Wednesday, 20 December 2017

How Far Would You Go?: Understanding Military Ethics in Rogue One

How far would you go to fight for what you believe? Would you be willing to die for it? Would you be willing to put aside your own values and goals if you thought it would allow a positive long-term outcome? Would you be willing to lose yourself in the process if it meant a better future for others? These are difficult questions and not ones easily answered. The fact of the matter is that fighting for anything is a difficult line of work, one that requires sacrifices, wit, and the ability to make difficult choices under pressure, choices which don't always have a clear moral path.

These are the issues at play in Gareth Edwards' Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The backdrop is a simple conflict-a tyrannical regime and an idealistic Rebellion that seeks to overthrow it, but underneath that seemingly simple conflict the world is not so easily black and white. Both sides are strife with inner conflicts, challenges, and tests of their commitment to their cause. Both factions ultimately clash and play a dangerous game, but ultimately it is a test primarily for the Rebellion. How far can they go? Where does one draw the line?

The question of where a freedom fighter ends and a terrorist begins is not unique to Rogue One even for the Star Wars universe (the discussion had previously appeared in The Clone Wars and has since come up in Rebels), but the moral difficulties of war are brought to the forefront here. From the beginning, characters are forced to make difficult choices based on what they think is right.

In the opening moments, we are introduced to Galen Erso, a man who has put himself and his own family in danger to prevent the Empire from weaponizing Kyber Crystals. This man has risked his own life and continues to rebel even after he is recaptured. Meanwhile his wife Lyra Erso also chooses death over being recaptured. Jyn ends up in the hands of Saw Guerrera, who recruits her into the Rebellion, yet even this is a difficult situation. As we later learn, Saw ended up abandoning Jyn to prevent her family background (the daughter of an Imperial Science Officer) from being exploited and used as leverage by other Rebels.

Both the leading roles of Jyn Erso and Cassion Andor are depicted as being somewhat anti-heroic in their own way. Jyn has apparently led a busy life of crime under different aliases, and initially has no real interest in aiding the Rebellion. She only gets involved with them after they rescue her from an Imperial prison transport (and even then, she tries to ditch them as soon as her restraints are removed). When Jyn is brought before the Rebellion, her only reason for accepting their mission is on the grounds that they will make it easier for her to disappear. She also tries to leave as soon as her job is finished, even claiming to be okay with submitting to the Empire's authority. Only with a message from her father is she willing to reconsider.

Cassion, by contrast, is a lifelong member of the Alliance yet he also proves himself to be an anti-hero. His introductory scene sees him confronting an informant, not even from the Empire but from Saw's Renegade Rebels, about recent developments (Cassion is stated to work in "intelligence," a job that likely requires a level of deception and trickery). Although he is working for the good guys, Cassion is shown to be hard on the informant, refusing to accommodate his needs and trying to intimidate him into talking. This scene also climaxes with Cassion murdering said informant when he is unable to escape from the approaching Imperial forces.

Although we are introduced to several different Rebels, it is largely Jyn and Cassion who clash for much of the narrative. Yet we also see division among the Rebellion brought about by conflicting values in other ways. This starts to emerge when we are introduced to Saw Guererra, who is described as an extremist by Senator Mon Mothma. His methods are shown to be so unethical that he was cast out of the Rebellion and leads his own separate faction. When he meets with the defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook, his first instinct is to resort to mental torture even though his prisoner was willing to co-operate.

Guererra is a man who has lost himself in war, both literally (as he himself states, "there's not much of me left") and figuratively. The man has been through several different resistance groups and fought in several different wars. His lifelong experience is reflected in his appearance. His body has largely degraded. Both legs are replaced by prosthetic and he appears to sometimes have trouble breathing. By this point in his life, he knows nothing else but fighting. He continues to fight because that is what he knows, but he has long forgotten the reasons why he fights.

It is fitting therefore that Guererra should choose to die on Jedha, even when an escape his possible. Galen Erso's message is a reminder of what the Rebellion stood for, but Guererra is so far gone that he no longer has a place in it. His only possible futures are death or endless meaningless fighting. He finally decides he is finished running, and allows himself to die. This is also why he tells Jyn to "save the rebellion, save the dream" hoping she will not lose her way like he did.

On the flip side of the conflict, we see similar division happening within the ranks of the Empire. The character of Bodhi Rook provides a small reminder of the fact that the Rebels are still fighting people. Rook is depicted as a fairly average and well-intentioned man who just happened to be on the wrong side of the conflict. He is not one of the high-level officers we are used to seeing, he is a low-level cargo pilot who just wants to do the right thing.

The theme of humanity in the Empire also comes up once again on Eadu, when Krennic threatens Galen Erso's engineering time. Although we don't know them personally, we are given the sense that they are people just doing a job. We see their expressions as they hear Krennic announce the presence of a traitor, and their worries as they try to figure out who it might be. Although the men were working on a devastating super-weapon capable of destroying entire worlds it is hard not to respect Galen's attempt to save them by confessing, or to feel sympathy when the Engineering team is executed anyway.

Yet in a very weird twisted sort of way one does sympathize with Krennic himself when he is faced with an even worse opponent: Grand Moff Tarkin. For all of Krennic's talk of peace and order, much of the Imperial sections of Rogue One revolve around the squabbling of these two officers. Tarkin ends up not only usurping Krennic's position running the Death Star but also steals credit for overseeing its construction. We start to realize that while Krennic is a dangerous threat who needs to be stopped, Tarkin is something far worse.

For all their talk of peace and order, the Empire in Rogue One functions in many ways as the architect of its own destruction. Its system is a prime example of the inherent flaw in authoritarian rule: submission is only ever a temporary solution. Sooner or later the people will break and fight back. No matter how many times the fight is suppressed the government will never earn their respect, and eventually will face its own downfall. Meanwhile a leader who earns their followers' respect (note how much more committed the Rebels are) is more likely to succeed.

Tarkin believes in control through force, as does Krennic, but far from a successful system of government the Empire is made up of different people struggling for power. Tarkin immediately uses his political influence to take over command of the Death Star and shows complete disregard towards Krennic. He even goes on to indirectly murder Krennic (along with probably thousands of other Imperial personnel) by firing the Death Star's laser at the Imperial base on Scarif. Tarkin's ambitions even overshadow his own loyalty to Darth Vader (who is more interested in completing the station than dealing with the infighting of his subordinates).

Ironically, this action will have dire consequences- had he not fired so quickly Krennic might have had time to report the Death Star's sabotage. Krennic also destroyed the archives containing the Death Star plans leaving the Alliance as the only ones with access. This move keeps the Empire from learning right away of Galen Erso's sabotage and indirectly allows the Rebels to find and exploit the weakness, leading to the Death Star's destruction and Tarkin's own death.

The Rebel Alliance is also struggling with the same issues, and the question arises of how far they will go. The primary voice of reason in this conflict comes from the Senator Mon Mothma, a politician who constantly struggles to reconcile the values of the Rebel Alliance with doing what needs to be done. Underneath her, we also have a general who issues Cassion orders behind Mothma's back- trying to turn an extraction mission into an assassination. This choice proves problematic as it ends up not only endangering his own people but also deprives the Rebellion of valuable intelligence.

The division that complicates the Rebellion is further reinforced with the introduction of the council. All its members voice different views on the issue of how to respond to the Death Star causing a heated debate. Jyn's account is doubted by several members, and a decision on whether to act becomes a concern. Though some of the issues brought up by politicians are not entirely invalid (i.e. questioning whether the Alliance has the military means to stand up to the Death Star) many of the politicians insist that they can avoid conflict if they don't engage. On the other hand, Admiral Raddus is immediately determined to charge into the fight not knowing entirely what he is dealing with. Mon Mothma has to balance both sides, even though her conscience tells her war is inevitable.

This brings up a question of loyalty that emerges throughout the film. The Empire is built on the expectations of blind loyalty, but the Rebellion's structure sometimes leaves room for moral conflict. Cassion in particular is frequently left to choose between his own values and his loyalty to the Rebellion first with Galen Erso (especially after receiving conflicting orders) and later in his decision to approach Scarif after being specifically told not to.

In these instances, the Rebellion's flaws are exposed. The pacifism of the council makes the majority of them (aside from Mothma and Senator Organa) blind to the threat posed by an Empire who presumably will not negotiate. Mothma herself is unable to do much more than prepare the few resources she has available to her. The only problem is that fulfilling the council's wishes would have had devastating consequences. Krennic was already inspecting the Death Star plans to check for sabotage. If Jyn hadn't disobeyed when she did he might have actually had time to find the structural weakness Galen had slipped into it, in which case the sabotage could have been fixed destroying the Rebels' chances.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Twelve Wars to Christmas: Gettysburg (American Civil War)

Mel Gibson's Braveheart presented the story of William Wallace, but provided an account that was largely fictionalized and at best a distortion of what really happened (for one thing, I found out that Queen Isabella would have been 2 years old at the time the film takes place; that romance never happened). Gettysburg, released in 1993 and directed by Ronald F. Maxwell, is exactly the opposite. From its opening moments, the film stresses its thorough research and intricate attention to detail. We see this first emphasized in the opening credits (and later returns during the epilogue), during which photographs of real historical figures are compared with photos of the actors portraying them. The resemblance is not always identical (one might note for instance that some actors have shorter beards than the actual people), but it shows an attention to detail not always seen in historical dramas, and certainly one not present in Braveheart.

Gettysburg chronicles the events leading up to and over the course of the famous battle which turned the tide of the American Civil War. It is easy to forget that in its early years, the Confederate Army was actually winning. They were claiming town after town and pushing their way towards Washington. For many it seemed only a matter of time before Washington surrendered and independence was granted to the South. That all changed as soon as both sides converged on the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Three days of intense fighting a mountain of casualties on both sides ended up turning the tide for the Union. From there, they pushed the Confederates back until they had no choice but to surrender. Put mildly, there is a reason this remains one of the most famous events of the war.

Gettysburg chronicles the events of the battle on both sides, with a huge cast to fill the roles of its participants. At just over four hours long, it is a fairly comprehensive account of the battle and one of the most authentic depictions of the Civil War you can get. But it is more than just a mere dramatization of the battle. It is also a complex look at the intricacies and unpredictability of military leadership. Among the huge cast, most of the focus is on the roles of officers, particularly Generals.

The generals' games is a dangerous one. Vast armies, unfavourable conditions, and trying to give yourself the upper hand. It takes a certain amount of skill to be a general, to be able to take risks and out-smart an opponent of equal intellect. This makes up much of the film's first act. We move back and forth between the two sides. On the one side we see the frequent tension between General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) and Lieutenant General James Longstreet (Tom Berenger). On the other, we have the Union generals. Both work against one another.

More interesting is the decision for the Union portions to focus primarily on Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a respectable commander trying to carry out his orders in a difficult situation. Chamberlain is made into a respectable figure from the beginning. His introductory scene shows him struggling to get out of bed, giving us a sense that he is not a particularly unusual figure. He then addresses a group of deserters by giving them the situation but promising not to mistreat them (even inspiring many of them to rejoin). We also see Chamberlain spending much of the film trying to balance out two interests: the well-being of his men and fulfilling his obligations as a soldier.

This is not to say that the Union is wholly glorified, nor the Confederacy wholly condemned. Throughout the film we get momentary interactions between Union and Confederate soldiers (usually POWs) that remind us both sides are human: the soldier who talks about his life in Tennessee, the captured officer at Little Round Top who simply asks for water, General Armistead (Richard Jordan) requesting to see an old friend who happened to end up on the Union side. In fact, on both sides the subject comes up repeatedly that the war has been going on and on, both sides hoping it will soon end. They also frequently bring up the divided American society, specifically the idea that soldiers on both sides have people they know, often very old friends, among the enemy.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Twelve Wars to Christmas: Braveheart (Medieval Warfare)

Braveheart remains a fairly iconic rendition of medieval warfare despite its inaccuracies and the questionable choice to cast Australian Mel Gibson as a Scotsman. This film is in many ways a product of its time, and watching it I can definitely see many ways it would have been done differently if it were made today. I also suspected influence from Spartacus, from which Braveheart draws several parallels, right down to the theme of the hero choosing to die a free man than live as a servant.

As we are told in Braveheart, the story begins with the death of the Scottish King and the usurping of the English Throne by Edward Longhanks, who despite his silly name is determined to own Scotland. The Scots aren't so happy about being told what to do, and as with many dictatorships the people are pushed to their breaking point and finally rebel. Wallace sets this rebellion into motion and eventually dies, but the Scots earn their freedom by remembering his name.

Braveheart really isn't that great a film, and from what I can dig up it's hardly an accurate rendition of what happened. Unfortunately I struggled to find much good material for this one to discuss.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Twelve Wars to Christmas: Spartacus (Ancient Warfare)

Stanley Kubrick's 1960 epic Spartacus remains one of the most iconic retellings of the classic story about a gladiator who breaks free and tries to end slavery in the Roman Empire. This intense epic chronicles the life of Spartacus from his early days as a slave to his defeat at the hands of the Roman Empire, and it has proven extremely influential. The film made a huge splash in its day for making the controversial decision to openly challenge the blacklist by giving a credit to screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (who for the past few years had only been able to work anonymously).

Additionally its famous scene of the slaves refusing to surrender has been parodied and homaged so many times ("I'm Brian and so is my wife!") and its story would be the inspiration for a later Roman epic: Ridley Scott's Gladiator. Spartacus himself would be a major inspiration for Russel Crowe's portrayal of soldier-turned-slave Maximus (alongside a few other historical and legendary figures). But what of the film itself and its themes?

Spartacus focuses its three-hour running time on the practice of slavery in the Roman Empire. It is hardly subtle about this emphasis, as is made evident in the opening lines of the film. The film opens with narration that compares the role of slavery in the Roman Empire to an epidemic, a line of thinking that is later reinforced when Julius Ceasar (John Gavin) refers to the uprising as an "infection." We are told that Spartacus "dreamed of the death of slavery 2000 years before it finally would die" (presumably the narrator is referring to Abraham Lincoln).

These initial scenes place Spartacus and his fellow slaves in a series of mines, and Kubrick takes great care to show the senselessness of their operations. Note that although they are supposedly mining, one never gets the sense that anything is accomplished by the workers. They are shown futilely bashing the ground with pickaxes that seem to uncover nothing, carrying large baskets of rocks, and otherwise performing unnecessarily grueling chores with no real purpose. One of Spartacus's first actions is to try and aid a fellow slave only to be whipped by the Roman soldiers guarding him, who then sentence him to execution.

It is this bleak opening that sets the stage for everything to come. Spartacus works hard to undermine the supposed glory of the Roman Empire. It  is exposed not as an invincible force of military might but a flawed dictatorship run by corrupt politicians more concerned with gaining power over each other than actually guiding the people they claim to lead. For all their talk of glory, triumph, and "order" the Roman Empire is chaotic and divided, and shamelessly engages in the practice of buying and selling human beings as property.

In this opening scene alone, we are given a glimpse of these contrasting lifestyles when we are introduced to the slave trader Lentulus Batiatus, and he isn't even very high in the Roman social hierarchy (certainly not compared to the Roman senators who try to manipulate him). While Spartacus is almost naked and shown doing hard manual labor in what appears to be a very hot environment, Batiatus enters on horseback with his own personal servant to hold an umbrella over him.

After walking past several exhausted slaves, he then dismounts and complains about the heat, never once considering how much worse it must be for the slaves he has come to purchase. Instead, he simply begins inspecting them and eventually chooses to purchase Spartacus because his fitness makes him good material for a gladiator. Along the way he dismisses some of the slaves offered to him and claims to not like Galls. He even performs a quality inspection, treating the slaves like products.

The first act largely follows the experience of Spartacus in gladiator school, where we are quickly given a clear view of the miserable conditions that slaves live in. While Batiatus is entitled to a busy social life, the gladiators are kept in dark underground rooms. They also face both external and internal pressure that prevents them from even finding comfort in each other. On the outside, the guards routinely tell them not to speak with each other while on the inside none of them wants to know their colleagues personally in case they have to fight each other to the death.

Additionally, a gender dynamic starts to emerge in the distinction between male and female slaves. The men are commodities to be advertised and sold. The women are, at most, tools to develop those commodities. Female slaves are given the menial chores- cooking, cleaning, and occasionally visiting the men. Ostensibly their visits are for companionship and a reward for hard work, but in reality it is for the perverse entertainment of the slavemasters (who watch through windows in the roof). Spartacus notably yells out the phrase "I am not an animal" while leaping at the cage-like bars of his window.

The attraction between Spartacus and Varinia (Jean Simmons) is also one that is mocked by the guards, yet their love becomes a twisted form of freedom and escape. The two are constantly kept apart by the guards, with one of the masters even going as far as to brag that Varinia will be given to someone else, then throwing her into a neighboring room probably knowing that Spartacus can hear her. Love then provides a twisted moment of freedom whenever they manage to find some small way to rebel: a momentary touch, a brief glance.

The first act climaxes with the arrival of the Roman noble Crassus and his family, who think that two gladiatorial fights to the death are the perfect activity for a wedding. Already we start to see some of the flaws in the Roman social system, particularly in the way that it seems to be the two women who have much of the power. They are the ones who request the fights and pick out the gladiators they think are the most handsome to take part. This marks the first real fight to the death for Spartacus, and it is handled carefully.

One detail of note is that during this scene we are initially restricted to Spartacus's own point of view, at least until his match begins. We remain in the small waiting room while the first duel takes place, and only perceive what Spartacus is able to, either through off-screen diegetic sound or through glimpses between the wooden panels. During this moment, he exchanges glances with his opponent, creating an awkward silence as the two anticipate their match. They both know that either they will die, or they will kill the man sitting across from them.

When Spartacus is released, we see the spectators acting fairly casually to the fight. Crassus and his friend Glabrus (John Dall) even get distracted from the two men trying to kill each other for their supposed entertainment when they discuss politics. The scene is treated more like they are watching a picture on a screen, rather than two men in a real battle to the death. When the political discussion is shushed by one of the women, it is only because she does not want to get distracted from the action. They only directly interact with the contestants when Spartacus is overpowered but spared, and his opponent attempts to plea with the nobles only to be killed himself.

 The shot composition here makes the nobles look like they are in a theater, watching the action on a screen

This in turn sets up the big moment when Spartacus and his friends make their escape. By this point, he has been pushed as far as he can possibly get. It is a frequent problem with authoritarian control- intimidating people in submission may work for a time, but sooner or later they are inspired to rebel. Meanwhile, as the school is trashed by a mob of people who are justifiably angry about being treated as slaves, Batiatus reveals himself to be a coward. He immediately takes the first excuse he can find to leave the building for his own safety while abandoning his own staff to face the gladiators' mercy.

It is here that we start to get introduced to the politics of Ancient Rome. Although several scenes take place in the senate, the two main figures are Lentulus Batiatus Crassus and Gracchus (Charles Laughton). These two men are shown to have been locked in, to provide a very appropriate metaphor for a Kubrick film, a deadly Chess game. Both men are interested in power and profit, and are willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve it. This includes trying to profit from the crisis caused by Spartacus, which provides both parties an opportunity to steal control of the military.

Crassus claims to be "restoring order" while Gracchus opposes the "dictatorship" his rival is enforcing, thought he audience is left to wonder how his authority is any different. Of the two men, Gracchus's agenda is more beneficial to Spartacus, but this only makes him the lesser of two evils. Gracchus has no interest in freeing the slaves, only how the outcome of Spartacus's actions can benefit him politically. He is more than happy to purchase human beings (especially women) and only frees Varinia because he knows it will hurt Crassus. Meanwhile, Crassus talks at length about how he needs to crush the rebellion and claims that suppressing the slaves will make for a better Rome. Ultimately, it is Crassus who wins this feud and defeats Spartacus, ironically reducing Graccus to essentially becoming his own personal slave (albeit one with a somewhat cushier lifestyle). It is fitting then that, like Spartacus, he chooses suicide over this fate.

Throughout the film, the Romans show complete disregard for the well-being of their slaves. Spartacus's deeds are exaggerated to the senate to describe him committing war crimes that didn't happen. Spartacus remains consistent in his goal, going to extremes many wouldn't think of such as releasing the slaves who bring in the Cicillian Ambassador and refusing an offer to be taken away before the Romans can capture him. His followers show an unwavering loyalty that is contrasted with the senate.

Of particular note is the appearance Julius Caesar, who is a close friend of Gracchus only to betray him near the film's end. He is a politician in his own right (although one with less screen time than the two main ones) and develops his own ambitions. He claims that Gracchus's methods (bribing Cicillian pirates) are dishonorable, only to then betray him to a man who does the exact same thing in the opposite direction. This betrayal is also politically beneficial to Caesar, who will go on to become the first Emperor of Rome. His betrayal also becomes ironic when one considers that Julius Caesar's downfall came when he himself was betrayed by a trusted ally: Marcus Brutus.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Twelve Wars to Christmas

Wow, it's been a while since I last posted here. I'm sorry for my absence. I've just been preoccupied with a lot recently and haven't had as much to say on my blog. It would be nice to find some stuff to say again.

I've been thinking about doing an activity for the Christmas Break this year. It gives me something to do and provides me with some semblance of structure. So here is what I've come up with.

The format for this is pretty straight forward, and I've organized it as a kind of Advent Calendar marking the Twelve Days until Christmas, with the final day being on December 24. At the start, I provide a list of categories for each day, each unique but joined together by a common theme. In this case, I've used the theme of war as my driving force.

Each day, I watch a selected film based on the current theme. The challenge is to watch the film and then I have to write something about it. What I write can be anything, but I must post something by the end of the day.

Now you're probably wondering why I use war films for this activity. While it can work in other areas (I previously did this same activity with crime films, for instance), war films lend themselves to a timeline. I have organized them so I am moving forward in time through different eras of warfare, beginning with ancient civilizations and moving into the present day before reaching into the future. This works with the countdown aspect of the event as it allows a clear sense of linear progression.

I am including below the list of the categories I have chosen.

Ancient Warfare

Medieval Warfare

American Civil War

British Imperialism

World War I

World War II- Western Front

World War II- Pacific Theater

World War II- Eastern Front

Cold War


Modern Warfare

Future Warfare