Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan



True story … though I suspect the details are a bit fanciful here and there. It’s 1941 and the Nazis in Byelorussia—now Belarus—are rounding up the Jews to send them to the death camps, or else simply killing them on the spot. (I’m ashamed to admit I couldn’t have pointed to Belarus on a map until a few moments ago. It’s east of Poland and north of Ukraine.) Most of the Bielski family has been murdered by Germans or Russian collaborators, but four brothers escape into the woods, where they form a resistance movement. They are joined by other Jews, mostly urban people, women and the elderly, who are ill-equipped for life in the forest. The main conflict here is between brother Zus (Liev Schreiber), whose top priority is killing Nazis, and Tuvia (Daniel Craig), whose goal is keeping Jews alive.

I like it that it’s not portrayed as all sweet harmony, let’s all pull together, we’re all Jews here and we have a common enemy. As in all human communities, there is severe conflict, greediness, favoritism. When food runs low, there are fights. The guys who go out requisitioning (that is, stealing or extorting) food feel like they’re entitled to extra portions. Tuvia settles this argument with a bullet to the chest of the main troublemaker, as well he should. And there’s some other kinds of nastiness that can be a little hard to watch. At one point a captured German soldier is brought into camp, totally terrified. He pleads for his life. “I have a wife and two children!” Wrong group to say that to, dude. Every soul there had lost spouses, parents, children to Nazi butchers. This soldier probably had nothing to do with that, and Tuvia, as the leader, probably should have executed him as soon as he was brought in … but who the fuck cares? Tuvia didn’t. The soldier is killed with rifle butts by the women and elderly, each calling out the name of a loved one who was murdered. It is disturbing to see how people can turn into stone killers, when a year before they could never ever have thought of doing such a thing. But that’s war. Even in the best of causes, it turns people into beasts.

I recently read an essay that argued that war—all war, apparently—is sin. The author’s point was to call on the carpet religious leaders who blessed combatants, who claimed that God was on our side, who rationalized killing in spite of what it says right there in black and white: “Thou shalt not kill.” No escape clause in those four words, wouldn’t you say? Not “Thou shalt not kill except in self-defense, a just war, or the execution of really, really bad people.” If you believe in the Bible (luckily, I don’t), it couldn’t be plainer. Now, I don’t know shit about sin, except to believe it is something someone else doesn’t want me to do, but I have a strong sense of morality, of what I call “right and wrong” for lack of a better definition. The author of this essay conceded—rather grudgingly, I thought—that it is sometimes necessary to fight a great evil. When you argue that war is always wrong, or always sin, you eventually end up banging your head on Adolf Hitler and the German National Socialist Party, and that pretty much shoots down that argument, for most people. I feel it would have been immoral not to have gone to war in 1941 … that, in fact, America should have gone to war in 1939.

But to be fair, the author does have a point, and because he has been to war and I haven’t, I’m bound to listen to it. The point is that, no matter how noble your cause or how evil your enemy, war turns men into beasts. (I don’t mean animals; other animals have never reached the excesses of brutality and killing that humans have. I mean, we are turned into creatures that reject all the civilized values we have worked so long and hard to achieve.) You don’t think so? Consider that since 1945 America has not fought a war for its survival, or for anything other than to protect “American interests,” a term that is about as malleable as you want it to be. Sure, the war against the Taliban is morally justifiable. They attacked us. However, our survival is not at stake, merely our sense of security … and if you think that security is something that any society has ever achieved … I got a nice little “War on Terror” I’d like to sell you. (Cheap, too, only around three trillion dollars!) So if we had chosen to leave them out there in the Afghan wastes, fucking camels or whatever sub-humans do when they’re not killing innocent people, nothing much would have changed in the world except that a lot more people would still be alive, many of them Americans. And while I believe our armed forces are, along with those of other Western powers, the best and most disciplined armies the world has ever seen … shit happens, don’t it? We have worked to make smart weapons that pinpoint targets, but we still get “collateral damage,” i.e., innocent civilians killed by our bombs. Babies incinerated. Women eviscerated. Thousands or even millions driven from their homes to starve in the wastelands our bombing has created. We did that, with our just war. If there ever was a “just war,” World War Two was it, and yet what did our side, the good guys, do in the course of it? We bombed civilian targets, intentionally, on a scale the world had never seen before. We twice dropped the most frightening weapon yet developed on Japanese cities full of civilians. On a small scale, down at the grunt level, we cleared Japanese machine-gun nests with streams of napalm, we mowed down German soldiers trying to surrender, we destroyed hundreds of small villages with our tanks and bombers. There was a lot of collateral damage.

I’m not being holier-than-thou here. If I’d been on Iwo Jima, I would not have conscientiously objected to operating a flame-thrower to barbecue some Japs. If I’d landed on Omaha Beach and seen my comrades blown apart, I’d not have been too interested in taking captives. If I’d been in a bomber, dodging flak from people who were trying to kill me, I’d have tried my best to hit the munitions plant I was aiming for, but if I missed and hit a residential neighborhood … well, c’est la guerre. Which is my point. That’s war, and all those things are beastly things to do, and they were done by the good guys. War destroys the humanity on both sides … and lately, I’ve had a hell of a time seeing our side as the good guys. Those soldiers in Iraq are just people, sent to do some powerful man’s dirty work. If it makes them feel better to think they are making the world safe for anything, that’s okay with me. It’s not up to the grunt on the ground to count the cost or worry too much about sin. It’s his job to stay alive.

Coincidentally, the book I happen to be reading now, by Scott Turow, is set in WWII, and a war-weary character, a commando who has just slit the throat of a German soldier who was around eighteen years old or less, has these observations about war:

{{“We make war on Hitler. As we must. But millions get in the way and die for the Führer. What do you think? How many men do we truly need to kill to win this war? Ten? Surely no more than one hundred. And millions upon millions will die instead.”
“Because we need God. … I’ll tell you why we need God. To forgive us. Because when this war is over, that’s what we’ll need, all of us who have done what war requires and, worse, what war permits [my emphasis], that’s what we’ll need, in order to be able to live the rest of our lives.”}}

War, even a just war, requires us to do beastly things. And it allows us to ignore most of the rules that keep society tenuously together. Even with things like the Geneva Conventions, war is ghastly and dehumanizing. And I don’t see how to stop it. Like I said, sometimes it’s even necessary.

Well, where was I … oh, right, I was reviewing a movie. Damn, you shouldn’t let me wander onto moral byways like that. The movie itself is only okay. I’d have liked a bit more about the activities in the forest camp, and little less about combat with the Nazis. Apparently they built a regular little city out there in the woods, with shops to make and repair clothing and shoes and weapons for the fighters, a herd of cows for milk, carpenters, barbers, a school, and even a jail and a court. And they had to be ready to move it all if threatened, or if really threatened (as we see here, twice) leave with nothing but weapons and ammunition. But it’s worth seeing.