Monday, January 26, 2015

Elements of Selfishness and Acceptance in War Movies

Western cinema approaches all very serious topics with the deliberately false naiveté of the innocent and unaware. Not only in grander themes, but against everyday villains, western characters always approach the obvious with a detached wonderment that even Orphan Annie is no longer capable of. A hundred years of movies later, they remain surprised by a zombie apocalypse, the inevitable implications of Richard Gere dating their girlfriend, whether or not to call 911 when being stalked by a serial killer, or the intrusive monitoring of an oppressive government. It's always new, like wearing a white dress to your second wedding at thirty-four, gasping in surprised delight at the thought of penetration, as though you have not only never personally experienced sex, but never even read or heard about it. Character after character sees cameras go up everywhere and fails to utter anything like, "1984!" or "Brave New World!"

The Great War is paramount in the Western imagination--the advent of western governments' propaganda sciences made the great faux-deflowerings of the innocent empires seem plausible to all subsequent generations. The Lusitania was an innocent civilian passenger liner, and with no warning, True Evil attacked that poor neutral ship out of nowhere, followed by the incredible unforeseen surprise of Pearl Harbor. The poor, benighted cheese-, pudding-, and burger-munchers were caught utterly off their guard, never expecting such devious Oriental-type behavior, having done absolutely nothing to invite or prepare for it.

And every western war movie is like that: every westerner is good at heart, whether a clumsy drunk or a straight-shooter, who may be kidnapped into trouble occasionally, and who never starts a fight, but who always damn well finishes it. Nowadays, if he's really humane, he finishes it by offering forgiveness to the subhuman filth that started the whole thing in the first place, revealing not only superior strength, but superior moral character. Indiana Jones saved the day from Nazis, German industrialists regret that they didn't do more to help, and always, westerners were so timid and ignorant that they occupy this unique position of shelteredness among the entire world, occasionally forced into a fight by a conniving slanty-eyed bastard, but always wanting to be back on the peaceful farm, marrying their sweetheart and letting the rest of the world live in its own way.

The narrative is not unlike the Superman backstory--the purehearted farmboy who only ever beats people up because he has to, and who really, in his heart of hearts, wants to leave everyone else alone, never intervene in their lives for his own interests, and is only forced to by pure evil bent on destruction or personal power, which Superman expressly rejects.

(Historical aside: the Superman character was created by Jerry Siegel, a Caucasian Jewish person whose parents left Lithuania just before World War I, and Joseph Shuster, a Caucasian Jewish person whose father left the Netherlands just before World War I, and whose mother left Kiev just before World War I.)

(Comic fan aside: if you haven't actually read much or any of the old Superman issues, the title character is a Cold Warrior and a physical version of John Galt. His detractors are mediocrity-promoting meddlers, disloyal [communist or labor unionist] organizers, and stupid cowards who don't realize that Russia is a threat to humanity. Superman appears in 1933, and until the Reagan years, he fought expressly for, "truth, justice, and the American way." And he did that well before the Civil Rights movement, if that tells you anything. Superman is regularly portrayed flying around fighting Russian fighter jets, taunting Russia to start nuclear wars and then protecting America from Soviet missiles.)

(Generic spoiler alert for The Railway Man and Grave of the Fireflies. The latter isn't much of a spoiler, while the former has nothing to spoil, so be glad if I saved you. And for the love of everything holy, don't watch the neutered, westernized live-actions of Grave; stick with the masterful 1988 version.)

The World War(s) always receive this light-hearted touch in western movies, where white people are beset by treacherous easterners who are angry because they are Pure Evil, and who talk in exaggerated Klingon-Japanese or Oktoberfest-German. Western soldiers are called reluctantly into battle against a backdrop of a war too big for them to possibly understand. They fight bravely, face inhumane situations, and manage to pull through with clean hands, Dresden notwithstanding. The trend evidences itself through all western war movies post-WW2, where war is portrayed as a maddening, surreal situation, beyond the understanding of the mere pilots called up from Kansas to drop napalm on a half million shrieking gook children, or forced to patrol through the jungle burning starving old people out of bamboo huts because there could be Charlie hiding out. And then there's Jarhead, and the new sniper one. Yes, they always celebrate murder, but they always do so with a human touch--of these brave, innocent souls who just happen to be tossed in over their heads based on some rudimentary understanding of what the teevee tells them about why so-and-so needs killing. Western audiences make much of the "inhumanity of war," but western killers are always portrayed as hapless victims: either of those who lied to them to make them murder, like the corrupt Senator who made you go to Iraq, or those who "force" them to go too far, such as a vengeful lieutenant leading your jungle patrol in Vietnam.

There are still plenty of outright "the enemy is completely bad" stuff. 2000's Rules of Engagement shows how Samuel L. Jackson was forced to kill a crippled Iraqi girl because she was shooting at him, which helps Americans react the right way to foreign news stories about the deaths of so-called "innocent" children.

(Pop quiz! If you invade someone's country, destroy their water supply, cripple them, kill their parents, and roam around out front of their home with an assault rifle and an armored hummer, and a few months later they point a gun at you, it is okay to kill them if they are: A. Over 12 years of age, B. Under 12 years of age, or C. Both A and B?)

More recent western work, though, after broad acceptance of but zero reaction to how the Lusitania was built by a hostile party and carrying military supplies in hot waters during wartime (sorry, I mean, "the WMD story") has further developed the idealization of atrocity. Propaganda has evolved so as to downplay the role of war-societies, and exonerate killers through the killers' internal worries. Still, no one gives a damn about little kids who aren't white and of the right citizenship, but the improved process lends a veneer of humanity to the idea of "war movie, not our fault," by providing a coherent talking-point for people to use to internally justify why wars hurt, but are still okay.

The Book Thief is the closest a western story has yet come to humanity, albeit still touched with Anglo supremacy. Zusak (the author of said original book) permits humanity to a small cast of Germans who help a Jewish person escape, while tacitly accepting that their sorrow at the deaths of so many people was necessary because the Allies' victory was Good. Still, I think he was really trying, sort of in the "one noble Comanche" way (he told us where the braves were hiding).

One of the later entries in this foul Anglicized history is The Railway Man. Like so many masturbatory western fantasies, it begins with a romantic setup as ridiculously implausible as its later depictions of foreign policy: an attractive young woman (Nicole Kidman, but so made up she looks in her late twenties) notices a dumpy, non-wealthy old man (Colin Firth, made up to look like a dumpy old man) using public transportation as an erratic hobby, and goes drastically out of her way to pursue an emotional, then physical, relationship with him. Throughout this fantasy made movie-real, this ten-millionth take on World War II by western civilization, what do we focus on? What are the great tragedies of World War II? Well, besides the Holocaust, D-Day, how brave the British were during the Blitz, and how inhuman the Japanese were when they occupied a place, the only one remaining is how heroic and long-suffering white people are. Ergo the movie is made about how Colin Firth struggles with his memories of being tortured.

Yes, you read that right--it's about Anglos enduring the pain of torture. Which is imposed upon them by Asiatics. Actually, you might think "waterboarding" was a relatively new technique, but The Railway Man makes clear that it was created by vile Oriental filth during World War II. (Damn them, for what they make us do to Arabs!) So Colin Firth struggles through a couple hours of being the weird, un-showered old man who rides the train for fun, thinking about World War II while getting pursued by beautiful young women who want to open their legs to him and know about his past.

None of these memories include tying Hawaiians up in the water for a few days to drown slowly, anal-raping Japanese POWs with Coca-Cola bottles, or ripping penises off Chinks who were too afraid to identify the location of the nearest Japanese base--no, Firth is haunted by his memories of those damn Orientals and their torture rooms.

Admittedly, many Americans didn't have a fun time after throwing the Japanese in concentration camps, sending battleships into Japanese harbors to rape girls and force trade deals, and blockading food, medicine, and oil from Japanese ports. And many of them were manipulated there, and they were actually as stupid and ignorant as western movies suggest. But that's the only aspect of war that the west can portray: the suffering of its own dunce-combatants.

What sets Japan apart from America, at least in the realm of war movies, is its humility. Its humanity, its decency; its willingness to accept guilt. Japanese war movies offer a few of the normal triumphant tropes that American ones do, but those kinds of people are, in Japan, at a strong disadvantage, both in terms of financing and viewership, compared to the good stuff. Tale after popular Japanese tale, for adults as well as children, is able to portray systematically negative self-representation. The negatives that occur pursuant to western wartime movies are always outliers--the preferred view that the west never tortured anyone or held an unjust war before George W. Bush. Somehow, the lynch mobs and child rapists of the Deep South's apartheid state manage to fade into the background whenever America needs to congratulate itself for being completely different than whoever it was humanitarianly bombing at the time.

In a sense, we can distinguish Germany from "the west" vis-à-vis this topic. Germany, discrete from almost the entire rest of the west, is able to produce narratives that not only depict the Nazis as failures, but the greater population of Germany as equally guilty for permitting the Nazis to take power. Germany can admit more of a mistake, just as Japan can express true acknowledgement and regret; Britain, France, and America, to say the least, cannot. And this mass acknowledgement is not expressed in the aw-shucks, mistakenly-good-natured way of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but in the recognition that the equivalent Herr Smith or Smith-san was, in some way, willingly blind in order for it to happen. Twain could critique Americans, and Dickens the English, if not as keenly as Dostoevsky Russians, but now that communication prerogatives have been achieved in the west, we don't see that level of "total failure" achieved in any self-representation produced by major western creators (sic). Twain and Dickens, along with Voltaire and Thackeray, have been consigned to the false lionization of the learned class, similarly to how international finance's military center in Columbia hosts a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Grave of the Fireflies is just one of the more popular examples of the ways that Japanese cinema is honest, self-reflecting, and humane. The film is about two siblings who struggle to survive in poor, war-torn Japan. They're hungry and lacking in shelter and parental care--all that--and their parents are gone because of the war. What distinguishes it from all western movies is that there aren't really any American bad guys (or French, or British, or Russian, or whatever). The bad guy is Japan. Made by Japanese people using Japanese money for Japanese people to watch, the narrative blames the bad outcomes of war, and its effects on the main characters, on Japan--on their parents, and the society as a whole.

No punches are pulled. It's easy, as a westerner, to slip into the movie and think, "Yeah, Imperial Japan sucked, yeah, they were really bad, blah blah I get it..." But what is not easy for the westerner is to realize that this is the Japanese perspective, and that it acknowledges a major, consistent, non-coincidental mistake in national policy and national character. It's an un-hedged, un-mitigated expression of responsibility and regret. The problem is not blamed on "the Emperor," or "the Army," or "a few greedy families/individuals." Instead, the movie portrays how the entire country was swept up in wartime fervor. The father joins the military to the excited marching of a band cheered by all the people--and by the main character and narrator, Seita, whose enthusiasm for big ships and fancy uniforms is shown, in reflection, to have been a series of poor decisions.

No single corrupt Senators pushing for self-beneficial policies at the expense of the innocent common man. No "one bloodthirsty commander." No wise neighborhood elders advising everyone that "our leaders are mistaken." The whole society is made complicit in the great crimes that culminated in the events of the movie.

Grave of the Fireflies could have been as easily written (in theory) by a westerner who wanted to critique Japanese militarism. What westerners cannot do, though, is write anything like that about themselves. The western entertainment that is permitted to be widely disseminated always venerates the pure-hearted soldier, the innocent child, and the lovesick wife and mother. The heroes overcome racial boundaries in order to share the pleasure of killing sniveling Aryans, chattering gooks, or suicidal sand niggers, and in the face of devastated countries, the western audience's greatest fear is that one of these brave killers might die before his friends finally garrote the enemy general. Seita's father's war record, though, whether heroic or ignoble, is unimportant. What matters is the way the lives of everyone else change after the father leaves; after the country, the society, has made its decision.

By contrast, western cinema is an endlessly infantile parade of exactly how tough it is to be a grown man who puts on weapons and armor and travels across the world to kill people. The stress of shooting your first Zulu through the chest. The ludicrousness of screwing a teenage Vietnamese prostitute before getting in the helicopter. The injustice of an officer who merely counts bodies from a tent, while you have to put your ass on a line shooting all those bodies.

...turbocharged, sexually-tense torture scenes. The internal agony of the soldier as he is forced to live out decades of his life remembering the war, as opposed to the dozens or thousands of people he killed during it, who remember nothing and who are utterly unimportant to the plot. Isn't it tough to be a rich white person? I mean, you have to, like, remember how bad it was when you were fighting this one dude after you shot those four dudes. Like, totally. Yeah, war sucks, brah.

We're not looking at this because recognizing this distinction, this maturity, is going to convince any westerners to change. What we want to do here is to be able to recognize the precise ways that entertainers are changing their narratives to deflect criticisms like this. This further muddles the waters, allowing them to use their false narratives to subtly adjust perceptions of older wars into propaganda as incomparably marvelous as Apocalypse Now, where ignorance, fear, and hatred are enthroned as moral virtues--where the soldier's invading and killing is all okay, as long as someone else provided him with plausible deniability, and was "worse" than he was.

The modern western movie has adapted to the criticisms of old, and is now sometimes able to show soldiers "regretting" certain things, or "being deceived" about their mission. Certainly, portraying little kids as enemy combatants, and discovering proof of secret weapons stockpiles in the control of a foreign faction, will continue to be a mainstay of these misdirections. For more intelligent people, though, the seeming humanity of the returned soldier--her or his regret, suffering, and mistreatment--will be how this cycle is socially perpetuated. These narratives will like The Railway Man, by refusing to touch on the reasons for war, but displaying, through the human feelings of their characters, that there never was any malice or misbehavior involved. Instead, each generation is wrapped in swaddling innocence, suffering for what it did, and never really responsible for it. Western narratives cannot juxtapose a dying western child with the child's own pride in bright banners, big machines, and loud music, anymore than it can show nearly its whole population rallying as one behind the idea of another great war, and then portray the subsequent effects of that enthusiasm as too terrible to contemplate.

The mantra is, "We are never sorry, for we are never truly wrong."


  1. Nice. Just last night I read an essay about how American Sniper appeals to liberals (and to conservatives, too, of course, for different reasons) because of how it portrays Kyle--as opposed to the real life Kyle who couldn't get enough of shooting evil vermin in their own towns and neighborhoods--as a reluctant killer full of anguish for the terrible things he's done. Apparently there's even a name for this type of war flick: it's called a "shoot and cry." It got me thinking about some of my own favorite "anti"-war movies, like Platoon. I still see it as primarily critical of the war but there are definitely aspects of the shoot and cry in it, as well as scapegoating the one "bad commander" and the amoral redneck who just likes being able to shoot people and not get into trouble for it.

    And speaking of that commie Olive Stone, didn't he do a movie about the Vietnam war from the perspective of the Vietnamese? I never saw it but I'd be curious to see if it does their perspective justice.

    1. Nevuh saw it...sounds like something he might do.

  2. I don't see how this haze can be punctured, barring a total collapse of the basic infrastructure capable of supporting propaganda on this scale. I have talked to enough people who are so strongly convinced that all we're doing is to keep the world safe and ordered and only go to war when "forced" to do so, that I'm not sure what an effect a reasoned and referenced critique can have.

    Movies are expensive, but efficient. On a per person basis it takes vastly more energy to refute bullshit than to refute it.

    1. Haven't forgotten this; doing something on it.