Erin's Everyday Thoughts

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

On War and Violence

Last Friday, I saw the movie Platoon for the first time. My boyfriend and I have a list of all movies that have won a Best Picture Academy Award since they started giving the award in 1927, and we’re on a mission to watch as many of these movies as possible. Platoon was the winner in 1986.

I thought it was a very good movie, and I especially enjoyed Willem Dafoe in his role. (Which is not surprising … I’m always impressed with him.) I liked the theme of “good vs. evil, but what is really good and what is really evil?” And the images of war were well drawn.

One thing that disturbed me, and that always disturbs me in war movies like this one, is the depiction of violence for the sake of violence. In one scene, a young soldier is shown taking a sick satisfaction and enjoyment in torturing a Vietnamese man. A scene soon after shows (in graceful lack of detail) soldiers lined up to rape two Vietnamese girls. Scenes like this absolutely turn my stomach and they make me think—what kind of person would participate in this kind of activity? And more so—can war drive an otherwise normal, reasonable person to this madness of violence and lack of respect for fellow human beings? Basically, is the action the consequence of the person alone (their lack of morality, their cruelty), or is the action the consequence a person caught up in war? I assume it is at least to some degree the former, because there are also moral heroes in war, people who put a stop to such violence when they encounter it. (As did Dafoe’s character in this movie.)

This thought pattern led me to think further … As I watch the movie, I’m rooting for the “good guys” … Dafoe, Charlie Sheen’s character, and the group of soldiers with whom they’re associated. Are there people who watch the same movie and root for the “bad guys?” Are there people who secretly (or not very secretly) think—that’s how I would act, as well—killing, raping. And what’s wrong with that?

I know that in the Vietnam war there was so much more than good vs. evil. Going into a village, a group of American soldiers could be met with entirely innocent Vietnamese people, or they could be met with enemies in disguise. And it was difficult to impossible to know which was which. They saw friends and allies dying, and I imagine so much rage and hatred built up in them toward the Vietnamese. I don’t mean to neglect or downplay these facts in my discussion above of violence. I’m just using this movie as an example of something that has always disturbed me—in many movies and books, about the Vietnam war, other wars, and other circumstances. It’s a violence that I cannot fathom. It’s a violence that makes me wonder what is wrong with our world.


  • i do think that the surroundings have a lot to do with the behaviour. i was watching the Jesus channel last night and they were talking about St. Patrick and how he brought Christianity to the pagans in Ireland. now, this was the Jesus channel, so they may have had a slant against the pagans, but they described ireland as a place where you would never want to travel, especially alone. it sounded like there was so much violence and crime there. contrast that to the ireland of today where they go out of their way to make outsiders feel welcome (or so I hear). i think the problem is, when one group of people behaves violently, many times, the other people in the area feel that their only recourse is to also be violent. i think people fall very quickly into "kill-or-be-killed" mode, especially in war-torn nations where there is no sense of an underlying stability that we are blessed with in the US (terrorism fears notwithstanding). at any rate, i think that there's always the sort of "bad" folk who instigate the worst behaviours, but there are a lot of otherwise "good" folks who end up in a bad situation and will act out in these ways.

    having said all of that, i am not a fan of movies that depict the harsh realities of war, and anything involving rape actually physically churns my stomach.

    By Blogger Erin, at 7:43 PM  

  • There was a fabulous essay on this very topic on NPR's "This I Believe" series in the past two weeks. It was written by a physician who was from VietNam, I think, who began with "This I believe...that we are all capable of brutality". It was a shocking beginning, to me, not what I expected. But he went on to explain, so eloquently, that brutality is like a cancer...once the seeds are sewn, it tends to grow...and he didn't exempt himself, on the contrary, he told how cruel he had been to someone, when he needn't have been...I don't think I've described it well, but it's worth going to and finding and listening to it...very moving and thoughtful, and I think you would like it. Good essay, Erin (and thank you for your generous comment on my blog recently).


    By Blogger emmapeelDallas, at 1:46 AM  

  • Remember the Milgram experiment and the banality of evil. We are all capable of brutality. It is the great challenge of being human, trying to appeal to our higher nature.

    By Blogger Theresa Williams, at 6:05 PM  

  • erin, if you go here you can see the link to a recent story from men's health about a man's perspective on the war. it was pretty wrenching to read, but i think it's important for us to learn about what our soldiers experience in war.

    That is Jenn's (of Cerby fame) twin's blog.

    By Blogger Erin, at 10:23 PM  

  • whoops. that link is

    you might have to type that in as it doesn't seem to be wrapping at the end of the line there.

    By Blogger Erin, at 10:24 PM  

  • Do you remember Barnes in the film who is the "Bad Guy?" One thing I have always wondered is how long the Vietnam war would have lasted and what it's outcome would have been if everyone of our soldiers would have been like him. His behavior was of course appalling and against most of our populations morals and also an unrealistic question but still something to think about.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:04 AM  

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