Thursday, March 08, 2007

On "300" and the ideology of war

A brief note--based on following a link from to an entry by Dean Barnett at Town Hall regarding the film "300"--which comes out tomorrow (and which I intend to see, given my affinity not only for Classically-themed works, but also for the crew that brought us Sin City).

Dean emphasizes his desire to go see "300" based largely on the notion that the film supports war. Mind you, not the war of the Spartans against the Persians in specific--but rather, the idea of war in general. Dean's motivations are based on the indeed bellicose idea that war is apparently an unqualified good--as long as we're the ones waging it and kicking the ass of someone we apparently don't like.

It's a principle that's astonishingly un-conservative. What ever happened to the idea of pragmatism?? You know--asking yourself the question, "what would work best given the circumstances in question?". It seems like the "pro-war" crowd supports military action simply because of an ideological commitment to the concept of war, rather than believing in the rationale for an individual war in a specific context.

By contrast, my longstanding opposition to the occupation in Iraq has caused me at times to be labeled "anti-war"--whatever that means. The implication, of course, is that I'm a reckless pacifist who would gladly surrender my freedom rather than fight for it. My standard refrain is: "I'm not anti-war; I'm anti-this-war." I honestly don't see what's so hard about a position of pragmatism in which one weighs all options and determines, on both a moral and a utlitarian basis, which course of action is likely to produce the most desirable results, without a pre-existing ideological commitment interfering in the process.

The pre-existing ideological commitment, of course, is not exclusive to the right wing and their unabashed support of war, no matter what the situation. The Slate review referenced by Dean Barnett is equally as guilty, in my estimation. For instance:

When a messenger from Xerxes arrives bearing news Leonidas doesn't like, he hurls the man, against all protocol, down a convenient bottomless well in the center of town. "This is blasphemy! This is madness!" says the messenger, pleading for his life. "This is Sparta," Leonidas replies. So, if Spartan law is defined by "whatever Leonidas wants," what are the 300 fighting for, anyway? And why does that sound depressingly familiar?

This statement is actually depressingly naive, for a variety of reasons. First of all, the 300 were fighting for their independence from slavery at the hands of the Persian Empire. That's a pretty good answer to the question. But on top of that, it was standard practice in ancient times that during a period of crisis or insurrection, a dictator would be appointed for a set period of time to handle the crisis. So actually, yes, Leonidas' word would likely have been law--just as the Cincinnatus' was against the Volsci.

Such traditions have continued to the modern day. Our own United States constitution has measures for suspension of expected rights, such as the writ of Habeas Corpus, during times of rebellion or insurrection. Suffice it to say that in a historical and moral context, challenging the notion of what the 300 were fighting for given any tyrannical propensities of Leonidas is absurd. (Does this mean I'm giving credence to President Bush's totalitarianism? Hardly. I shouldn't have to explain the differences between Bush and Leonidas. If you can't understand them, you must have come from Free Republic.)

The idea of not supporting a necessary war because of an overriding "anti-war" ideology is less distasteful to me than supporting an unnecessary one because of an overriding "pro-war" ideology--because if given the chance, I'd obviously prefer to err on the side of not killing people. But I don't understand why it's so difficult to assess everything on a case-by-case basis.

The bottom line is this: the idea of "war" should not be something that one can say one supports or opposes in general. It must be pragmatic and case-by-case. If it were up to me, the labels "pro-war" and "anti-war" would just be retired.

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