Monday, 18 August 2014

The Normalisation of War

When I was a boy, I loved to play soldiers. G.I. Joe was my favourite toy, and I could spend hours in mock battles, at the end of which the participants and their weapons and vehicles were rounded up and packed away, ready to fight again tomorrow. I also had He Man, Transformers, and others. Violence was the norm in my play. When outside, I would be an army man, or Robin Hood, or any of many similar idols. Even the Batman, who refuses to kill, uses violence and intimidation as a means to an end.

Similarly, many of the books, movies, and TV shows I enjoy are openly violent. Some of the best scenes in films are full of bullets, or excellently choreographed combat. Even in those shows where the lead characters aim to prevent violence to others, they often become caught up in it themselves. Is this art reflecting the world, or vice versa? In truth, it is both.

Why is it that is so many action films, the villain is killed, either out of necessity (he pulls a gun on the hero, forcing the hero to shoot), or simply by a character, often a policeman, who ignores the usual rules of arrest and trial, and kills him outright? I am told that in French films this doesn’t occur, that the villain is captured. I can’t help wonder what this difference says about Anglophones?

I am not a big believer in the argument that video games create violent people, but I feel obliged to acknowledge the fact that they probably don’t help solve the problem. Fact is, violence sells. Many of the biggest selling games are first person shooters, many of the actions you can now take go above and beyond anything you would have considered possible in the real world. Now, I like games, and they’re not going anywhere. I don’t seek to condemn them, but (like books and films) they are at best a symptom of our culture, and at worst, much more.

It is impossible to watch the news for any length of time, without hearing a story of war. It is omnipresent. It is part of our nature, a part we seem to be unable to suppress. It happens so much that even the most bloody acts no longer elicit much surprise, or much disapprobation. The Joker said that when soldiers are killed or gangsters are shot, no one really bats an eyelid, and he was right. He said it is because it’s all ‘part of the plan’, and I believe this is a fair assessment. From a young age, we are trained to accept certain kinds of violence as normal; from a young age we play war and watch cartoon battles and hear in the background about conflicts we barely understand. We study battles and generals. We accept war as part of our culture.

We also have the cult of celebrity, as it applies to outlaws, criminals, serial killers. We have men on death row idolised by lonely women, we have a fascination with jail and organised crime, with Bonnie and Clyde, with the misunderstood and maladjusted. Ned Kelly, Dick Turpin, Al Capone, the Cray brothers. Murder mysteries and police procedurals. CSI and Miss Marple.

Now, of course we have the chicken and egg question, and there is no doubt that war came before modern media. But stories of violence? Of great battles and brave hunts? When did the myth come to outshine the truth?

It would be naïve and foolish of me to claim that by banishing violence from our art and from our play, that we will banish it from the world. Hell, I like violent films and games. And there is also a case to be made that art is truth, and it must be honest about whatever it sees. Is the answer then to accept it, to embrace our nature and be satisfied with a world where horrors exist, if only far away? This option, too, is unappealing. What, then?

I am tempted to despair, but this is the least helpful of emotions. The real goal is to change our cultural norms, to refuse to accept violence as regular, and rather to push the idea that it should, and can, be removed by social progress. The only way I can see of eliminating war, of reducing conflict to the level of the sports field and the boxing ring, is to enhance the living conditions of every human on the planet, to a level where the struggle for resources disappears, and life is no longer an us vs them equation. If we can use technology to ensure that everyone is provided for and lives a life comparable with that of people in countries where violence is low, we may be able to push war out of our society for good.


I certainly believe it is becoming possible. We already see nations with the kind of living I suggest, so the key is spreading that lifestyle across the globe. My only fear is that our nature will not allow us so settled a lifestyle, that our inner beast will out. Perhaps we are doomed to be slaves to our anger, our bloodlust, our fear, but I choose to believe that we can be more. You may say I’m a dreamer.

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