A few years ago I watched the movie Flags of our Fathers. The film, directed by Clint Eastwood, shows the bitter reality of WWII through the life stories of the six men who raised the flag at The Battle of Iwo Jima. I think the movie does a brilliant job of examining the delicate balance between truth and propaganda in a time of war as well as gently deconstructing the American hero. Through a combination of real-life interviews and dramatic interpretation, Eastwood challenges his viewers to look at this iconic American picture from the perspective of the Japanese people who were also fighting (without villainizing the American soldiers).
Growing up in America, and continuing to enjoy my American citizenship while in Canada, I was always taught the incomprehensible evil that was Japan. Pearl Harbour after all. Now, I don’t want to descend into a political argument of war; unfortunately, because of human sin, it is and will continue to be part of our existence, but, I believe the nature of war–that of human destruction–is grievous. Tolkien addresses the issue of war in The Two Towers when he writes:
“War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”
Unfortunately, with war comes enemies. No doubt, like Tolkien writes, there are times that “war must be,” but the issue of creating enemies is an interesting one. As I’ve mentioned, I grew up learning about WWII, and I learned about the atrocities of the Japanese kamikazes at Pearl Harbour. Unfortunately, what started as a lesson about the atrocities of the bombing by the Japanese pilots quickly turned into lessons about the overall atrocities of the Japanese people.
I grew up learning that Japan was the enemy of the United States, and this is why Flags of our Fathers had such an impact on me. I hate to admit it, but I was a 27 year old educated man who had never really thought about the flag of Iwo Jima from any other perspective but the American one. The concept of the ‘Other’ was illustrated right before my eyes.
This concept–introduced by Hegel and later made popular by Edward Said’s Orientalism–is a process of self-identity by means of constructing roles for yourselves based on the roles of other people or groups (often the roles for the ‘Others’ are dehumanizing or demonizing).
Because I love the NFL, a simple example can be made between cheering for my beloved Seahawks or rooting against the villainies of the 49ers. It was fun to watch the Seahawks throttle the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, but it was even sweeter to watch Richard Sherman tip the Colin Kapernick pass in the end zone to secure a win in the NFC Championship against the San Francisco 49ers. In sports this is nothing more than simple rivalry; and they abound in every sport and in every country. Fans are, in essence, defining their identities by drawing a line in the sand (or on the field as the case may be) and saying: “You are either for us or against us.”
No doubt this is a rudimentary example, but hopefully the point is made.
In war, it’s a bit more complicated.
After watching The Flags of Our Fathers, I was reminded of the difficulty of finding truth when you allow personal perspective into the picture–when you understand that history is written from personal perspective. Years later I was once again reminded of this difficulty when I took a graduate level history class where the teacher expressed that because history is all written from personal perspective, then we may never be able to understand reality.
“The difference between treason and patriotism is only a matter of dates,” Alexandre Dumas writes in The Count of Monte Cristo.
No doubt relativism has broken open many boxes that have long been nailed shut by dogma. Unfortunately, here in lies the problem.
The reason that I was able to navigate the themes of The Flags of Our Fathers is because I understood the tension of right and wrong. I already had a foundation of morality by which I could filter the information from the movie, think about the content, and decide what bits I should keep and what bits I should send down the garbage disposal. Children do not posses this skill, so to teach them moral complexities before having moral absolutes is very problematic.
In my next post, I want to explore why fairy tales are a fantastic genre to use to teach children moral absolutes while giving credence to the reality of moral complexity.