Trading Lives

by David Kaminsky

Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite book and movie in the Harry Potter series. I like the whole Sirius Black story, and in particular how our changing relationship to that character lends weight and conviction to the book’s anti-capital-punishment theme. What I do not like, in retrospect, is how the series as a whole uses that ethical moment to justify its overarching pro-war ideology.

J.R.R. Tolkien does the exact same thing. In Fellowship of the Ring, When Frodo suggests that Bilbo should have killed Gollum when he had the chance, Gandalf counters with a beautifully terse speech about the arrogance of the idea: “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.” By the end of Return of the King, of course, war has taken the lives of countless orcs, uruk-hai, and men of color, none of which seems to grieve Gandalf a single bit. In the movie version he does quite a bit of the dispatching himself.

C.S. Lewis uses a similar device in The Chronicles of Narnia. We see the goodness of the heroes through their forgiveness of Edmund (the Judas of the piece) which helps grant them the moral authority to kill a sea of faceless villains.

Aslan the Lion, a.k.a. Jesus Christ, seconds before eating Tilda Swinton’s face (offscreen).

The principle at play here is perhaps at its most obvious in British epic fantasy with Christian undertones by authors with consonants for names. But the narrative trick that allows us to use respect for individual life to justify mass slaughter is more widespread than this.

A key enabling factor is what might be a general incapacity for scaling up the horror of violence in the human imagination, at least for people who have never witnessed war. A story can make us imagine the traumatic effect of a single death. But the emotional impact of a thousand deaths will not be a thousand times that, much less will that of a million deaths be a million times greater. At a certain point, if we are not witness, we just recognize the number as a kind of abstraction, and from a story perspective it loses its impact. Gandalf’s desire to spare one abject creature can thus be weighed equally against his easy willingness to kill countless others. 


We can see how intractable this issue of scaling is by observing how difficult it is for filmmakers to communicate the horror of mass killing even when they want to. Over and again, they find themselves stuck only being able to do so through audience investment in the lives of individuals. In Marvel’s Infinity War, the screenwriters attempt to generate the emotional impact of the greatest (fictional) genocide in movie history by using up some of the store of audience investment in characters established through the eighteen MCU movies building up to it. Here the on-screen dusting of a dozen named characters stands in for the deaths of half of the universe. Even movies about actual historical genocides run into this same problem, and wind up using the same devices (e.g., the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List).

This is certainly more effective than the more common alternative, seeing the deaths of countless faceless strangers through a protagonist’s eyes. Leia’s and Obi Wan’s reactions to the destruction of Alderaan are compelling, but hardly do the carnage justice. In The Force Awakens, the obliteration of an entire populated solar system has its dramatic impact blunted by our experiencing it from the perspective of an emotionally stunted former storm trooper. Finn’s narrow response (“Where’s Rey?”) might even be read as a critique of this narrative problem. The Empire has conditioned Finn to apathy when it comes to the mass killing of people he doesn’t know. We the audience, living that moment through him, can empathize with his position because we’ve had similar conditioning from the Star Wars franchise and other pro-war cinema in general. I mean multiple planets being vaporized is terrible and all, but is that charming young woman with the stick okay?

Don’t worry, she’ll be fine.

We are conditioned to experience the mass killing of innocents through the empathy or non-empathy of our protagonists, or in exceptional cases through those protagonists falling victim to it. Rarely do we actually get to see those killings on screen, and if we do they are often sanitized or ambiguous.

On the other hand, all of these factors make pro-war films infinitely more digestible. In all the books and movies cited above (as well as most other epic fantasy with Christian underpinnings) we are asked to accept a Manichean reality in which evil manifests in the opposing army, often offered to us in shorthand through ugliness, cruelty, and blackness. The goodness of the heroes’ army, meanwhile, is established in part through the moments in which the protagonists demonstrate respect for the sanctity of life. Narratively, their regard for individual lives is what justifies and makes desirable the wholesale slaughter of their enemies.

These fantasy scenarios also facilitate real-live war propaganda, which frequently borrows and makes use of that same narrative trick of claiming our side values life while the enemy’s does not. General William Westmoreland famously justified the mass killing he oversaw in Vietnam with the claim that “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner.” George W. Bush used similar language in talking up the second Iraq war: “These people are brutal. They’re the exact opposite of Americans. We value life and human dignity. They don’t care about life and human dignity.

(A similar principle is at play in the movement to end legal abortion. Pro-choice activists often point to the hypocrisy of people who call themselves “pro-life” while supporting militarism, violent policing, and the death penalty. But for those right-wing pro-lifers, their crusade to protect the unborn is the very thing that makes them “good” and thus justifies their support of state violence against the savage Other.)

War justifies itself by short-circuiting our ethical reasoning. To begin with, its horrors will always operate at a scale beyond the capacity of human emotion to process—certainly for those of us who do not witness it, and probably also for those who do. More to the point, while we may know how terrible it is on an intellectual level, perversely it’s that very knowledge that winds up justifying it. The waging of war, because it is such an unfathomably awful thing, is itself an implicit argument that the problem its violence purports to solve must be worse and unsolvable in any other way. Unnecessary war is the worst kind of evil, we respect life and are therefore not evil, thus the wars we wage are necessary. The very institution of war justifies itself by the same logic. It must be unavoidable because if it weren’t then humanity would be the collective perpetrators of an unimaginable crime. People who seriously suggest that nations should work together toward ending the institution of war are dismissed as naïve not because their goal is impossible, but because to recognize the achievability of that goal is to acknowledge our collective insanity in not attempting it.

Okay, back to Infinity War.

Let us take this moment to recognize the ridiculousness of plunging an entire nation into literal war on the off chance you might be able to save some fraction of the consciousness of a—let’s be honest now—not very interesting sentient robot. (Nothing against Paul Bettany, he is very handsome and was great in A Knight’s Tale.) Oh, right, also they were risking the lives of half the people in the universe to, once again, potentially save the least superpowered two thirds of the Least Compelling Avenger, after he agreed to sacrifice himself. (No, I haven’t forgotten about Hawkeye, who is pretty boring but at least has a quiver of arrows that do different things.)

The screenwriters boil down the moral righteousness of the protagonists in this moment with Captain America’s admonition that “we don’t trade lives.” Once again, the point is to contrast the ethics of the heroes with those of the villains, for whom trading lives is the entire point. The problem is, of course, that the Avengers are trading lives as soon as they choose to put all of Wakanda and half the universe at risk for a chance to save one of their own. The screenwriters’ expectation that the audience will accept the putative nobility of this very bad decision tells us everything we need to know about the logical short circuits that enable war propaganda. The trade-off can only seem reasonable to an audience conditioned to accept its terms by a lifetime of pro-war narratives and their implicit rationalizations.

To review:

  1. We are generally incapable of scaling up the horrors of violence in our imaginations, and will be more emotionally affected by the death of one character we know than a million we don’t.
  2. You can justify war with the (easily falsifiable) claim that the good guys respect life and the bad guys don’t, since this renders the bad guys’ lives valueless and the good guys’ lives expendable for the purpose of stopping the bad guys from killing everyone.
  3. War will always justify itself anyway, since its horrors are so egregious that to acknowledge the possibility they might be unnecessary is to acknowledge a vastness of human depravity beyond what most people would be willing to accept.
Iron Man
Pew pew pew!



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