Sunday, May 27, 2007

War is Easy

Last night, Maureen and I watched The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise. If you're not familiar with the movie, it's a lot like Dances With Wolves meets the Meiji Restoration. Cruise plays an Army capitan, haunted by his part in a massacre of native Americans, who goes to Japan to teach fighting techniques to the new Japanese military, whose primary objective is to crush a rebellion led by samurai (aka the Sioux from Dances) in Japan's still-rural north. Cruise is captured and (predictably) takes to the traditional life in the samurai village. When given the chance to return to his old post, he instead chooses to help the samurai.

Historically, the movie dramatized the ideals of the samurai life while overlooking many of the realities, particularly those concerning the samurai of the late 1800s, the setting for the movie. At that time there had been some 200 years of relative peace within Japan, and many of the samurai were often little more than privileged, conservative aristocracy, whose concerns were as much about economics as honor. For a good overview, check out the following article on National Geographic's website.

Still, the movie was entertaining, featuring epic cinematography and dramatic battles. For both Maureen and me, however, the most enjoyable parts of the movie were the scenes in the samurai village of Cruise stumbling to his understanding of traditional Japanese life. There, the portrayals of culture differences and misunderstandings were accurate and well-done. Eventually, the entire village takes Cruise as one of their own. In the climactic, final battle between the samurai and the Japanese Army, one hardened samurai who was particularly slow to come around to Cruise gives his life for him by taking a bullet in the chest.

While the act was heroic and made for good on-screen drama, it also underscores a very tragic phenomena of human relations. That character in the movie learned to die for Cruise's character, even though he wanted to kill him in the beginning. So often, it is so much easier to die for something, than it is to live for it.

Regarding that same human condition, Dostoevsky wrote the following:

"...he was spoiling for immediate action, was prepared to sacrifice everything, his life itself, in an act of supreme devotion. Unfortunately, these young men often fail to understand that the sacrifice of their lives may be the easiest of all sacrifices, much easier, for instance, than giving up five or six years of their seething youth to hard study, to the acquisition of knowledge which would increase their strength tenfold in the service of that same cause, and in the performance of the great works they aspire to. But to sacrifice those few years to study often proves too much for them."

When two young boys come to blows in the school yard, it's because they're taking the easy way out. Resolving their differences with their minds becomes too difficult for them, so they instead turn to their fists. That much I know from experience. And in the moment of rushing at my tormentor, it did indeed seem so much easier than any other possible solution. Only afterwards, as one eye swelled shut and my bruises throbbed, did I began to realize the folly of my decision.

Tragically, as societies we don't seem to learn very much from these childhood encounters. Violence is still there, always looming on the horizon as the "easy" solution. Of course, it isn't easy, not in the long run, as all wounds need time to heal, and some of them never fully do. But it's all too easy to overlook all of that in the crucial moment when making the decision to strike. If you're wondering why, after millennia of human conflict, we're still having wars, it's because, at least for an instant, they present that guise of being the easiest solution.


Philip. said...

Cool blog, cool photos. I found you randomly, but will be back for more.


Scott Lothes said...


Thanks for stopping by! I'm glad you found me and I hope you'll come back often. If you care to peruse the archives, I reccommend seeing my travels through China in search of steam locomotives, Sept-Dec 2005.



Tim said...

Nice post, typically reflective - and I like how you bring in the Dostoevsky - did the "war is easy" idea bubble up in the tent, or afterwards?