Sunday, April 29, 2007

Pearl Harbor

Flipping through the nothing on TV last night, we came across the movie Pearl Harbor, released back in 2001.

World War II was humanity's last great orgy of conquest and vengeance. It was the culmination of a primitive model of interaction that began when people first realized they could use their hunting skills on each other. It did not take long for hunting and war-making to separate and become more specialized for greater efficiency.

The Second World War was the last romantic war and the last unfettered expression of nationalistic violence we would ever enjoy. For the last time, distance and geography were strategic factors. For the last time we could unquestioningly launch ourselves at each other as enemies with every resource at our disposal and still believe we would have anything worth keeping at the end of it.

Men and women could fall in love and do what comes naturally. Then the men could shoulder arms and march off, leaving their pregnant wives behind, because the higher calling of war demanded it. You didn't have to like it, but you didn't question the basic model, no matter which side of the war you were on. Aggressors attacked and defenders defended and counter-attacked. It's only natural. It's manly.

One overhead shot of sailors struggling in the water beside sinking and sunken battleships reminded me of a bunch of frogs thrashing in a pond. Each human struggle for life became an unidentifiable little wiggler, anonymous as a sperm cell, and as desperately determined to live.

By the end of the war we had raised our lethal technology to such potential for instant slaughter that we ruined war completely for ourselves. As horrible as each new advance from the American Civil War onwards seemed to be, by the time World War II started no one would be shocked at the level of carnage, as they had been by the casualty figures from World War I. We could accept the impersonal death by explosives, or by a hail of machine gun fire from a flying machine swooping down, and concentrate on the new breed of hero that can function in that kind of environment, without face to face acknowledgment by one's adversary.

The movie focused on aviators. Air combat is the most flamboyant, extravagant form of homicide. A single warrior, in an expensive, complex piece of machinery, engages in brave and skillful maneuvers against another warrior, similarly equipped (generally at taxpayer expense). Hours of training, months or years of room and board and spending money, not to mention the machinery cost all lead to a few crucial seconds and death or glory. Sometimes both.

Humans are so easily bored that for many of us the challenges of hiking, mountaineering, boating or flight don't hold our interest without the extra spice of someone trying to kill us. Yet at the other extreme there are many people who don't want to get off the couch at all. And in between are the ones who manage to enjoy themselves quite actively without feeling the need to pick a fight or hoping to have one picked.

Who is right?

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