Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Apocalypse Now: why we love violence and war

A new print of the 1979 version of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is in selected cinemas now. It is a masterpiece. In a future post, I’ll challenge the common consensus that argues it is a “flawed masterpiece” and the flaw is Marlon Brando. Until then, have a look at my fellow blogger, Fr Stephen Wang’s great piece on the film on his blog, Bridges and Tangents. Apocalypse Now visualises many of the ideas that Barbara Ehrenreich considers in her fascinating book, Blood Rites: The Origins and History of the Passions of the War.

Why is it that human beings are so keen to wage war? Is war primarily a male pursuit? Fully aware of the horrors of war, why do we continue to inflict suffering and death on other human beings? Why are we so attracted to violence? Why do we think aggression is an acceptable way to resolve our problems and disputes? What turned Cain against Abel and initiated the tragic cycle of internecine violence? Ehrenreich quotes Tolstoy on the question of what “causes” war or any particular war:
The deeper we delve in search of these causes the more we discover, and each single cause or series of causes appears to be equally valid in itself, and equally false by its insignificance compared to the magnitude of the event.

Blood Rites is an attempt to untangle these causes and isolate those fundamental causes that stimulate the pathological desire for war. One fundamental cause, Ehrenreich proposes, is man’s primitive need for sacrifice, where the sacrifice (human or animal) restores order and promotes some form of reconciliation. She points out that these sacrifices were often enacted in ritual form – involving hymns, uniform gestures, sacred sites, costumes and a priestly caste. Such ritual form, she argues, has passed over to military activity where warfare is sacralised. This idea reminds me very much of the thought of René Girard as found in his influential book, Violence and the Sacred. I am a huge fan of Girard and admire his speculative energy.

Girard claims that war and sacrifice were, from the earliest times, integrally related to each other and had a common goal. They reigned in the aggressive forces within a community that had the potential to tear it apart and, instead, channelled those forces towards an enemy (in the case of war) or a sacrificial victim (in the case of religion). So, Girard argues:
Religion in its broadest sense...must be another term for that obscurity that surrounds man’s efforts to defend himself by curative or preventative means from his own violence.

The god to whom the sacrifice is offered is only of secondary interest, according to Girard. What matters is that the victim must be seen as a scapegoat and endure a violent and public death. Girard points to the ancient Greek ritual in which a pauper who had been cared for at public expense becomes the cure (the pharmakos) for the community’s evils, actual or potential. He would be driven outside the city’s walls and possibly be killed. In time, an animal would serve as the designated victim, the scapegoat, upon whom the sins of the people would be heaped. The slaughtering of the scapegoat had the symbolic force of taking away their sins and restoring social cohesion.

War, according to Girard, is “merely another form of sacrificial violence”. Apocalypse Now ends with both a ritual act of sacrifice and the sacrifice of a military hero. In the film, these sacrifices lead to the laying down of arms. A Girardian would read these scenes as the preservation of communal identity by transferring internal conflict outward and onto a scapegoat. As Girard himself writes:
We see here the principle behind all “foreign” wars: aggressive tendencies that are potentially fatal to the cohesion of the group are redirected from within the community to outside it.

Blood Rites: The Origins and History of the Passions of War, Barbara Ehrenreich, Granta, 2011

Violence and the Sacred, René Girard, Continuum, 2005


  1. I am quite fond of Girard, but I must read more of his writings.

  2. Very interesting. First thoughts go back to Jez Butterworth!

    Apocalyptic history being what it is, eventually revealed by Divine and human nature. An unveiling.

    Conflict I believe always begins solely within. Not necessarily with desire of something outside of, but maybe desire to do, to be, to have, to conquer, or even desire to self control. I think sacrifice is the public outward expression of Ego slaying Ego. The mythical and the modern day victims are irrelevant. It is self preservation.

    Personal apocalypse, a personified (unveiling) of Truth, when not accepted in it's full fruition becomes an inner conflict, then by human nature is forced to reveal itself in an outward conflict, that then becomes a communal conflict, that becomes a tribal conflict, etc. etc. etc. that snowballs and snowballs to the point of Avalanche. Eventually revelation and or resolution by destruction are inevitable.

    Unless of course sacrifice before hand takes place. A slaying to end all slayings.
    A restoration of 'unity'. We see this today right down at family discipline level.

    Victims are all irrelevant apart from that is Christ, he becomes completely relevant because In Christianity we finally recognise and understand what the true nature of sacrifice should be, especially as Jesus willingly self sacrificed. A loving sacrifice, The Roman centurion witness reinforces any doubt when he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!"

    Why are we so attracted to violence, we aren't. It's a myth. Violence is attracted to violence. We love love, violence is what we feel the stirrings of, when we don't have access to the love we so desperately need.

  3. For a useful critique of Girard (and Burkert`s Homo Necans)see `Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism` by Jonathan Klawans.

  4. [Plot spoilers follow] Thanks for the link Martin. You call it a masterpiece, and I almost agree. But do you really think the last half hour works? It's not Brando I object to, but the lack of narrative drive, the non-sensical crazed photo-journalist, the dreaminess, the emotional stupor of the whole atmosphere. I just think he didn't know how to finish it. Perhaps it was Brando after all - if only he had shown more fight, or menace, or anything! I needed a climax, and it just trailed off into nowhere, despite the ox-slaughter.

  5. see my latest post, bridgesandtangents, where I attempt to defend Apocalypse Now's status as masterpiece