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The last time Steven Spielberg made a movie this intense and this searing in it’s portrayal of man’s darker side, it most likely changed an entire nation’s outlook on what war was. One looks at War movies before Saving Private Ryan and after, and one see a trully seismic shift in the way our culture deals with war. Out of that movie came the legend of “The Greatest Generation”. Now, Spielberg takes on the subject of fighting a war on terrorism, and the results are no less intense.

I must warn my readers here that what comes after the fold is spoiler material, so those wishing to see this movie fresh should not read what follows.

This is no documentary. The claim is that this was inspired by real events. Even if the person who supposedly lead the team in this film, whose real name is Juval Aviv, was not who he said he was (there is considerable and legitimate controversy about that) the fact remains, there was a concerted effort by the Isrealis to kill those who arranged and executed the Munich Massacre, and the victims in the film were among those killed. This effort only ended with a mission in Lilliehammer, Norway that ended up killing an innocent person. Munich doesn't get that far, though. It ends sometime after a failed attack on the lead planner of the terrorist attack.

This is not a safe movie, and it will anger many who take the view that victory in this war on terror must come at any cost. It will anger those who believe that Israel can do no wrong. It will anger those who do not like to see the terrorists at the other end of the gun barrel as human beings.

But really, the movie cuts down on the B.S. That's my perspective. The B.S. is that these terrorists aren't complex human beings. The B.S. is that these people can't be educated, can't be middle class, can't be people with families who can smile, can be agreeable human beings. The B.S. is that every terrorist is some sort of sick psychopath.
The B.S. is that we can't become just like them, employing ever more vicious means and personnel towards our ends. The B.S. is that one side is incorruptible, while the other is irredeemable.

More than that, Munich shows that the B.S. flows both ways. The Israeli sentiments are presented in a number of well-written, clearly delievered monologues and dialogues that prevent them from being portrayed simply as Right-Wing nuts. There is a clear position in this film lacking them that Israel deserves to exist, and that the Jews of the world deserve a homeland. This film does not present the view of the palestinian terrorists as equivalent. The anti-Israel attitudes are frightening in their bigoted willingness to fulfill the world's worst impression of them to send a nihilistic message about the evil they see in the other side.

What is perhaps most disturbing about these thoughts is that they are the thoughts and beliefs of reasonable, even cultured people, that most of the terrorists we see killed are little different than the people killing them. The Team themselves are not central casting, as it is, though their actions, as things proceed become ever more brutal in their character. Even the kindly old Documents forger starts getting ruthless near the end, with a grenade attack on one target that's hair-raisingly close, and a decidedly brutal coup-de-grace on a hitwoman who killed on of their own.

Spielberg's take on the messiness of the operations throughout the film constitutes an implicit point in this film not unlike the one he made in Saving Private Ryan. Operations rarely go as planned, and even to the extent they do, the carnage is considerable. The whole movie is about the literal nightmare of human factors that emerge when we try and manipulate each other and ourselves through fear and violence. Whatever the good intentions, Spielberg says, such is the road to hell. We have every right to defend ourselves, but our defense cannot simply be the willingness to inflict our own capacity for brutality on those all too willing to do the same in kind.

In dealing with war, I have often referenced Von Clausewitz, and pointed out that he states that destroying enemy forces only sometimes means victory by attrition. A great many times, it involves removing what makes the enemy willing to fight- destroying enemy forces by unravelling the support systems and sometimes the political entities that help perpetuate the problem.

This may mean taking down a government like the Taliban, but it can also mean stepping into things like the Iraq situation with enough troops and enough of a plan to maintain order, to deny the enemy the dissolution of society's order that allows them their freedom to recruit and attack. It can mean slowly working through diplomatic and social means to attenuate the anger and misery in those societies. It can mean honestly trying to shape attitudes against the terrorists in the Middle East, and not letting events like Abu Ghraib occur, which provide grist for the mills of the al-Qaeda propaganda machine.

We cannot control the world and prevent all threats to America's security from coming to pass. Even if we were to make a friend of horror to the extent that the insane Colonel Kurtz does in Apocalypse Now, we would be little better off for it. To take so much paranoia and hatred so much to heart is to do the enemies job of killing us in advance, to make ourselves corpse waiting to die, bereft of honor, conscience, and all the joy that makes life worth living. Do we want to drink of this poisonous nihilism?

I believe that in seeking victory by surrendering to our darkest impulse, we only join our enemies in their self-defeating maelstrom of vengeance, allowing our fear and paranoid rage to corrode our country from within. Down the road of violence only lies ruin and desperation. We pride ourselves on the fact that we can now break bread with our former enemies. Let us do more than just hope for these brighter times, while we let the darker forces carry us away from the best that shines in our characters.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at December 28, 2005 3:21 PM