Saturday, December 10, 2005

Narnia and War

I like it when the meanings of two independent media encounters collide in my life.

Earlier today I went to see Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, based on the novel of the same name by C.S. Lewis. I read that book and a number of others in the series something like twenty years ago; I remember that I liked that one, though there were one or two later in the series I was less fond of, but I didn't remember a whole lot more about it.

Generally speaking, the movie was well done. The story features the adventures of four human children -- siblings -- in a fantastic land. I found the actors who played the youngest girl and boy to be very engaging, though the older girl and boy less so. I loved Tilda Swinton's take on the evil White Witch -- Swinton is Scottish, a Communist, and she's got a talent for being creepy, so what's not to like? I also remembered that Lewis was a devout Christian, in his own early 20th century Church of England kind of way, so I took the necessary mental precautions to prevent political contempt for certain factions of present-day faithful who dress reactionary politics in faux-divine cloth from spoiling my enjoyment of a film that I knew would have Christian imagery dripping from it like smelly water from a soaking dog.

Rather, what spoiled my enjoyment of the film was the fact that it is one big gross hymn to war. I suppose I could try and concoct some reading of it that was anti-colonial, because the good folk of Narnia are trying to throw off the tyrannical rule of the White Witch, but I just can't make that stick in my own mind. The imagery surrounding the "good guys" is too English (i.e. too linked to real-world histories of colonization and conquest), while the enemy foot soldiers are Othered by every ugly inch of their inhuman computer-generated skins. The Great Leader of the "good guys" provides assurances that the war is unfortunate but just, and that the world will be a better place when it is over. And, of course, since it's a story this can be uncomplicatedly true. No hint is shown of the scars inevitably left by participation in mass violence, no matter how just it might seem. No, the armies form their very traditional battle lines with visions of glory in the air, the two young human boys commanding the "good guys" dressed like medieval English knights, and then the two sides whack the heck out of each other until the "good guys" win with help from the mysteriously returned-to-earth Christ figure of Aslan the Lion. It made me weary to appreciate once more just how much of the representation of and metaphor for struggle against evil in our culture, and that which is treated as being most important, turns into interpersonal violence and war.

I wasn't going to write about any of this until I ran across this article by Ben Tripp. It provided me with a much needed, sobering, real-world counterpoint to the fantasies of a glorious and consequence-free "just war" pimped in this film. Tripp writes:

Waging war is when you send your kids to kill someone else's babies. It is nothing more noble than that, and all the good reasons in the world won't differentiate your war from Hitler's, or Napoleon's, or Genghis Khan's, or Caesar's, or any of the thousands of other little excursions into bowel spilling that humankind has indulged in with monotonous regularity over the last few millennia. The stated reason for going to war is always the same; as the prophet Orwell said, "Every war when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defense against a homicidal maniac."

And he concludes:

Winnie Churchill said, "Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events." True dat. A pity Bush can't read, or he might have stumbled across this little observation. For the rest of us there's another useful remark made by a fellow that made anti-war sentiments seem almost noble: "What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?" These are the words of M. 'Trimspa' Gandhi. Ultimately, war is the purpose of war. It makes pacifists of a few, and passivists of the majority.

In fantastic literature, because the world is made up, the author can make anything inarguably True. He or she can, for example, claim legitimacy in representing the inhuman Other that the "good guys" battle as being eternally and metaphysically Evil, rather than grounded in some kind of history that could be changed in many different ways in many different futures. In the real world, this is never true, but the "Master of War" -- the rich who send off working-class kids to die -- pretend, like clockwork, that it is.

And in saying all of this about war, I am not dismissing the importance of the right of colonized peoples to resist occupation. But for those of us surrounded by the opulence of Fortress North America that was amassed in large part by internal and external colonial processes, and who benefit even in ways large or very small from the privilege of being part of a nation that does the colonizing rather than one that has been colonized -- we cannot afford to have illusions about war as glorious, easy, or just; we cannot feed the domination of the world from which we benefit, but that most of us don't even recognize as existing, with stories of inhuman Others that respond only to the mass violence we somehow get to be the ones to apply.

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