Monday, March 16, 2015

Beautiful Violence?

Pacifism always looked cool to me when I was younger, for two reasons. First, it seemed lofty; Christ-like; it reeked of philosophical commitment. Second -- if we're being honest -- it is a very convenient excuse for not having to be "manly," at least it the realm of physical confrontation: "I'm not a wimp -- I'm a pacifist." I know now (as I knew then, of course) that being a man isn't all about bar brawls -- but, when the time comes for, say, self-defense, declaring one's self a pacifist can be a convenient back door.

The exceptional lead cast of Foyle's war. 
I remember watching M.A.S.H, the situation comedy set in the Korean War (maybe the biggest screw-up of a war in world history) and I used to admire the rebellious nature of the Army surgeons, "Hawkeye" and "B.J." -- their distaste for war; their commitment to their Hippocratic oaths. I still do. They found themselves locked into a war they didn't start or condone; they literally waded in blood trying to save the lives of the young victims of that war and they did everything they could to show the tides of politics and violence that they could be forced to be there, but not to conform to everything.

The message is different, though, elsewhere. Recently, I have been watching the delightful Foyle's War -- a wonderful BBC mystery series centered around Detective Chief Inspector Foyle (Michael Kitchen). The show is set in Hastings during WWII. Foyle, a WWI vet, is, as NPR TV critic David Bianculli put it, "so square you could play checkers on him" -- which Bianculli goes on to explain is meant as a compliment. And you see what he means as you watch Foyle operate with unwavering ethical standards and a with complete commitment to being the quintessential gentleman. But Foyle is clear on one thing in particular: commitment to the war effort. Very different than Hawkeye Pierce; but, of course, his circumstances were very different as well.

America has never been in that position: threatened from across a channel; a channel over which, at certain times, on clear days, one could actually see France, which was occupied by Hitler's forces. America never suffered routine nightly bombings of its most important city. American children never sat in a field and watch dogfights off of their coast. (The closest we came to anything like that was to have been walking obliviously on boardwalks at the Jersey shore as German U-boats night-patrolled the coast like sleepy sharks. We know because we have found wrecks.)

Of course, when Pearl Harbor happened, we jumped into the conflict. Because we were hit.

When I watch Foyle and when I think of my relatives who stepped up to fight in America's defense, I
Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda)
think pacifism is foolish. Had I been a young Londoner or a resident of anywhere in Britain, during WWII, I would have volunteered. No question. Part of me would have been considering declaring pacifism and I woud have been terrified beyond description to fight, but what good person can sit idly by when his friends and family and his neighbors are having bombs dropped on them?  I would have seen it as a necessary violence; as a just war to fight.

Is there any merit in watching an enemy roll over one's home in the name of a philosophy? I don't think so. The only conclusion I can draw is that sometimes violence is the noble thing to do.

It even occurred to me that violence can be profoundly uplifting. Ever see one of those viral videos of a kid being bullied and then throwing-down and beating the living stuffing out of the bully? Is there anything that feels more just and right than that? I'm tempted to call it "beautiful violence," but...I guess that sounds weird.

This is just all me being honest. Maybe it is proof that no philosophy is absolute, especially when one is threatened. Maybe the Bard was right that "there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so."


  1. I can't begin to imagine what it must have been like to have lived through an air raid. My mother experienced them for nearly five years and has never been able to sleep properly as a result. Sometime she'd arrive at school and notice an empty desk - one of her classmates had been killed the night before.

    I asked my mother if she ever saw her parents react emotionally to these events. She said that they never did, although her mother cried once when a gas mantle exploded and showered their meagre weekly sugar ration with tiny shards of glass.

    1. Have you seen Foyle's War? Seems pretty well-researched in that regard; last episode I watched, in fact, there was much to-do over a coveted onion, so your grandmother's feelings seem to have not been uncommon. I suppose such comforts carried great weight in such inconceivably difficult circumstances.

      Truly hard to imagine such daily horror. I doff my hat to your mom and all Londoners of her generation.