Archive for June, 2015

Testament of Youth

June 20, 2015

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I believe that violence is sometimes unavoidable. (I support the struggle of the Kurds, for example.) As I grow older, however, I find myself becoming increasingly sympathetic to pacifism. Back in 2003, I watched in amazement and bafflement as supposedly sane people called for an obviously illegal and immoral war against Iraq. Those of us who rightly argued against this were called “traitors”. The current chaos in the Middle East shows we were more right than we even imagined at the time.

To give another example of why my thinking has been moving in this direction, not long after Russia’s illegal seizure of the Crimea, I got into a Facebook argument with a left-wing Putin-hater, who boasted about how much he welcomed a war between Ukraine and Russia. (I hate Putin myself.) When I pointed out the possibility that Ukraine might lose such a war, he ignored me and kept going on about how much he would love see Putin be given a comeuppance. Yes, I would love to see Putin given a comeuppance, but how many innocent people would have to be killed in order to do that?

I think I don’t need to even mention here our society’s complacent and morally corrupt response to Israel’s assault on Gaza last year. History will never forgive us for this.

Testament of Youth, directed by James Kent and written by Juliette Towhidi, is based on the autobiography of Vera Brittain, who became a well-known pacifist. It depicts her experiences as a volunteer nurse in army hospitals during World War I. In the course of the war, her fiance, her brother, and two of her friends were killed. At one point in the war, she served near the front in a hospital treating captured wounded German soldiers. Some of the scenes in the film are wrenching to watch. This film benefits from strong acting, most of all from Alicia Vikander, who plays Vera Brittain. (Vikander, who is Swedish, does an English accent in this film, and she does an American accent in Ex Machina, and she’s completely convincing doing both.)

With all the militarism that currently pervades our society, it’s good to see to some subtle pushback in the form of such films as Good Kill and Testament of Youth. On the other hand, American Sniper was a huge box office hit. We have a long way to go.

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Good Kill

June 9, 2015

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Our recent strategy in the War on Terror is similar to our strategy in Vietnam: keep killing the enemy until there are none left. That strategy didn’t work in Vietnam, and it’s not working today. The Taliban have made a comeback in Afghanistan, and Daesh now control large parts of Syria and Iraq. Is it time for our policymakers to try something else?

This question is posed by the recent film, Good Kill, written and directed by Andrew Niccol. It tells the story of Thomas Egan (Nathan Hawke), an Air Force pilot who has been reassigned to being a drone pilot. After two children are inadvertently killed in a drone attack, he begins to have doubts about his job. The emotional stress that Egan is under starts to cause strains in his marriage to Molly (January Jones).

Things get worse when Egan’s group is placed under the direct control of the CIA, whose rules of engagement are looser than those of the military. They have a policy of a “double tap”: firing a missile at the first responders to an attack, on the theory that most such people are likely terrorists themselves. The CIA considers it an acceptable risk that innocent people will almost certainly get killed. The characters argue about this. Egan’s fellow crew member, Vera (ZoĆ« Kravitz), makes the case that drone attacks are causing people to side with the terrorists, while Egan’s commanding officer, Col. Johns (Bruce Greenwood) makes the “we can’t risk losing one American’s life” argument. The debate is never resolved one way or another. At the end, however, when Egan literally walks away from his job, it’s clear that we’re expected to see this as a moral redemption for Egan. Although it seems an empty victory, since we know that the military will simply replace him with somebody else.

Good Kills is a well-made film that raises a number of troubling questions, but its feel-good ending cant’t conceal the fact that it doesn’t offer any answers.