Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The war on terror, fighting dirty, and lessons from a certain campy TV show

Once in a while, gentle reader, I'm going to inflict a dose of Xena fandom upon you. But bear with me. It's actually quite relevant to the discussion we've been having about torture, the war on terror, and the dilemma of whether one can win and keep one's hands clean. (See my earlier posts here and here.)

A second-season Xena: Warrior Princess episode, "The Price" -- made in 1996 -- deals with an almost uncanny prescience with a lot of the issues involved in the War on Terror today.

Xena, a reformed warlord with a dark past, and her young idealistic companion Gabrielle find themselves in an Athenian fort besieged by a mysterious tribe of nomadic warriors, the Horde. The general who commanded the fort has been killed, and Xena takes command (since this is a fantasy version of the ancient world, her gender is never an issue). Things do not look good: the Athenians are running out of soldiers, weapons, and supplies, reinforcements are not expected, and the Horde -- with whom Xena had a run-in years ago -- are a vicious bunch known for skinning their captives alive. In a desperate situation, Xena resorts to desperate measures. She orders Gabrielle, who has taken over the infirmary, to withhold food and water from wounded men who won't be able to fight. She also kills a fleeing enemy with an axe in the back because he has been inside the Athenian battlements and has seen their defenses.

When Gabrielle is horrified, Xena retorts, "This is war! What did you expect, glamor? There are no good choices -- only lesser degrees of evil." Gabrielle begs her to stop fighting and try to find another way. "They are not like us," says Xena. "There is nothing about them that we can or should understand."

Finally, after Xena tortures a captured Horde warrior by using pressure points to cut off his air supply in order to get him to disclose the location of the Horde camp, Gabrielle confronts her again.

XENA: We didn’t ask for this. If they want a fight to the death, they’re going to get it. What part of that didn’t you understand?

GABRIELLE: You! Who are you, Xena? What happened to the Xena that I know?

XENA: That Xena can’t help us now. If losing her is the price for saving us all, I’ll pay it.

Gabrielle has other ideas. Deciding that she would rather "die my way" than lose her humanity and watch Xena lose hers, she gives water to the Horde prisoner and then sneaks out of the fort to give water to the Horde wounded dying outside the gates. Unexpectedly, Gabrielle's actions lead to a truce that allows Xena to step back and take a deep breath; and then, Xena establishes enough communication with the Horde prisoner to figure out that he has his own code: He will not fight an opponent of superior rank but will reaction with deference and submission. Armed with this knowledge of the Horde's peculiar ideas about rank and honor, Xena comes up with a strategy to defeat them: She challenges their leader to single combat and beats him (whereupon his own men kill him to avoid loss of face, and vanish as mysteriously as they appeared).

Some conservative Xena fans dislike "The Price," which they consider squishy. I don't think it is. Yes, a part of the episode's message is that it's important to try to understand the enemy and to see them as human; but this understanding is used to defeat the enemy in the most effective way possible, not join them in a group hug. Xena's arguments for realism in the face of war are actually quite compelling, while Gabrielle's idealism may be less compassionate than selfish and self-righteous (she'd rather see all the people in the fort die than compromise her moral purity). But the point is that by itself, Xena's harsh realism can't win the war any more than Gabrielle's stubborn idealism: the two must complement and temper each other.

Could there be a parallel in this to the War on Terror, in which we have our own Xenas and Gabrielles? The realists need to be in charge if we're to survive; the idealists must have a voice in the matter if we're to keep from losing our soul.

But there's a caveat; more than one, actually.

At the end of the episode, Xena tells Gabrielle that the Horde will be back; their defeat is only temporary, and ultimately, they can be stopped only by peacemakers -- Gabrielles -- in their own midst. That's not very encouraging, if analogized to the War on Terror (though perhaps the analogy is that radical Islamic terrorism can only be vanquished when the majority of the Muslim population turns decisively against it).

The other, more important caveat is that, on Xena, "The Price" is not the last word. In later story arcs, Gabrielle has to confront the fact that she cannot fight for the greater good as she wants to without getting her hands dirty. In the third season, she chooses to allow a man to be executed in a case of mistaken identity, knowing that if he is freed, he will not only get away with the numerous crimes he has committed (as a Roman commander) but will likely commit more atrocities. By the end of the series, having shed much of her idealism, Gabrielle must lead a tribe of Amazons on a suicide mission in an episode that consciously echoes "The Price," and has to make some harrowing decisions -- for instance, to order one of her soldiers to a certain death to create a distraction that will allow the others to get past the enemy.

There is no way to fight for a good cause witout getting one's hands dirty. But there are still lines that shouldn't be crossed. There are times in war when a morally shocking tactic that seems necessary isn't -- and may even be counterproductive. And sometimes, it's the pesky idealists with their moralizing who help us realize that.


Revenant said...

Much as I like Xena, I'm not sure there's a lesson here beyond "if the screenwriter wants things to work out a certain way, they do".

I didn't care much for "The Price", personally, because I thought Xena's refusal to examine the motives of the Horde was poor tactics -- and, therefore, out of character for her.

Anonymous said...

Hi Cathy,

Xena didn't have to worry about having her decisions and their consequences broadcast around the world in a dizzyingly short span of time. We do.

When we decide to get our hands dirty, we have to bear in mind that the world-wide public will find out about it quickly and there will be a backlash. With camera phones, email, and blogs, nothing stays hidden very long, anymore.


Anonymous said...

Okay, I call shenanigans.

We've got like 3000 years of recorded history, some of which actually happened. We've got at least 2200 years of intellectual thought on all aspects of war in the West - moral, ethical, art and science, written by people who actually had to do this stuff, and who were attempting to save (or more effectively take) lives in the process.

If you end up reaching into fiction to get your war metaphors - especially something as insipid as Xena - you don't get to have an opinion on what's going on in real life. Period.

If you _must_ use a moral narrative to inform your grasp of overwhelming events, try not to take one about a 90s liberated lipstick-lesbian-fantasy feminist projected onto a collage of otherwise incohate pseudo-mythos as viewed through the prism of a radical deconstructionist.

Consider Aeschylus.

Revenant said...

Consider Aeschylus.

Sheesh. If Cathy wants to geek out a little, let her. Not everything needs to be highbrow.

Besides which, I'm pretty sure English hadn't even been invented yet the last time someone had an original insight into Aeschylus.

vbspurs said...

If you _must_ use a moral narrative to inform your grasp of overwhelming events, try not to take one about a 90s liberated lipstick-lesbian-fantasy feminist projected onto a collage of otherwise incohate pseudo-mythos as viewed through the prism of a radical deconstructionist.

Consider Aeschylus.

Heh. That's well-put, if a dose of cold water on what I consider an illustrative episodic anecdote, and a fun one at that.

See, unlike many people, I never watched Xena, and thus have no ideas pro-or-con about its lipstick-lesbian quotient (although my father watched and liked it a lot...or was that MacGuyver, I forget).

For all I know, Xena was like Boadicea, and I like Boadicea' "take no prisoner's attitudes" a lot.

The problem with this type of warrioress, is that the more successful ones, the ones we recall, were vicious and trenchantly pro-their cause.

Boadicea sacrificed her daughters to set her tribe free.

Joan of Arc fought to the death against her English aggressors, to unify France.

Catherine the Great spared no tears in wresting her enemies' lands, to ensure her country's safety and welfare.

These are not "nice" women, despite the halo of sainthood on one's head.

But they are remembered for their courage to be not only what they were (female leaders, a precious rarity), but what they had to do in the name of their causes.

I have no knowledge of Xena, but I tell you, I have an heroine.

She was the mother of a Moldavian king, Stefan cel Mare, Stephen the Great.

When he was fighting off the Turks in his besieged homeland, he led his bedraggled, defeated troops back to his castle, having just lost a crucial battle.

As he approached the castle, he saw his mother glaring at him from a parapet.

With the voice of the Furies, she shouted at her son:

"No son of mine would be returning alive unless he was victorious.

Go back!

You have the right to make this a nation of graves. You have no right to leave this a nation of slaves!".

Such ruthlessness isn't a modern-attribute, I know.

We shy away from it, because it goes against all that the post-Enlightenment stands for in the West.

But I admire the bejesus out of women like this.


Anonymous said...

If you _must_ use a moral narrative to inform your grasp of overwhelming events, try not to take one about a 90s liberated lipstick-lesbian-fantasy feminist projected onto a collage of otherwise incohate pseudo-mythos as viewed through the prism of a radical deconstructionist.

You're free to dislike Xena all you wish, but please spare us your cocktail-party pseudo-intellectualizing. Anyone who subjects his audience to the bombastic, utterly meaningless tripe I quoted above is highly unlikely to have an opinion about anything worth listening to.

thecobrasnose said...

If we're bringing Xena into this, can we agree that her methods (post conversion) can be used by the "good" side of the conflict without a lot of hand wringing? Just asking.

And if we're going to talk Xena, there was an episode in one of the later seasons of the show with a tribe that looked much like the Horde, but they were cannibals. Xena & Gabrielle and their allies anihilated the entire tribe with zero discussion and without a moment of doubt.

Anonymous said...

An excellent post. Personally I feel that the six-season run of "Xena: Warrior Princess" offers one of the most thorough and well-thought-out examinations of the cost of both violence and pacifism that I've come across, and is an excellent primer for many issues surrounding the war on terror today. Much of pop culture--from Star Trek to Star Wars to Babylon 5 to Firefly, and yes, Xena--deals with philosophical issues (in fact, much philosophical hay has been made out of Firefly), and I see no reason to reject whatever lessons these shows might have to teach us simply because they happen to be televised. Great post, Cathy.

Cathy Young said...

revenant, didn't know you were a fellow Xena fan. :)

Anyway, about "The Price." I agree that to a certain extent, Steve Sears (the screenwriter for this episode) stacked the deck.

However, I don't agree about the implausibility of Xena's behavior. I think the key to the episode is that Xena is terrified of the Horde, on the basis of her past experience with them, and fear makes her lose her usual ability to think tactically.

anonymoose: I'm just guessing here, but I suspect you've never seen a single actual Xena episode, you just "know" that it's an "insipid" "lipstick-lesbian fantasy" show. Your comments remind me of a hilarious article I once saw on a snobbish film website, reviewing the Season 1 DVD set of Xena. The author, who watched and reviewed the episodes one by one, clearly started out with the assumption that he was going to have some guffaws at the expense of a dumb campy lesbian show. Except that, by the time he got to the end of the season, he was reporting with some dismay that "this show is actually speaking to me on a philosophical level."

By the way, it would be a pretty sad world if we could never reach into fiction to illuminate something about real-life issues. And it's not always going to be "highbrow" fiction. (By the way, I'm certainly not saying that Xena is latter-day Shakespeare, but Shakespeare was regarded as vulgar popular entertainment in his day.)

Z, Victoria and cobrasnose: interestng points. I hope to be able to reply tomorrow.

Revenant said...

I think the key to the episode is that Xena is terrified of the Horde, on the basis of her past experience with them, and fear makes her lose her usual ability to think tactically.

Oh, I agree that that is the approach the episode took. But the Horde just didn't seem that scary compared to some of the other opponents Xena dealt with (such as gods, or the Roman Empire). I think a better approach would have been to have a third character be the "realist" commander, with Xena torn between his point of view and that of Gabrielle.

But yes, I was a Xena fan, although I didn't watch the show religiously like I later did with Joss Whedon's shows. I'm Netflixing the DVDs currently. :)

Anonymous said...

Hi, all.

Not only am I a Xena fan, but I'm a fan of mythological fiction in its many guises.

What interests me in this series of comments to your very excellent post is how some seem to have strayed from your very well-made point: that war (and freedom) come at a price, a price that can be terrible, and the causes of war must be examined and so must the way that we fight it.

But somehow that point was deflected toward a different and tangential target, to whit: how can any work of popular fiction have anything to say of value to us, a most intellectual and sophisticated audience, today?

I would have to reply, with the likes of Joseph Campbell, that it is only through the window of fiction that we can see or show Truth. And that fiction, whether on the pages of a book, or on the large or small screen, holds more of the Truth than all of the facts that have ever been told.

Just my two dinars, if I may be so bold.

bama :)
(and the pen name has been mine since 1998; I could have signed in under another, but I just couldn't wait. *G*)

Cathy Young said...

Thanks, bama! :)

Cathy Young said...

And now, on to some of the other posts...

Victoria: if you're interested in my take on Xena and why I love the show and the character, check out this blogpost and the article linked therein. (It explains the "lesbian" issue, among other things.)

Incidentally, in the somewhat ahistorical canon of Xena, Boadicea and Xena joined forces to fight against the Romans.

Anyway. I share, to some extent, your admiration for all those formidable ladies of the past. One can't help being impressed.

At the same time, I can't quite overlook the fact that Boadicea and her troops committed unspeakable atrocities against Roman colonists in Britannia, or that Catherine the Great presided over the torture and murder of her political opponents and extended the scope of serfdom in Russia.

Just as, when I read The Iliad and The Odyssey, I am (of course) impressed by the grandeur and valor of the heroes, but I can't quite get over the fact that they think nothing of killing an enemy who has surrendered, slaughtering prisoners of war as an act of revenge, taking female captives as the sexual spoils of war, or hanging disloyal slaves.

I'm firmly in the post-Enlightenment corner, and I think the fact that we no longer condone such acts represents definite moral progress on the part of humanity.

Actually, one reason I find Xena appealing is that it combines a fantasy/pseudo-ancient setting with what are basically modern moral standards. In the Xena version of ancient Greece, women are basically treated as equals, slavery is abhorred by most decent people (and mostly outlawed), and killing an unarmed enemy or noncombatants is considered disgraceful.

z: good point about the power of publicity. I don't really have anything to add to that -- totally agree with you on this point.

cobrasnose: I certainly don't mean to represent Xena as rejecting brutal tactics altogether.

In the cannibal episode (which, by the way, I thought suffered because the bad guys were so subhuman), Xena had no choice but to flood the cannibal camp and drown them all -- they presented a clear and present danger not only to Xena and her friends, but to all other travelers passing through the area.

Morally, I would regard her actions as no different than, say, obliterating a terrorist camp in an air strike -- something that I, for one, would not have an ethical problem with.

vbspurs said...

Victoria: if you're interested in my take on Xena and why I love the show and the character, check out this blogpost and the article linked therein. (It explains the "lesbian" issue, among other things.)

Ah yes? Sounds grand, lemme see.

Quoting from older blogpost:

women on Xena were simply human, no better or worse than men, and the show never beat the viewer over the head with a female-empowerment message)

I understand why now they call this "lipstick lesbianism".

I call it being a woman.


vbspurs said...

I'm firmly in the post-Enlightenment corner, and I think the fact that we no longer condone such acts represents definite moral progress on the part of humanity.

This is why I call you an idealist -- it's not meant as a slam, either, although it may seem marshmallowy to some.

I am not an idealist. I am a realist with ideals.

I don't want the US to flounder in moral corruption, but nor do I want them to be a nation of Boy Scouts.

To deal in this world, especially in the guise of the world's only superpower, we need brawny actions, as well as the high ideals represented in the Constitution.

The problem is, we can only export those high ideals after our brawny actions are done.

That's where we are, as a nation, in Iraq.


Jessica said...

Hey Cathy -- just poking my head in to say I enjoyed the post a lot, and the comments have been really thought-provoking. I have no problem with you talking about Xena as often as you please, especially when I get such great reading material out of it.

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