Note: Today’s essay has fiber: It’s not meant for easy swallowing. Put it this way: I imagine a high school class would discuss only one paragraph at a time.
I like wearing my mockingjay pin. It’s amusing when someone in a group asks me about it, thinking it’s a real bird, while the others listening would all know the bird was a fictional mutation, from the Hunger Games series of books and movies by Suzanne Collins. I have read all the books, and seen almost all the movies. Like in Star Wars, or the old Tarzan books, the hero starts out alone, then among familiar people, and finally in a mass army advancing to change the status quo. In the final movie of the series, Mockingjay, the young teenage lady, Katniss, now in the army, confronts some horrors of war. As does the young audience.
Of course teens know war is wrong, but when should they come to know about the wrongness of the adult world? Science Fiction, being unreal, can introduce them to the grownup world with a muffled reality—not a sharp shock. For example, as a teen I read Tunnel in the Sky, by Robert Heinlein. It’s a novel about students in high school and college who have to survive cut after being cut off from civilization. Near the end of the novel a journalist finds the hero, paints the hero’s face in savage colors to take a holograph, and writes her news story, about him being savage, from her pre-conceived angle. I was dismayed, but at least, obviously, it was only science fiction. I have since learned that U.S. journalists interview their subjects only after first announcing to their editor an angle, unlike to the British style of interviewing with an open mind, according to Lynn Barber. By the way, Barber is the person played by Carey Mulligan in the terrific film An Education. I liked Barber’s autobiography of the same title.
Since Tunnel, I have seen where, for an infamous Chatelaine magazine cover, they painted the face of k. d. Lang with lipstick. Too bad for Chatelaine the article inside had Ms. Lang saying she never wears lipstick. I once heard the head of a U.S. Outward Bound school telling us the National Geographic TV special about his school was “good” because it was “80% true.” I was outraged, dismayed, but at least I had been warned by reading Tunnel in the Sky.
I wonder how many teens watching Mockingjay will one day realize, and then think about, how it is based on reality?
In the film a potential boyfriend (there are two of them, in a love triangle) believes in setting up delayed second bombs, a method taught in Al-Qaida training camps, a method used by allied bombing raids on Germany, according to a German-speaking soldier, Guy Sajer. Sajer, from the French provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, reports being caught in a royal air force night bombing raid while on leave from the Russian front.
The boyfriend also claims those who merely “mop the floors” for the palace are hated targets too, because they are helping the dictator. In my dad’s war this was part of the justification for squadrons bombing Berlin, but the actual reasoning goes beyond a simplistic sound bite. A more complex explanation lies in the cry, “What else could we do?” Obviously my father couldn’t magically do like on Star Trek. He couldn’t be like the captain of the Starship Enterprise and merely “target life support” or “target the ship’s engines.” I think the idea in WWII, to paraphrase a Canadian prime minister, is “civilian casualties if necessary, but not necessarily civilian casualties.” When you focus on destroying the engines of society, such as a German hydro-power dam, where there are night janitors mopping the control rooms, then I think your soul is safe: You may blame the Germans for electing the Nazis, you may hate every last one of them, but at least you have not intentionally, intently, targeted civilians. (Come to think of it, without meaning to target themselves, the Germans would have suffered casualties from their defensive anti-aircraft shrapnel)
In Mockingjay, while presumably everyone else shares the American value of having tunnel vision, as in “bust a gut to win the war with no thought for tomorrow,” one of the district governors, Governor Alma Coin, is thinking ahead to becoming dictator after the war. Americans may not like it, but such thinking is common. For example, the armies of the communists in China fought the Japanese, but not very hard, while planning and preparing to fight the armies of the Chinese republicans.
The Americans are entitled to their ideals, of course. In fact, they put their short-range thinking where their values were by (indirectly) starting up Al-Qaida in order to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. But of course not everyone is American: In Vietnam two cultures clashed: The Americans wanted to have a "war time" effort, and they even pressed their protégés to lower the draft age to 19, while the South Vietnamese steadfastly kept their conscription at age 21, while pacing themselves and not fighting very hard. I am saying that, like the Iraqi army today, the reason for their “poor” fighting ability, by comparison to their adversaries, was not any “lack of U.S. training.” After all, their adversaries had no training.
The Americans were frustrated, but their hands were tied: Their policy was merely to help the Vietnamese with advice, training and combat support, help them to stand on their own feet, not to fight in place of them, not to occupy the South Vietnamese legislature or their army headquarters. “It’s their war, and they have to win it.”
In Mockingjay, as the army advances on the capital the issue becomes: What is justice? An eye for an eye? Revenge? Or to serve society? Canada’s young offenders act, where youth cannot be publicly named, puts society and rehabilitation above revenge.
In our culture there is, of course, a solid place for a “Judgement at Nuremburg,” where every Nazis told the allies, “I was only following orders,” ... and there is also a place, although puritanical people may forget this, for following the example of Abraham Lincoln and “binding up the nation’s wounds.” Lincoln wanted his adversary Jeff Davis to escape the country. The difference, I guess, is to the allies their war was external, against evil; to Lincoln his war was internal, against brothers. I’m sure the Germans would have been more motivated than the allies in binding up their wounds: After the war, in the new East Germany, many minor Nazi officials went on to became minor communist officials. (The senior German communists could trust them to believe in totalitarianism)
In our own time, in Iraq, the Yankees screwed up by saying that even the most minor members of the ruling Baathist party could no longer serve their country. (But they could work in business) If you remember what happened in the 1960’s when so many newly-independent European colonies in Africa, just like the Mockingjay nation of Panem, tried to embrace democracy for the first time in living memory, then you know what happened: Iraq did not have enough trained non-Baathists to go around. Silly Yankees.
In our own time, as South Africa transitioned to democracy, they have benefited from their organized “Truth and Reconciliation” efforts. Young Katniss, having seen so much, favors the Lincoln/South African model. I think she’s right.
I would hope the teenagers watching Mockingjay would understand the heroine’s point of view.
If adolescents do not think of history, and of newer nations struggling with the demands of citizenship, then it’s because they aren’t focused on being voting adults yet: Their energy is going elsewhere. Give them time. One day they will find the lessons of history a lot more relevant. And then it may be entertaining stories set safely in the past or future, stories like, say, Julius Caesar, or Mockingjay, that will make the lessons real.
~As for justice and serving society, I am fascinated by Alain de Botton’s book The News subtitled A User’s Manual. (I bought it this fall and I’m re-reading it already) He dislikes it when journalists simply believe in a gleeful Watergate-type journalism, without realizing the purpose in catching people is not glee but to improve society. He explains this better than I can.
~The man who suffered a bombing raid while on leave was Guy Sajer, The Forgotten Soldier, who’s book is read aloud to high school students according to a reviewer on Amazon.
~Near the end of Mockingjay (the movie) someone reads a letter to Katniss about how people are “fickle,” and will forget again. (The letter would make for a good class discussion)
~Sometimes we forget, and sometimes we never learned in the first place. I think for teenagers, and for the rest of us too, learning history and war is like getting educated about a tsunami: it happens so seldom, not even once a generation. So why bother to learn? Why risk being called a war-monger or a tsunami-monger? The problem is if you’re standing on the beach in South Asia in 2004 and suddenly the sea recedes… then you need to already know it’s time to run like hell. But so many people just started exploring the beach and wondering what was going on…