I went to see the new Star Wars film over the weekend and will say nothing either good or bad about it, knowing how people want to go to it fresh, without spoilers. I’ve always slightly despised critics who say that the story, and the surprise and suspense of the story, are secondary pleasures in the experience of narrative art. They’re not the only pleasures, it’s true, but they’re great joys, and I see no reason why they should be ruined for the audience so that a mere critic can bestow upon them the dubious benefit of his personal opinion.
But something did occur to me after watching the movie that has nothing to do with its quality or plot. Films like Star Wars — and any of the super hero films based on comic book characters, as well as most films involving war with an alien invader — seem to capture something about battle that we forget in real life: its rewards.
I’ve never been in a battle, so I can’t say for sure, but in reading about the post-traumatic stress disorder some returning veterans suffer, I’ve learned that the source of the difficulty is not just trauma (though trauma plays a part and shouldn’t be minimized) but also — perhaps even more importantly — a post-war lack of meaning. That is, veterans suffering from PTSD are not only plagued by the awful things they did and saw in battle. They are haunted by the intense sense that life in war had meaning, and life afterwards does not. The purpose, camaraderie and excitement of battle are gone, and ordinary life offers nothing with which to replace them.
Some of the fulfillment of fighting was captured in Clint Eastwood’s excellent movie American Sniper, too, but it’s fantasy films that depict it with the most clarity. In fantasy films, the fighter pilot whoops and cheers when he blasts the alien craft to smithereens — and so do we. The watching crowd celebrates when the super-villain is finally defeated by the super hero — and so do we. The hero is honored and elevated and lifted up as an example. The fight is seen as an unfortunate and dangerous necessity, but the fight having come, it’s engaged in without moral dithering and backward glances. Victory is recognized as an absolute good.
In fantasy films like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Captain America and so on, evil is acknowledged as real and physical heroism is recognized as the virtue without which no other virtue is possible.
Why then, in real life, are we weighed down with wartime leaders who seem to dither and hesitate in a pale moral melancholy, completely lacking the warrior ethos? Why, in real life, do we find ourselves with a twice-elected president who can’t even entertain the idea of American victory without a weakling’s anxiety?
I’m always worried about using the word “victory,” because, you know, it invokes this notion of Emperor Hirohito coming down and signing a surrender to MacArthur.
Okay, never mind Obama’s historical ignorance there, it’s the moral ignorance that bothers me. What is wrong, exactly, with the victory over Japan in World War II? Why is that not an occasion for whooping and celebration? What would be wrong with such a victory over the variously named forces of Islamism wreaking havoc worldwide?
It seems to me these movie fantasies know something about reality some of our real life leaders do not. What would we not give for an Iron Man in the White House instead of the paper man we have?