War, nonviolence and popular culture

Written by Heather. Posted in News

Anzac_poppiesWhen Michael Gove spoke out against what he saw as unpatriotic myths about the First World War, his main targets were drawn from popular culture: the film Oh, What a Lovely War! and the television series The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder. In this way, he acknowledged the crucial role of the popular media in how we come to think about war and violence. This is not to suggest that the media somehow causes violence. As Stuart Hall pointed out, there is no “smooth line of continuity … between shoot-outs at the OK Corral, and delinquents knocking over old ladies in the street in Scunthorpe” but what we do get from the media are “messages about violence” and these deserve our critical attention. In this post, Heather discusses some of these messages about violence in the coverage of war and exploring the place of nonviolence in these.

Soldier heroes and justified wars

Last week saw the 70th anniversary of the Second World War D-Day landings. On this day and the weeks leading up to it in the UK, the image of soldier heroes dominated not just our news programming but also other ‘light entertainment’. For example, the annual TV cooking contest Great British Menu focused on creating dishes for a banquet “worthy of our war heroes” and was marked by a mix of militarism and banal nationalism. The chefs’ dishes were judged not just for taste but for how they “evoke the wartime spirit of the generation which fought for our freedom as well as honour the bravery shown throughout the Second World War”. The three regular food critic judges were joined each week by someone with a link to the war – from veterans of the D-Day landings to Winston Churchill’s granddaughter. This state-funded BBC coverage thus works from two basic assumptions that state violence in the form of war is legitimate and that those who take part in it are to be celebrated.

We are now less than two months before the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War initiates a four year period of commemoration. While the image of this war, as Michael Gove identifies, is more negative than that of the Second World War, media representations of both share a support for warfare with their assumptive messages of heroic soldiers and justified wars. Yet, in both wars a large number of men and women either refused to kill or worked to support others  who did so. In the First World War an estimated 20,000 men conscientiously objected in England, Scotland and Wales, actively choosing nonviolence, yet how far are/will their stories find their way into popular culture? Why is there so much violence in popular culture, but so little nonviolence?

Cranks and Chickens

There have always been poems and popular songs carrying antiwar and nonviolent messages, from the First World War poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon that many of us studied in school to recent work by artists as diverse as Green Day and PJ Harvey (see video below).

The stories of conscientious objectors (COs) are harder to find in television and film. They may not make it into talk of heroes in the BBC’s news or Great British Menu. But they have sometimes made it into the BBC’s documentaries on the World Wars. However, in the most recent of these, veteran journalist Jeremy Paxman referred to them as “cranks” and expressed disbelief that anyone could feel killing was against their beliefs. Paxman focuses on the absolutist positions taken by people who objected to all forms of participation in the war. However, as Ben Copsey shows, COs were and are a diverse group of people taking a range of, often shifting, positions on war. Some First World War COs were shot or imprisoned, some took ‘work of national importance’ to support the war effort in other ways, some started as COs and joined the army later, and some started in the army and later became COs. Objecting to war, like all choices, is not a once-and-for-all decision, but the result of moment-by-moment actions. Such ideas are best captured by the telling of fictional and non-fiction CO stories.

chickensLooking to drama we do find a few such CO stories over the years: in ground-breaking Channel 4 soap Brookside, in Sally Potter’s arthouse film Ginger and Rosa,  in Ken Loach’s brilliant 4-part TV drama Days of Hope, and most recently in Sky Television’s comedy show Chickens (pictured), which features a pacifist teacher as one of only three young men in a small village who are not fighting in the First World War.

My favourite pacifist character is FBI Agent Albert Rosenfield in David Lynch’s cult US drama series Twin Peaks. When threatened with violence from a local sheriff, Rosenfeld replies:

You listen to me. While I will admit to a certain cynicism, the fact is that I am a naysayer and hatchet-man in the fight against violence. I pride myself in taking a punch and I’ll gladly take another because I choose to live my life in the company of Gandhi and King. My concerns are global. I reject absolutely: revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method … is love. I love you Sheriff Truman.

Yet Albert is one of very few pacifist characters, and Twin Peaks is full of strange people (from the woman who talks to a log to the cross-dressing Drugs Enforcement Agent). So while I value this character, he does not help pacifism escape its freak image any more than do references to cranks or chickens. Perhaps a more useful place to look in popular culture is to spaces that call attention to our relationship to warfare and violence. There are many of these and I end with a few…

From Funny Games to Game of Thrones

Michael Hanneke’s film Funny Games (which exists in both its original German version and a near identical US version) has as its sole purpose  to draw attention to mediated violence and our implication in it. It is both difficult and relentless viewing and even in the English-language version is likely to have only a limited audience. Yet other less obvious instances exist which draw our attention to violence even as they reproduce it. Writer Director Marty McDonagh has said: “I would find it impossible to do a film about gangsters with guns that was just that and didn’t question it. I would find it crass to do something empty”. This questioning of violence is central not peripheral to his work.  In particular, Seven Psychopaths is a guy-with-guns film that centres on a pacifist screenwriter and comes up with an ending, self-immolation as a protest against war, that is “violent, pacifist, and somehow life-affirming”. And I was surprised to see the saviour in the science-fiction war film Ender’s Game abandon warfare at the end of the film and set off to work for peace. 

Most recently, I’ve been reflecting on my own and the wider cultural obsession with the books and TV series Game of Thrones. While this series depicts the pain, futility and destructiveness of war, it also makes it look beautiful and exciting, and inevitably plays its part in normalising warfare. There has been much written about GoT, including on misogyny, colonialism, and homophobia. But why have so few (if any) of the many blogs devoted to the show reflected on the warfare and violence at its heart?


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