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