Monday, April 10, 2017

Depth of Story

Of late, I keep encountering this meme that writers seem to like, that most soldiers in the various wars of the last century intentionally fired their weapons over the heads of the enemy, because they did not wish to kill their fellow man.

This is usually based upon a statistical argument, one that says a truly impressive number of bullets were fired without causing injuries; and this is in turn supported by anecdotal evidence of soldiers who have said that they refused to fire at an enemy.  All in all, it makes a nice argument for the humanity of humans, that even in war they'd rather not kill.

I don't know how this explains events in human history where soldiers have plainly proven their willingness to kill perfectly innocent civilians.  Custer's men certainly did not hesitate to massacre women and children at the Cheyenne camp on the Washita River in 1868.  Where was the humanity of humans when British Colonel Dyer's troops killed 379 unarmed men, women and children at Amritsar on April 13, 1919, wounding 1,200 others.  Dyer reported that his men fired 1,650 rounds.  Plainly his men did not fire over the heads of the crowd.  And when U.S. troops murdered, tortured and assaulted more than 347 unarmed South Vietnamese citizens at My Lai, I'm fairly certain that shots were not fired over the heads of the "enemy" by soldiers who were secretly unwilling to fight.

These are difficult memories to bring up.  Most would rather they were never recalled - and if recalled, only to be sure we promise never to do that again.  I don't bring up these events to indict the participants; history has already tried them and found them guilty.  But I wish to encourage the reader NOT to engage in false hopes that soldiers with guns are secretly not willing to kill.  That is a wishful thought, encouraged by those who need the crutch of wishful thinking to conceal the actual bloody carnage that results from there being weapons present.

I just finished watching the film Ghandi.  I consider the movie to be a masterpiece.  Most others, I find, consider the movie to be long, dull, somewhat preachy and in some instances, unforgivable in its inaccuracy.  Yet as I watch it, I am moved by moments such as the depicted massacre I've just spoken about and by the various other scenes of self-sacrifice, belief, virtue and endurance the movie depicts.  I believe that most find the movie difficult to watch because it demands something more of the viewer than most films.  It does not appease the viewer.  It does not say, "Here are some people just like you, so you can feel valuable as you watch and pretend you're as good as they are."

That's not possible with this film.  None of us are Ghandi.  Very few of us would be willing to endure the sacrifices that Ghandi's compatriots were willing to endure, much less what Ghandi took upon himself. There is nothing in the film that hides this.  The film says, "You don't rate.  If you're not measuring up to this, nothing you have done in your life has any value."

We don't make films like this.  Moreover, we don't encourage others to make films like this, not any more.  Youtube is filled with channels created by would-be filmmakers who have chosen to dissect the works of other people and say what makes them great.  But though there are many of this sort of film interpreter around, there are very few films that these interpreters seem to like.  The list is a very short one.  They all like Kurosawa and Edgar Wright.  And of course Martin Scorsese.  Most gush over Tarentino, ascribing all sorts of genius to the man that simply isn't there on the screen.  It is the same films, the same arguments about editing, the same repeated complaints about shot-reverse-shot, the same painstaking descriptions of composition and detail, soundtracks and the art of silence.

But what the filmmakers do not talk about is story.  They discuss story in passing, they talk about the importance of characters that the audience can identify with, but they don't talk about the nature of story and the cold brutality of stories that don't fit with the comfort level of an audience that wants to be wrapped in a warm, fuzzy blanket rather than face the harsh reality of the every day world and be changed by it.

The story that filmmakers want to tell now are stories about how soldiers shot over the heads of the enemy and not at the enemy.  Because that's what you and I would do, right?  We wouldn't intentionally kill others, right?  And if we did, we would feel bad about it.  We wouldn't enjoy it.  Because we're not made that way.

And if there is a mountain of evidence that argues that we are made exactly that way, because a billion others just like us have killed and enjoyed it, because the soldiers at My Lai were laughing as the children died, not because they were horrible but because they were just like us, because they were living in an insane world that did not include the possibility of any reaction except the kind an insane person would have - well, if that evidence is there, we ought to just ignore it.  We ought to pretend it isn't like that.  That the chemical weapons recently used in Syria aren't used all the time, by every side, because that would be more horrifying than a few children killed in a single attack.  It would be more horrifying because it would mean that children and others are actually being killed all the time.

But not in our movie.  Not in our story.  Not here.  Not on this earth that we think we know.  Because what really matters is how long the camera lingers on the face of the man who has just discovered his wife is cheating on him.  This is the universe we understand.  Small.  Bite-size.  A catharsis we can bear up against.  Nothing that is going to spoil our dinner.

And I wouldn't mind, because I'm just like every other person in the theater.  I was raised in this soft, silly environment too.  I ate a good, fat dinner too.  But I wish the filmmakers would try for something more than just feeding us emotion.  There's not much story in just emotion.  It doesn't measure up to what I would call filling.  Kurosawa and Scorsese are fair camera-pointers, but on the whole it is just cotton candy.  Not belly-filling.  Not mind-expanding.  Just candy.

And candy, you know, is for kids.


Konsumterra said...

Military experts over decades worked out this and early refused to believe it - was over when USA trained men to shoot on sight specifically to overcome this. Not just a trend in writing.

Professional soldiers are different to mass enforced conscripts and recruiting moron IQ racists to kill indians is different too.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I did expect this sort of response, Konsumterra, and I appreciate it. But I'm not arguing opinion about the willingness of soldiers to murder people. The soldiers at My Lai were professionals, as were the British at Amritsar. As it was in the case of many other massacres, still happening today.

I'm very aware of the studies, they are quoted so often. I'm also aware of the resistance against the studies and of the adjustment to overcome the problem. It is also quoted often.

But the argument strangely does not account for the plain, ordinary, everyday murder that professionally trained soldiers are willing to perform when ordered to do so, at point blank range. And stranger still is the tendency to dismiss such incidents as you have done in your comment. That they prove nothing about armed men.

I challenge anyone to find a military expert that describes the men under Custer's command as "moron IQ racists."

Charles Taylor (Charles Angus) said...

Though I don't think you reference Grossman above, I assume you're aware that the source of all this firing over the heads nonsense all comes back to Grossman's "On Killing".

One of our countrymen has written a very robust rebuttal of Grossman's position in the journal of the Canadian Forces, showing clearly that his conclusion is based on misunderstanding, falsified or highly suspect data, and that there exists primary source evidence that directly disproves it.

Interestingly, he doesn't use any of the numerous massacres throughout history to disprove Grossman, but I think your point is very well taken and further serves to put the notion to rest.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Ah, thank you Charles.

I was contemplating writing a comment about the fact that I had never actually seen this data quoted so often. This is much appreciated.

JB said...

I also love the film Gandhi. I don't recall thinking it dull or preachy, but rather enthralling. I've seen it multiple times.
: )

Matthew Mantel said...

I thought the belief about firing over the enemies' heads came from the reporting of S.L.A. Marshall; reporting that has, er, come under fire since it was first reported.

Charles Taylor (Charles Angus) said...

Yes, the original idea came from Marshall. I believe much of its modern popularity comes from Grossman, though. Marshall is Grossman's only thing like an historical source.

Alexis Smolensk said...

The popularity with historians may have begun with Grossman, but the popularity among the general population has definitely come from the movies. It has been mentioned in several, and on TV as well, though the only actual example I can remember is the Men Who Stare at Goats from 2009. I tried to find the trope for it but came up unsuccessful.

Mike said...

Wow, really over their heads because they didn't want to kill, that's the new meme. More likely, they didn't want to stand up or expose themselves and get shot.

Thought it was pretty conclusive that so many shots don't hit targets in combat because people take cover, they are moving, the target is shooting back and you don't have time to stand and aim like a shooting range, etc. Let alone intentional suppressing fire which is all about the other side keeping their head down and not getting a chance to aim.

Think you hit the nail on the head with this post.