Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Flexibility of Morality

"Ideals are harmless, its the human aspect that makes it lethal," the main character in the WWII-themed war movie Fury (played by Brad Pitt) uttered to his subordinate as the two walked through a small German town hall, filled with corpses of Nazi loyalists who committed suicide.  The comment, especially with the gruesome background of dead bodies and massive portrait of Adolf Hitler on the wall, reflects so poignantly on the role of ideology in modern-day conflicts.  From the haphazard American invasion of Iraq to the violence-filled conquests of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the power of political principles lead to death and destruction.

Yet, what is most powerful about the movie, which details the exploits of an American tank crew in desperate Germany in the war's last days, is not the conveying of ludicrousness of such high-level ideals set against the brutal reality of armed conflicts, but how people have changed their way of thinking and behavior in a world where death can approach in anyway and any second.  This becomes much less of an issue with state-sponsored beliefs (e.g. democracy, capitalism, etc) but much more to do beliefs of the individual in terms of what is right and wrong, what is ethical and acceptable.

The movie's myriad dark humor on the ease of getting laid in the war-zone attests to this.  As the tank crew jokes about how four cigarettes suffice for a quick romp, the audience cannot help but feel a certain degrees of sadness (or revulsion, depending on the degree of emotional response) as they force a chuckle at the lewd commentary.  Indeed, in the midst of crisis, when one's very life and structure of society is so fragile, resources so scarce, and chances of survival until the end of the war so minimal, who to have sex for what reason and compensation probably becomes the least of one's anxieties.  

It would rather irresponsible for a modern audience, used to the material comfort and security of peacetime modernity, to simply dismiss such behavior by American GIs in a war-battered Germany as "morally irresponsible" and "victimizing the unfortunate."  While there is no denying that there must have been some form of coercion by soldiers who are both vengeful and armed, toward the local populace, starving and devoid of any means to protect themselves, the complete desensitization to moral implications to such coercion would have been almost meaningless to the soldiers in ways not empathetic to peacetime rules.

Instead, the objective takeaway of the audience should be just how morality is shaped by the circumstances in which people reside, and that grandiose proselytizing, whether it be by governments, the media, religious organizations, and such, cannot trump the needs of individuals to adapt to current circumstances to extend possibilities of survival.  In fact, the very act of being able to contemplate the concept and details of some persistent and constant moral code is a luxury not afforded to people stuck in the depth of existential crisis, whether it be war, starvation, or constant and organized persecution.

To them, and extension, to the reminder of human society, the insistence that moral/ethical/ideological standards remain consistent throughout one's existence (and post-mortal existence, for the religious) is by all means completely meaningless.  As the characters in the movie came to realize, fulfillment of immediate desires take precedence over any sort of long-term planning, and any emotional attachment ought to be refrained from blossoming to more than just that.  These are principles, while far-fetched-sounding, should not be completely lost to those living in peace.

But above all, for the modern audience, it is a reminder how valuable peace can be. While the heroic exploits of the characters on-screen are lauded and respected, few of those watching would be happy with being thrust into similar situation in any point of their lives.  With war raging on a mere few hours of flight away and their extremist ideals finding more and more resonance among the local crowd, it is wise that people take priority in thinking not about what they believe in but the consequences of their vehemence in executing those beliefs.  Taking it with a grain of salt is more than an understatement in this regard.

Lastly, it is a reminder for people to not jump to conclusions prematurely in judging others' beliefs, before objectively assessing the background that allow such beliefs to catch on in the first place.  One can despise extremism that target innocent people, but one should never dismiss their belief simply as shallow, hateful, or limited to a few individuals.  If people are driven to fight and die for certain moral principles, then understanding such morality in detail would be essential.  Only with such understanding can one devise plans to change such moral principles.  

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