Saturday, March 13, 2010

Can we ever fully understand war?

I just finished watching an extraordinary movie. I bought a copy of Tae Guk Gi (The Brotherhood of War) probably two months ago at Reckless Records in Chicago, but I never felt ready to watch it. But tonight I said, what the hell, let’s take a look.

I am exhausted.

A Korean movie set during the Korean conflict, it has perhaps even more gut-wrenching intensity than Saving Private Ryan. Really, this movie took everything I had emotionally, and then wanted more. Now that I’ve had a moment to reflect on the film, some Buddhist concepts come to mind.

The story line is of two brothers: one who is bright (Jin-seok), and one who is not so bright but who is the anchor of the family (Jin-tae). They are both swept up into the Korean War, ripped away from their widowed mother and the woman Jin-tae wants to marry. Jin-tae vows to do whatever he can to send his younger brother home because he is the hope for the family; Jin-seok has a chance to go to college. But along the way, everything goes wrong. Jin-seok comes to resent what his brother is doing, and Jin-tae gets caught up in the delusion of nationalism and war.

Jin-seok, however, is not immune from change. There is a scene when the South Koreans are in bitter hand-to-hand combat with North Koreans. Jin-seok has a soldier beneath his bayonet and is about to kill him, but the North Korean pleads for his life, saying he is just 15 years old and was forced to join the army. Doubt rises in Jin-seok's mind and he relents, letting the boy live. But the North Korean lad immediately takes up the rifle with the bayonet and attacks Jin-seok, ready to kill him. Jin-seok struggles to grab a nearby knife and succeeds; he takes the blade and will kill the teen, but another soldier comes by and kills the boy first.

The First Precept tells us to not kill. It instructs us to respect all life and living sentient beings. But the Buddha also acknowledged that countries and kings have armies and they are wont to wage war. And that sweeps up common people into these schemes. Jin-seok recognized that he needn’t kill just because it was war. But when the ungrateful teen turned on him and was about to kill him, Jin-seok did what any of us would have done: defend his own life to the point of taking another’s.

Jin-tae becomes overwhelmed by the war. He begins with a good intention – he wants to do something to win a medal so Jin-seok can be sent home – but the war changes him. He no longer sees humans, no longer sees people; instead he sees symbols. When their platoon captures some communists, among them is a friend of theirs from back home. Jin-tae is ready to kill him because, as he says, all he sees are commies. Even with a good intention at the start, Jin-tae is easily corrupted by the violence and chaos of war. He initially believes the promises made to him, but eventually realizes that there are no promises, there are no guarantees. And so he sinks into chaos as he sees everything that is dear to him taken away.

God, this movie drained me of everything I had. I am an easy weeper, I will cry at just about anything; but this movie had me sobbing like no other. There were times during the movie I was beginning to wonder, “How much more can I take?” It’s still making me weep to think about it.

But one thing I certainly take from this movie: It’s not enough to have a good intention. In fact, sometimes a good intention is utterly meaningless. What matters is skillful action.


  1. I'm not sure if you've had the chance to read the book, or see the 1979 verison of the movie All Quiet on the Western Front? I think you come away with same feelings of dismay and emptiness afterwards that this movie gives you. You know I am a big military study, and have talked with many Vets who fought in several wars, and a lot of times you come away with that same sense of a good intention, which turned out to be only 'good' before the shooting started for them.

  2. Hi Kyle,

    Never read the book, but have seen both the original and later remake of All Quiet on the Western Front. Read and saw Johnny Got His Gun too, which Metalica made into a song. You know that song? One? I think it's from "And Justice For All."