so I'll just shut up now...

  10. John, 1. I agree there is a far difference between Ken Burns' documentaries and the current crop of war movies as far as visuals are concerned but the descriptions of the behaviors in and of war leave little to guess at.

    2. And although animals in nature kill, they kill for food. They kill to protect their young and to protect their territory (an exception, wolves and chimpanzees do engage in territorial skirmishes in packs) but they do not devise instruments of torture, they do not burn their own kind at the stake, they do not hang/draw and quarter/post the body parts on stakes, they don't turn their intelligence to weapons of mass destruction, they don't drag a man behind their truck for sport til he is barely recognizable as a man. (And according to certain scholars the commandant was not 'thou shall not kill' but rather 'thou shall not murder'.)

    3. I agree violence does have it's place but what about the unnecessary acts of cruelty of which the Inquisition is but one example?

    4. Perhaps, perhaps it's just the thin veneer of civilization. I'm not sure we have evolved at all, just, as you say, that stuff is not currently acceptable.

    I wonder though if this is something that is peculiar to humans only or if other creatures, given our level of intelligence, would exhibit the same behavior. Perhaps it's the price of higher brain function. Being at the top of the food chain, we must function as our own predator.

  11. My son loves history. Always has the channel on. I don't mind seeing / hearing about this battle or that but I don't like to watch his 'history' show. Bands of Brothers was one and the Tom Hanks one you mentioned.

    Although, I'm a Tom lover too ...

  12. Wow, what a post. Lots of food for thought and discussion here!

    I am totally with you about all the shows on torture and prisons and like that. And anything with violence against women, children, or animals is an instant channel change for me. I love the "Law & Order" series, but I can't watch the SVU spin-off for this reason.

    War movies are a different animal for me. The ones that offend me, the ones I absolutely will not watch, and which disgust me, are the John Wayne type glory and guts macho horse manure. But on the other hand, I especially DO like to find out how people behave in extreme situations. Natural disasters, polar expeditions, things like that all interest me. And in that vein, I like the human stories connected with war. PBS did an excellent series a few years ago about WWI. Something like that fascinates me. And I think that knowing what the cost is, what the terrible reality of it is, is what will prevent it happening again. As long as norror is depicted as glorious, we are all in trouble, that's what I think.

  13. Violence may provide a temporary solution, but often to really solve the problem you must remove the losing side entirely from the equation. If you don't, the losers have a bad habit of remembering and re-engaging with the problem, i.e., they just won't stay "beaten." Yet the difficulty (and desirability) of eliminating a population grows with its size...and so similar conflicts keep springing up around the survivors.

    I don't doubt that a violent response is required in some situations... but the idea that it will ultimately solve much is probably wishful thinking.

    Personally, I think war movies foster that same kind of wishful thinking. The director gives the movie an obvious cause and effect, good guys and bad guys, and a satisfying conclusion.

    And so we seem to think that if we send well-equipped soldiers somewhere to "fix" a problem, on X date after Y% of the country is destroyed and Z% of the population killed, the problem ends just like the movie ends. In reality, we need much longer commitments (and attention spans).

    If movies made that clear, maybe we'd think a bit harder about committing to the next war.

  14. Fireblossom, I agree that movies about war should show how very terrible it is as opposed to glorifying it. I guess what I was really getting at is not that humans and a few other species engage in war so much as that it brings out the brutality that humans are so capable of. I think violence is a necessary fact of life and it serves the purpose of protection. It's not so much that we fight to protect as that we are capable of such horrendous brutality towards each other and we don't need war to indulge in it. As John pointed out, it's not accepted behavior now but it hasn't been so long ago that domestic violence was acceptable. Several hundred years ago certain native american tribes would skin their enemies alive. the brutality that we humans are capable of does/did not need war to unleash it. this is the part of our nature that I wonder about.

  15. Cynthia - it was certainly effective when waged against small groups but against nations as they exist today it is totally ineffective in the long run as you point out. In the old testament when the Israelites were poised on the edge of the promised land god instructs them to kill every person...every man, woman and child (nice going god). they cannot bring themselves to do this and it is ultimately their undoing.

    It'd be nice if the solution were that simple, having movies portray war in it's true light. It would be nice if we humans actually learned from the past but our history tells us that we don't. We continue to do the same things over and over expecting a different result. Isn't that the definition of insanity?

  16. ive seen a few movies but im with you on all of this. i pretty make it a point to abstain from ALL potentially disturbing films.

  17. You are so right. We are all capable of everything, I think, the good and the bad. I remember hearing an NPR story told by a man who was born in China. He remembered when he and his brother would sit along the road with other citizens as they watched condemned people go by in a procession on their way to be executed. His point was that he likes to think of himself as a good person, but he was capable of taking some kind of - if not pleasure - at least fascination in that.

  18. People keep telling me I "should" see Hurt Locker. No way. I avoid all war movies and also gory horror films or any spy movie where there are shootings, car crashes, people being beat up, etc.

    Life is short. Why should I subject myself to this? I don't. Glad you don't either.

  19. War movies are the ones that I avoid because I hate seeing people killed. I like seeing life not in the line of death.
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  20. I'm with you, don't watch war movies. Torture and killing is not entertaining to me, and so sad that it is considered part of wartime deeds. And then some even go further with the crap that war is necessary!


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