Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Remember what Ghandi said about eye for an eye?

I just watched Waltz with Bashir* and, as any decent movie should do, it had me thinking. For those who haven't watched, it's about the Lebanese War and the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. The story was told in the form of an Israeli film director who served with the Israeli armed forces at the time and, 20 years later, is trying to recall where he was on the day of the massacre. In the course of the movie, he goes to speak with various friends who also served with the Israeli army at the time of the massacre, and finds that many of them, too, have lost much of their memories of that day.

What struck me most about the movie was perhaps the humanity of it. The question it had me asking most was: What is a soldier? I've dabbled in martial arts long enough to understand and appreciate one-on-one combat, but watching Waltz with Bashir, it feels light years away from the chaos and horror of being a soldier in wartime. What I have trouble grasping is what it means to be one of many standing against another enemy to fight and die, but for what? As an empiricist, I find it tremendously absurd to die or, worse yet, to kill for one's beliefs, for precisely the same reason as Bertrand Russell: What if I'm wrong?

Having grown up on many mindless 80s Hollywood movies, I, for a very long time, had a pretty distorted view of what a soldier should be. For most of my childhood I was under the impression that a good soldier had to be unwaveringly patriotic and have no real skill other than being able to pull a trigger and shout, maybe pose a bit, at the same time, and just how good you were was easily quantified by one's body count. Nowadays I look at Rambo and just shake my head at the mind-numbing absurdity of it, knowing that that kind of soldiering only happens in silly videogames.

I have very little doubt in my mind that the Israel-Palestine conflict is not really based on religion. I don't think I can even begin to understand who or what started it - everytime I try it seems the chain of grudges stretches further and further back, so now we're left with a situation where it doesn't matter who struck first, that first transgression is but a miniscule speck compared with the mountains of atrocities each side has accumulated against the other. Each sides' justification for continued aggression is simply reciprocation. Sadly, it still doesn't look like either side is just going to go: "Right, sod this. We'll stop if you stop, alright? And screw the flags, we'll ditch both of them and make up a new one for both of us, deal?" But I digress.

It was interesting to see the various perspectives on the war, to see what it made of the people who touched it, to see what bearing weapons and being pushed to face an elusive and devious enemy made of men. Some, like the narrator, were still their plain old selves behind the flak jacket and carbine. They fired their guns not to kill, but because they didn't want to die. They thought not to destroy an enemy, but simply to go home as soon as possible. Faced with the chaos and horror of it, they found themselves lost and stumbling, their own sense of reason crumbling in the face of the madness around them.

Others, like the Phalangites, fell oh, so far. As depicted in the movie, the Phalangites were a textbook example of situational forces making monsters of men. The Us and Them mentality. The mentality of dehumanizing the infidel enemy. The anonymity of being men with uniforms, instruments of the state. The empowering influence of having a gun in hand. And, perhaps most deadly of all, the paranoia of knowing that guerillas or suicide bombers may be hiding among any one of the luckless people of Sabra and Shatila.

As the Phalangites went into the refugee camps to do their dire deeds, the Israeli army simply watched. At that point in the movie the words of Edmund Burke did pop into my head:

"The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."

And when you see the videoclips of the aftermath, that's when you understand why the incident simply dropped out of the heads of the narrator and his brothers-in-arms. Who wants to be the one with that on their heads? To be the ones who stood by, weapons in hand and did nothing while unforgivable atrocities were committed right in front of their faces? I doubt very much I'd be strong enough to still be me, having witnessed something like that firsthand.

It brought to mind all those videos on Youtube, CCTV footage of people in, say, the queue at McD's, where some guy beats the everloving shit out of another, while perhaps a dozen or so people stand by and watch.

Who knows what other, similar tales have unfolded, on that scrap of land, fought over for as long as recorded history? I really wonder sometimes if, as I saw posted on Yahoo! Answers once, the only solution is to nuke the entire region off the map and leave it so irradiated it can't support any human life at all. Like an angry mother separating squabbling children: "I don't care who started it, if you don't stop, I'm going to end it."

Well, hell, that's my tuppence on the matter. I've no solutions, but Waltz with Bashir is a visually stunning movie that's well worth a watch. Of course, seeing as it tells the story from an Israeli perspective, that most certainly means it will never be shown in Malaysia, no thanks to certain irrational anti-Semites. But hey, that doesn't stop the pirates! Go watch. Think. Know. Now if you'll excuse me, my cats need a bath...

* Rotten Tomatoes gives it 95%. You MUST watch this, if you haven't already.

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