Monday, November 23, 2009

No Man's Land -- the absurdities of war

Director: Danis Tanovic, 2001.

"War is hell." Civil War General William Sherman said this in an address to the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy in 1879. Films have explored this thought, most notably Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg showed us the violence and gore close-up, especially in the opening sequence of the D-Day landings in Normandy.

130 years after Sherman's famous quote, Pope Benedict XVI declared, "The human tragedies and the absurdity of war remain in people's memories." Although talking about WW2, the pope could have been describing any war, anywhere. Writer-director Tanovic focuses on the absurdity and insanity of war in this movie that won the 2002 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (beating out Amélie).

No Man's Land is set in the Bosnian-Serb conflict of the 1990s, and gives war a very personal and bleak picture by honing in on three soldiers. Ciki (Branko Djuric) and Cera (Filip Sovagovic) are Bosnians, while Nino (Rene Bitorajac) is a Serb.

After their guide loses his way in the dense fog, a sudden firefight finds the two Bosnians in a no man's land trench between the two armies' front-lines, Ciki is wounded and Cera is apparently dead. When the Serbs send out two soldiers to scout out what happened, Nino is one of them. The other puts a "bouncing bomb" mine underneath the body of Cera to boobytrap the corpse, but a brief skirmish leaves this Serb dead and Nino wounded. These three wounded soldiers form the core around which Tanovic delivers his thoughts about war.

In one scene, Ciki has a rifle pointed at Nino while both are hiding in a hut in the trench from the shelling by one side who does not care who is in the trench as long as he is killed. His bitter animosity emerges when he asks Nino who started the war. Neither will admit his party and ethnicity to be in the wrong. But finally he tells Nino to admit that the Serbs are at fault. When Nino asks why he should do so, Ciki says "Because I have a gun and you don't." Later, the roles are reversed when Nino gets the rifle, and asks "Now . . . tell me. Who started the war?" And Ciki has to respond, "We did."

These two scenes highlight two moral concepts. First is the universal need to be right. No one will willingly lay their life down in battle for a cause that is wrong. They may be forced into this via conscription or threat, but most soldiers go to war believing their nation is in the right. And a person whose village has been burned and whose relatives have been maimed or killed cannot easily hold onto the idea that his nation started the conflict, although often the initiator is lost in the history of the violence.

The second moral concept is that might is right. The man holding the weapon becomes the man in the right as Ciki testifies. But might is right is an errant philosophy. Just because Ciki holds the rifle does not mean the Serbs started the war. He simply has the power to make the Serb say what he wants to hear or risk being killed. Might is right is simply wrong. When we misuse our might and power to make others say and do things we want, we are guilty of coercion and no better than the enemy who we think started the war.

Ciki represents the bitter cynicism that is generated by war. He has seen his family tortured and killed and wants nothing more than revenge on those who made him suffer. Nino, on the other hand, represents the innocence of humanity. He came to the front as a virgin soldier, never having experienced combat. But he was not accepted, even by his fellow Serbs. When he is confronted by Ciki he tells him his name and extends his hand for a handshake, but he is rebuffed. There is no place for friendship with the enemy for Ciki, only hatred. Even though they have common ground in a mutual acquaintance, the bitterness of war will not allow for sharing of names or shaking of hands. Little by little, his innocence is tarnished and Nino becomes bitter himself, another casualty of war.

Ciki and Nino have fallen prey to the workings of the depraved human nature. It seems normal to hate those who hurt our families and who would do us harm. But such hatred fueled this conflict and led inevitably to the desire for ethnic cleansing and genocide. Millennia before this war occurred, though, Jesus shocked the crowds listening to his sermon on the mount with a counter-cultural command, "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matt. 5:43-44). It is easy to love those who love us, like our spouses, our families, our friends. But it is only by the working of the Spirit that we are empowered and enabled to love those enemies.

Tanovic adds two more elements to this tragedy to highlight the absurdity of war. First there are the UN Peace-keepers. They are the blue-helmeted soldiers sent to keep the peace, not to become involved in the conflict. Their mission is to avoid putting their own forces in harm's way. Yet, one French sergeant, tired of this disinvolvement, determines to disobey the implied orders and provide help. Coming to the trench, he sees the three wounded soldiers. He offers to rescue Nino and Ciki and take them to freedom and safety, but their common hatred steps in the way and prevents their rescue.

Jesus has come down to our war-torn and sin-infected planet to offer humanity rescue and freedom. Yet like the Ciki, much of humankind refuses this offer. They see this as unfair, offering to friend and foe the same opportunity for redemption. Since the enemy apparently does not deserve this chance at new life and since this would stop the war without bringing victory or vengeance, the offer is rejected. How sad and absurd that such faulty logic will cloud our thinking.

In coming to the trench, the French sergeant unwittingly brings the press. When a British reporter learns what is going on, she manipulates the peacekeepers and forces the hand of the presiding UN Officer until all the press are allowed to visit this no man's land. Tanovic forces us to ask the question, what is the role of the press in war? Unlike in earlier, more traditional conflicts, like WW2, where reporters went out with the troops, here the press stand apart from the two sides. Although seemingly neutral, these reporters here have moved beyond mere observation to direct provocation. They are not concerned about the lives of the three soldiers in the trench. They are simply concerned with the live broadcasts that will go out globally and generate more viewers or sell more stories. War has become commercialized for consumers.

No Man's Land is ultimately a dark and disturbing view of war and the absurdities that circle around it. But it is more than that. It is a sad social commentary on people and organizations. From soldiers to civilians, peace-keepers to the press, none is above reproach. All are tainted. As tragic as it is, Tanovic's film puts a human face on the absurdity of war, and leaves us deep in thought as his final frame hovers above a dead soldier.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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