War – huh! What is it Good For?
Pamela Jaye Smith
Almost every culture has a god or goddess of war and some of our most powerful and influential pieces of myth, art and drama are about war: The Greek Homer’s Iliad, the Hindu-Vedic Mahabarata, the Old Testament of the Judeo-Christian Bible, Shakespeare’s Henry V, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the films Johnny Got His Gun, Lawrence of Arabia, Thin Red Line, H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds… and the list goes on and on.
So mythologically speaking, why war? What is it about war and warriors that both repels and fascinates us?
It must give us something, but what, and why? Is there a way for humanity to understand what it is that draws us inexorably to the experience of war so that we can consciously evolve beyond it?
Or, do we actually need war in order to evolve? Is it a service a society offers to the individual in order to wake us up and give our lives clarity and meaning? What do the old stories tell us?
We can observe that the causes of war run the gamut of human emotions, tending to fall mostly on the more unattractive side like greed, hyper-nationalism, fascism, fanatic separatism, religious fury, cold-blooded genocidal determination…that list goes on and on.
“Accursed be he that first invented war.”
Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)
Though war itself is an ugly thing in fact for the people on the blunt side of its instrument, it is also true that war can bring out the so-called “best” in people.
This dichotomy of affect and effect may be part of what makes war so fascinating: it brings out both our most noble selves and our most brutal selves. Myths, legends, stories and factual accounts have always dealt with this dichotomy and explored the vast territory between the two.
Perhaps in no other field of human endeavor is there such a disparity between the doer and the done than between the warrior and war. Just think of lover and loving, doctor and healing, dancer and dancing, chef and cooking, gardener and gardening. Yet the elegance and precision of the skills of the warrior and the deadly effect of using those skills are radically diverse. The much-desired lethality and survivability of a warfighter ends up being much-despaired death itself for the object of that warfighter’s attentions.
Movies may be the art form that is most able to illustrate this cognitive dissonance for they are able to portray the elegance of precision fighting (The Matrix, Jackie Chan, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) with the deadly effects of the warrior way (Saving Private Ryan, The Wild Bunch, Platoon).
Let’s briefly explore then, the Warrior Archetype and the value of war, from a mythological and movie-logical point of view. First, the Warrior Archetype. [Note that an Archetype is a universal pattern of behaviour and perspective said to reside in the so-called timeless and place-less Collective Unconscious or Mental Plane common to all humanity and therefore accessible to all humans in all times and places. Some people tap into an archetype in their dreams, some set out to do so consciously, and others fall into it by the nature of their profession or the impress of the moment.]
Contrary to popular opinion, the Warrior Archetype is not just about “breaking things and killing people”. Rather, according to the Wisdom teachings the two main dicta of this path are:
1. Defend and protect the Weak and the Innocent. (Not the lazy and the stupid.)
2. Uphold and promote the Good, the True and the Beautiful. (Not the nice, the comfortable and the pretty.)
Now, I can hear some of you going, “But, but, mostly it is about breaking things and killing people. It’s shock and awe. It’s throat-tearing, baby-bashing, veins-in-the-teeth kinda guys, and girls.” Yes, that’s true. And it’s pretty darn effective. Using the dark side of the Warrior path sows tremendous fear. And it’s mighty, be it Genghis Khan and the Mongol Hordes who diverted entire rivers to wipe out the cities they’d razed, or Conan the Barbarian stating his mission of bringing fear and death to the enemy. But that’s all pretty well known. What we all need to know more of is the other side of the archetype which has gotten lost in the snarly scramble for dominance. Not to say this ferocity does not exist but to say it is not the entire picture. So with an acknowledging nod to that side….
The Warrior of the positive side of this archetype is noble. He/She is expected to be pure of intent, to be focused in purpose, to develop precision of action and to be emotionally detached from the product of their actions. It’s a profession. It’s “Duty First”.
Exploring the ramifications of these two duties, we find a number of situations that cry out for the Warrior.
The true Warrior works from two planes: the Ideal and the Practical. In war parlance these are the strategic and the tactical planes. Strategy is the big picture, the end result over a long period of time. It’s about building or taking down empires, bringing about a Pax Romana or a New World Order. Tactics is the nitty-gritty, here-and-now, on-the-ground, day-to-day fighting. It’s aerial dog-fights, M1-A1s against T-72s, M-16s against Uzis, and my fists against your face.
For your true Warrior Archetype the Ideal is a reign of peace, no matter that it means his retirement from the field of battle. The classical Warrior’s way was sporadic. In the Heroic Age wars used to be fought in good weather, in between planting season and harvest season. Think of those idyllic scenes from Gladiator where Russell Crowe’s General reminisced about his family and farm in Spain.
The Warrior acts to restore or to bring about the Ideal. The best examples of this are the myriad stories based around King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table and Camelot. The Ideal here was the greatest good for the greatest number, even at the sacrifice of personal desires.
The Warrior also fights the ferocious onslaught of Evil Empires. Two great examples are relatively current. The Star Wars series finds lone warriors (one even aptly named Hans Solo) going up against the Evil Empire and its chief warrior Darth Vader. The other example was in a eulogy to World War II D-Day veterans given by President Bill Clinton at Normandy when he looked out at the rows of old men and past them to the acres of white crosses and said with reverence, “When these men were young, they saved the world.”
“God has no need of warriors where there is no danger.”
Michael Ventura – American novelist,
War can also be about Love. The Trojan War might even be viewed as the reuniting of masculine and of feminine in bringing Helen back from Troy where the capturing Prince Paris took her and back to her Greek husband King Menelaus, brother of the ill-fated King Agamemnon. Lots of other things came into play during that long war, but it was the abduction that started the whole thing. Helen’s was the “face that launched a thousand ships”, as Marlowe penned.
Another very important reason — perhaps the most mythical-mystical-esoterically important reason — for war is that it forces the individual to rise to their highest potential. It forces them to Wake Up! [See the MYTHWORKS audio tapes “Beyond the Hero’s Journey” for further details about the Mythic Theme of “The Wakeup Call”.] The British novelist Lawrence Durrell in Clea, the fourth book of his marvelous Alexandria Quartet, has the journalist John Keats, formerly a kind of pasty bumbler, transformed into a lean, tanned enthusiastic “real man” who opines that war is built into the psycho-social warp and woof of humanity as a kind of “biological shock mechanism to precipitate a spiritual crisis” that in our ordinary lives would never come about without the experience of war.
This is a fascinating possibility. Just ask anyone who’s been in combat or who has been in a situation where they absolutely without a doubt knew that they were about to die. It instantly resets your priorities. And oddly enough, a sense of calm and capability often sets in and allows you to deal effectively with the situation. Anyone who’s faced that will look at life differently from then on out.
Certainly there is that stereotype of the so-called “Greatest Generation”, those WWII vets who never talked much about their combat experience but who lived generally noble (if somewhat emotionally repressed) lives. Ask the Viet Vets, who generally found the mantle of nobility denied them. I’ve heard Gulf War I vets say they feel closer to their battle comrades than they do to their wives or families.
When you “Wake Up” with someone, it’s a mighty powerful thing. It’s imprinting, and often expresses as Warrior Bonding — that indelible unbreakable almost inexpressible link between comrades who’ve faced danger together and survived. This is what those wilderness experience workshops are trying to create for desk jockeys and office geeks.
There’s a great saying from novelist Frank Herbert’s Dune series, “Never be with anyone you wouldn’t want to die with.” That’ll sort out your list of friends real quickly. From the novel Lucifer’s Tears comes the codicil for people who believe in some sort of afterlife, “Never die with anyone you wouldn’t want to be with.” Think The Sixth Sense.
Before moving from the Warrior to War, here are some things to keep in mind if you are —
WRITING THE WARRIOR ARCHETYPE
The Warrior protects his comrades, is compassionate to civilians, and shows respect to surrendered enemies.
Mental Skills and Attitudes
The Warrior is able to see both the big picture and the details. Particularly these days when technology has morphed the battle field into a battle space and when the old stovepipe chain of command has spread out into a digital web of instantaneous interconnectivity, the Warrior must be able to hold multiple points of view in her mind at the same time, rather like a film editor, or a TV director with multiple cameras on the same live event. Being able to prioritize and story-ize simultaneous events is a huge advantage to today’s warrior.
Besides that, he must retain the ancient warrior skill of projection. As in the game of chess, your skillful warrior must be able to be a futurist, to see ahead to the second, third, and fourth level consequences of an action… and even beyond. This is where patience and control become such valuable commodities. This skill is aided by a rich eclectic background that could include team sports, chess, mathematics and geometry, music and art, dance and architecture. History and psychology are also very helpful in developing the ability to see patterns and to apply a calculus of projection.
Your Warrior character might have a background in any of these other disciplines, which could be revealed via dialogue (e.g. “Find the foundation stone, you find the key”), action (e.g. baseball) or set decoration (e.g. a chess set in play).
All of us have those moments when the hot-blooded warrior archetype possesses us and we want to become a rogue warrior like Charles Bronson in Death Wish or the wronged women in Thelma and Louise. Legends and myths are replete with stories of how this brings naught but tears, from Othello to Siegfried and Brunhilde, to Terminator(s) and Ares the Greek god of war in the Xena: Warrior Princess TV series. Warriors-gone-bad is always a gold mine for dramatic stories. Look how many movies George Lucas is getting out of a Jedi knight who went down the left-hand path of the Warrior way.
A true Warrior learns to control his temper and his emotions and to use them as an appropriate weapon, not to be used by them. Getting to that point from the previous one can give your characters a fine arc of growth and change.
Sense of Humour
Another favourite type of warrior is the happy-go-lucky, like the daredevil aviators of Dawn Patrol who go dog-fighting in their polka dot silk pajamas and carry extra champagne bottles in the cockpit, or the hapless good-hearted trouble-making treasure hunters of Three Kings.
“So stand by your glasses ready, This world is a world of lies. Here’s a toast to the dead already, Hoorah for the next man who dies.”
Dawn Patrol (1938)
Inwardly-focused Warriors such as Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now or most of the characters in The Thin Red Line offer opportunities to explore philosophy and psychology against the background of that which makes everything stand out in high relief — the ever present threat of instantaneous and/or painful death. This awareness can add great poignancy to any musing, as long as it doesn’t become maudlin or melodramatic. Warrior Babes
And don’t forget that the Warrior Archetype is genderless. After all, some of the most powerful warrior gods were goddesses: Pallas Athena of the Greeks and the Norse Brunhilde. Toss in the Japanese Empress Jingo, the Briton queen Boedicea, the legendary Amazons and the TV heroine Xena and you’ve got a veritable pantheon of warrior babes.
Running the Gamut and the Gauntlet
Your warrior character needs to be then, not just a killing machine, but a multi-faceted person who has taken on a Duty to others for which they are bound and willing to sacrifice their own comforts, needs, and if need be, lives.
The spectrum of the Warrior Archetype offers you great latitude in portrayals that range from the almost angelic warriors ala the pure-hearted Galahad of the Camelot Round Table to the bomb-crazed Slim Pickens of Doctor Strangelove to the heavy-breathing Darth Vader.
Their rises and falls in a character arc and their spin along this spectrum offer you a great palette from which to colour your Warrior.
BANDS OF BROTHERS
In most mythologies you have, besides the noble lone warrior, the band of brothers (or sisters) who strike out to right wrongs or sometimes, to do wrongs.
One of the most famous groups is the Greek hero Jason and his fellow Argonauts who set out to recapture the Golden Fleece. On board were the all-brawn-no-brains hero Hercules, the brothers Castor and Pollux (whose sister Helen sparked the Trojan War), and the Bruce Springstein of the times, Orpheus.
The Camelot Knights of the Round Table and Robin Hood and his Merry Men (sometimes In Tights) are England’s version, along with the original Band of Brothers from Henry V at Agincourt and Shakespeare’s immortalization thereof. For an interesting example of T.S. Eliot’s droll observation that “Mediocre poets copy, great poets steal”, see the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and the President’s rallying speech before the big battle in Independence Day. Very very similar, even to the blocking and the music. And, both scenes were very very effective.
The French hero-king Charlemagne and his twelve barons have seldom been used in films; likewise the Japanese forty-seven Ronin, at least not in Western films.
The Amazon warrior babes usually worked as a team and were awesome and dangerous enough that it took super heroes such as Hercules and Theseus to go against them. And the guys did not always win.
One film that both portrays and makes reference to the Band of Brothers is Rough Riders, starring Tom Berenger, Sam Elliott and Gary Busey. It’s quite a good look at Teddy Roosevelt before he became President. And then there’s the recent TV series Band of Brothers.
If you’re doing an ensemble piece, familiarizing yourself with some of these band of brother stories should be instructive and inspiring.
WAR AS THE BACKGROUND OF YOUR STORY
The Warrior Archetype may well carry nobility, but war itself is dirty, dangerous and deadly.
“You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.”
Jeannette Rankin (1888-1973)
Thematically speaking war stories tend to fall into a handful of categories:
War in Heaven
In this instance it isn’t just territory or resources or personal grudges that hang in the balance but entire ways of life. Human leaders often try to cast their petty causes up into this stratosphere and to involve the gods in their struggles. The recent movie Gods and Generals follows of this line of reasoning as generals on opposite sides of the American Civil War (or as we call it in the South, the “unpleasantness between the states”) were praying to the same god for the same results.
“Nothing is ever done in this world until men are prepared to kill each other if it is not done.”
George Bernard Shaw(1856-1950), Irish playwright
From Major Barbara (1905)
A real War in Heaven story is that of Homer’s Trojan War account in the Iliad, where the Greek gods and goddesses were specifically and vitally involved in the day-to-day happenings. You could almost say that Athena, Hera, Zeus, Poseidon, and the others were embedded in the Greek and Trojan armies.
Another War in Heaven event is World War II, where the stakes were starkly cut between dark and light, good and evil. And yet, many of the Allies would find it to have been their most glorious time. Think of Schindler’s List, The Pianist and Patton.
“Do not let us speak of darker days; let us rather speak of sterner days. These are not dark days: these are great days–the greatest days our country has ever lived.”
Winston Churchill( 1874-1965),
British prime minister and writer,
from a speech, Oct 29, 1941
The Opium Wars between Britain and China in the mid-1800s, the on-going American Drug War centered in military action in Latin America and the Orient (but not in addressing the demand end of the equation via prevention and treatment of drug addiction…), piracy on the high seas in all times and places, trade wars and colonialism…. Movies that tell stories of economic wars include The Mission, Air America, and Dune.
“War is capitalism with the gloves off.”
Tom Stoppard, British playwright
and screenwriter Travesties
War is good for some business, no doubt about it. Sales of coffins, steel and airplanes go up. More people have jobs. More money gets spent. The problem often is that it gets spent in specific areas and not spread all round. Another problem is that lots of people, companies and countries will trade with the enemy; certainly a good source of dramatic and troubling stories there.
Empire Building and Holding
From the Hitlerian expansionist concept of Lebensraum (living space) back to Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, great conquests have made great stories. It does well to remember that for the most part, history (and myths) are written by the winners. Basic conquest tends to be pretty much the same: Veni, Vidi, Vici = “I came, I saw, I conquered,” as Julius Caesar wrote.
Most empire building will be headed by an emperor or “big man”, either official or ersatz. Just as you know that your protagonist must have a worthy antagonist, these historical events are most interesting when there’s a worthy opponent involved and there are dramatic accounts of generals or leaders embracing their valued enemies on the field of battle, from Alexander in India to Saladin during the Crusades.
“It has long been noted that some conquerors prefer enemies as fierce as tigers and brave as eagles, for only then can they savor the true joy of victory.”
Lu Xun (1881-1936), Chinese writer
From “The True Story of Ah Q” (1918)
Where it gets even more diverse and fascinating is in the varied offshoots and blowbacks of Empire: Zulu, Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet and the BBC series from it, Jewel in the Crown, Cleopatra, the I Claudius series, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Year of Living Dangerously.
An ancient highlight is the account of the Carthaginian general Hannibal marching up and over the Alps with elephants to descend down on Rome, unexpectedly from the North. A military genius, Hannibal’s life story is a movie just waiting to be made. And the story of his home city Carthage is also rich in the drama, conflict, greed, and tragedy of war, including an ongoing harangue in the Roman Senate that sounds not dissimilar to current events.
“Ceterum censeo delenda est Carthago.”
[In my opinion, Carthage must be destroyed.]
Cato the Elder (234-149 B.C.), Roman Statesman
It was, you see, on the hit-list of the Roman Empire. And it was destroyed. But like many destroyed cities, it was also reborn. And then destroyed again…. does nothing ever change?
Obviously you can make salient points about current events while dramatizing myths and histories, even those over two thousand years old.
Melting Pots and Salad BowlsIn the big picture, which is hard to see when you’re smack dab in the middle of being shocked and awed by somebody’s elephants, swords or bombs, sometimes war brings about an eventual growth and advancement in a culture.
Genghis Khan and the Mongol Hordes, for instance, brought together the Orient and the Occident in the 13th century. Bummer for places like Baghdad, which fell to Genghis’ grandson Hulagu in 1258. But in general, the admixture of cultures eventually brought about a flowering of the arts and sciences. Plus it gave Marco Polo a reason to travel and something to write about. The conquests of Islam from the 7th century onward both preserved and promoted art, architecture and science throughout the Middle East, the Mediterranean and over the Pamirs into India and China.
See The Man Who Would Be King for an intriguing pastiche of Alexandrian conquest, Masonic lore and the British Raj in India. James Michener tells stories of melting pots and salad bowls in most of his novels, particularly Hawaii, where the clash of cultures rains shards of tragedy all round. Once Were Warriors also recounts the destructive side of that concept in New Zealand among the Maori.
MAKING YOUR POINT AT THE POINT OF A SWORD
The Warrior Archetype needs to be redeemed. Too often people blame the American military for what the military does, forgetting that they serve at the order of the Commander in Chief and Congress. They don’t decide where to go and who to fight. They go where they’re sent and do what they’re told to do… “Just following orders, sir.”
Yet in a majority of American movies if a baddie is called for the military gets the first call. Okay, there are certainly organizational justifications for some of that, but it would serve us all better if we held our Warriors up to the highest standard of the archetype.
That would imply we would also reward them for same, with generous pay, support and benefits. After all, these are the guys and girls willing to go out there and not just fight for you, but to die for you. How can a people possibly denigrate the value of that sacrifice? Yet they do. Coming Home, Taxi Driver, and Forest Gump show some of the ways that happened.
So when you’re creating a Warrior character, at least consider making them valiant, courageous, compassionate, smart, and visionary. We’ve seen plenty of the other type.
If you’re writing a war story, you’ll want to be sure that you make some salient point about war, its effect on individuals and its effect on society. Some examples are Catch 22, Apocalypse Now, Born on the Fourth of July and Casablanca.
An important concept open to (and begging for) interpretation is that of Non-Violent Conflict Resolution. From the United Nations to private peace brokers like Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Jimmy Carter, to panels at Moondance Film Festival, there are millions of humans working very hard to figure out the answer to a question posed at the beginning of this article: Can we move beyond war?
Since this is one of the questions that has plagued most of humanity for as long as we can tell, it certainly offers not only a rich mine of story materials from the past but begs to be explored by the visionary minds of artists, since that’s where a lot of our best “facts” get started. Just think of all the sci-fi inventions that became and are becoming real, from space flight to tiny phones and cyber parts for humans. Or as the ad for Ferrari used to challenge, “If it can be imagined, it can be created.”
Besides major social change, you can also use war as a background against which to play out intimate personal stories. You can use it to give your Warrior Archetype character the milieu and meaning for their actions.
You can also use it to affect great beauty, not only in the physical landscape but in the poignancy and poetry of lost innocence and lost life. It’s been said that earth is a “beautiful, dangerous planet”. A war story is a perfect vessel to carry that moving dichotomy.
Plus, for action and adventure, it simply can’t be beat.
SO WHAT IS WAR GOOD FOR?
We may not come up with a good answer, but at least by asking the question you’re deepening the meaning and influence of your story, and that’s always a good thing. If some people also think, in the midst of their entertainment, that’s a good thing too because the more people who are thinking and not just feeling, the better off we all will be.
In the fabulous sci-fi TV series Babylon 5, the wise and remote Vorlons ask a person, “Who are you?” and the dark devious Shadows ask, “What do you want?” The Vorlons promote collaborative solutions to problems; the Shadows promote conflict in a Nietzsche an social Darwinian mode of winnowing the herd and making the survivors stronger. Both have a point.
It’s said in the Wisdom teachings that evil is simply a good that’s been held onto for too long. Perhaps we might begin applying that to war and see if we can figure out some other more peaceful and less damaging way to wake ourselves up, become more noble, rise to the occasion and be all that we can be.
Article excerpted from “The Warrior Way for Filmmakers” (seminars, CDs, and downloads) and “Wise Heart, Sharp Sword” seminars, both by Pamela Jaye Smith.
For further historical insights into the nature and effects of war on a democracy, read the Greek warrior and war historian Thucydides’s book “History of the Peloponnesian War”.
For further timely insights, read New York Times war journalist Chris Hedges’s book “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning”.