[T]he passion for vengeance is a terrifyingly strong one, very easily and probably inevitably wrought up by such evidence, even at our distance. But however well aware I am of its strength, and that in its full immediate force and expression it is in some respects irrelevant to moral inquiry, I doubt that it is ever to be honored, or regarded as other than evil and in every direction fatally degrading and destructive; even when it is obeyed in hot blood or in a crisis of prevention; far worse when it is obeyed in cold blood and in the illusion of carrying out justice.
I think it has taken such strong hold on so many of us most essentially because we suspect the passion itself, and know that even if the passion were a valid one to honor there would be no finding victims, or forms of vengeance, remotely sufficient to satisfy it. We cannot bear to face our knowledge that the satisfaction of our desire for justice, which we confuse with our desire for vengeance, is impossible. And so we invent as a victim the most comprehensive image which our reason, however deranged, will permit us: the whole of a people and the descendants of that people: and count ourselves incomparably their superiors if we stop short of the idea of annihilation. And we refuse to grant that this war has proved itself lost--if indeed it ever could have been won--as surely in our own raging vengefulness as in that of the mob in Milan square. Indeed, we are worse than they and worse, in some respects, than the Nazis. There can be no bestiality so discouraging to contemplate as that of the man of good-will when he is misusing his heart and his mind; and there can be no trusting him merely because, in the long run, he customarily comes part way to, and resumes his campaign for, what he likes to call human dignity.
May 19, 1945
So wrote Agee, doubtless under clouds of unfiltered smoke in the dead of night, about American attitudes toward the defeated Germans, though these penetrating thoughts would prove more apt a few months later in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Agee was somewhat on the journo-fringe of his time, yet widely respected by his peers. I cannot imagine a writer like him making it in today's market, especially with musings like the above. The irony, if it can be called such, is that right after the 20th century's most destructive conflict, there was room for critical explorations of the victorious mood -- in fact, it was expected, if not embraced by all.
In our Terror Age, where World War II comparisons are freely tossed around, such explorations are commonly viewed as slanderous treason. Even those who aren't completely war crazy feel the need to honor certain military symbols and polish what passes for American "pride." Agee blew past these restrictions on a regular basis, oftentimes in the pages of Time magazine, back when the reactionary Henry Luce was signing his paycheck. Imagine today's Time publishing anyone remotely like Agee. Ana Marie Cox would giggle nervously while rattling her prop martini glass, and Andrew Sullivan would snort with upturned nose about Time's back page Fifth Column.
But this is not Agee's age. Lucky him. Still, it would be fascinating to see what he thought of Spielberg's "Munich," which I finally watched over the weekend. The film deals exclusively with the concept of nationalist vengeance that Agee explored 60 years ago, and I suspect he'd conclude that very little has changed.
Since its theatrical release, "Munich" has inspired acres of extremely bad writing, tortured analysis, and moments of sheer racism. The suggestion that Palestinians and Israelis are at all equal rankles many domestic commentators, Sullivan included (who endorsed this idiotic review as, apparently, his take on the film); and that Spielberg, along with screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, doesn't show Palestinians crawling on all fours with dead Jewish children in their mouths is an outrage and clearly anti-Israel, if not anti-American, in intent and in practice.
Of course, thanks to "Schindler's List" and his work on remembering the European Jewish holocaust, Spielberg has received as many quizzical looks and remorseful sighs as he has direct assaults on his character. Tony Kushner, on the other hand, being gay, Jewish and decidedly left wing, has taken the brunt of angry, nasty reactions, which I'm sure he fully expected, given his history and the film's subject matter. I don't know how this personally affects him, if it affects him at all; but all I can say is, a Mazel on you, Tony. You've helped open the debate a little wider, and thus forced our domestic Phalange to become even more extreme in their public conduct. It's a disgusting sight, but it helps to clarify matters and show us just who-is-who in this dreadful time.
Not all attacks on "Munich" are from the war-loving right. I've heard some lefty carping about how the Palestinians in the film aren't shown debating their tactics and searching their souls as do the Israeli assassins, and that this reduces them to terrorist stereotypes. While it's true that the characters representing Black September (who carried out the slaughter of the Israeli athletes in Munich) and the PLO are not fully formed, the film really isn't about them -- it's about the dark side of what initially seems righteous and just retribution meted out by Israeli patriots, and the emerging realization that there's more going on than simple tribal tit-for-bloody-tat.
Like 9/11, the Munich massacre is used as political cover to take care of business unrelated to the original deed. And like 9/11, this other business ensures that more blood will spill and keep lubricated the cycle of vengeance. When Eric Bana's character Avner, the Israeli commando squad leader, tells his Mossad superior (played by the great Geoffrey Rush) that assassinating Black September members ensures that even more militant terrorists will replace them, his superior has really nothing of substance to say. Nor does he give Avner any evidence that the targets being eliminated had anything to do with Munich. Avner is a cog in a larger killing machine, and once he becomes aware of this, his patriotism and nationalism quickly wither. (And this was at a time when the Palestinian movement was largely secular -- imagine how Avner would feel if he knew that a few years down the road his bosses would be empowering militant Islamists.)
It is this type of introspection that pro-war critics of "Munich" violently object to, and for good reason: introspection is bad for their business. You cannot bomb cities, herd people into camps or torture centers, and demonize entire populations when the people chosen to enforce this hatred start thinking things through. Introspection means "moral equivalence" which leads to "national suicide," and the only way to stave this off is to kill, maim and torture without question. "Munich" asks questions and attempts to probe their possible meanings; and that a major Hollywood director put his name on this effort signals a possible shift in how the mainstream views the actual War On Terror, and not the sham version that continues to fall apart. It's a tentative step, but a positive one, and should be encouraged and expanded on whenever possible.
ALSO: If you haven't already, please pick up and watch "Paradise Now," which offers a Palestinian perspective on vengeance, nationalism and the idea of whether or not killing The Other is morally right or even tactically sound. I'm sure it surprises a fair number of racist assholes that, yes, Palestinians debate and deliberate about life and death issues as well. A perfect companion piece to "Munich."