Bryan Caplan  

Pacifism in Hell's Angels

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Thoughts on the Republican Hea... Interest on reserves and stock...
hells.jpgUntil recently, I only knew Howard Hughes' World War I saga Hell's Angels (1930) second-hand, from Martin Scorsese's Hughes biopic, The AviatorI was amazed when I finally watched Hughes' classic.  The special effects are stunning even by modern standards.  And the Pre-Code script is too good to be true. 

On the surface, the audience is supposed to detest the selfish, unscrupulous Monte Rutledge, the "bad brother" of protagonist Roy Rutledge.  But as in Milton's Paradise Lost, the author plainly has great sympathy for the devil.  The best scene must have shocked World War I veterans around the world.  When Monte feigns illness to avoid combat, a fellow pilot angrily declares, "He's yellow and we all know it."  Then Monte pulls off the mask:
That's a lie! I'm not yellow. I can see things as they are, that's all. I'm sick of this rotten business.

You fools. Why do you let them kill you like this? What are you fighting for? Patriotism. Duty. Are you mad?

Can't you see they're just words? Words coined by politicians and profiteers to trick you into fighting for them. What's a word compared with life... the only life you've got.

I'll give 'em a word. Murder! That's what this dirty rotten politician's war is. Murder! You know it as well as I do. Yellow, am I? You're the ones that are yellow. I've got guts to say what I think. You're afraid to say it. So afraid to be called yellow, you'd rather be killed first.
Critics routinely dismiss pacifists as "cowards."  But as I've said before:
Given the unpopularity of pacifism - and the extreme unlikelihood that your pacifism tips the scales against war - this is plainly false.  A real coward would enthusiastically parrot whatever the people around him want to hear.

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Twitter: Bryan Caplan @bryan_caplan




COMMENTS (6 to date)
Hazel Meade writes:

Nice comment.

And worth noting that when we hear recent arguments that one's duty to one's country men (i.e. to protect their jobs) requires one to restrict trade or immigration, a similar logic is at play.

B.B. writes:

The First World War was stupid, no doubt.

But it was not created by profiteers to make money, which was a shameful libel cooked up by shallow Marxists after the war. All that "merchants of death" hogwash.

I have not seen the movie. But I will observe that draftees did not become airmen; it was a volunteer service. If the Monte character did not want to fly military missions, no one forced him to join the air service.

He didn't have to join the army at all, unless he would have been drafted. And then he had the choice of going to jail, or migrating to a neutral country.

So, no, I don't let him off the hook at all. He wasn't speaking truth to power. A lecture to his fellow airmen wasn't worthwhile at all. If he was brave and truthful, he could have taken issue with the Wilson Administration in public and at home.

In any event, it is worth remembering that Germany declared war on the USA, and engaged in unrestricted submarine warfare against US shipping, including civilian and defenseless ships carrying nonmilitary goods. The US was defending itself against aggression. Well, I guess the USA could have just surrendered.

Harry writes:

Wow, incredible, going to watch this.

Capt. J Parker writes:

I also went digging to see if I could view Hell's Angels after seeing The Aviator. What I remembered most from Huges' movie was the scene near the end where one on the captured bomber pilots shot his own brother (if I remember correctly) rather then let him reveal battle plans to the Germans to avoid execution as a spy (the captured bomber pilots were flying a plane with German insignia.) My reaction at the time was ha such glorification of love for one's nation-state above all else would thankfully never fly in today's movie theaters. Hell's Angels aired the pacifist anti-war argument but, IMHO did not come close to endorsing it.

Capt. J Parker writes:

I also went digging to see if I could view Hell's Angels after seeing The Aviator. What I remembered most from Huges' movie was the scene near the end where one of two captured bomber pilots shot the other (his own brother if I remember correctly) rather then let him reveal battle plans to the Germans to avoid execution as a spy (the captured bomber pilots were flying a plane with German insignia.) My reaction at the time was that honor and duty to one's nation-state being placed above all else would thankfully never fly in today's movie theaters. Hell's Angels aired the pacifist anti-war argument as Dr. Caplan says, but IMHO did not come anyway near to endorsing it.

Weir writes:

The selfish, unscrupulous Falstaff said it with more poetry: "Can honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o' Wednesday."

Fat Jack Falstaff chooses cakes and ale, cirrhosis, the pleasures of the table, rheumatism. He lives into arthritic old age. Other knights die fighting, and a lot of them will die young.

We reckon we know who's the less deceived. But a man can make himself a slave to his belly, and no man lives forever. Fat Jack's preference is to let his appetites kill him, and he enjoyed his time, so we say he lived life to the full. That was the only life he got, and he didn't waste it fighting. Other men hunger for honour. Fat Jack thirsts for beer.

Men can get drunk on fighting, so it isn't either or. You can choose both, like Ernst von Salomon, "drunk with all the passion of the world," or Ernst Junger, who called fighting "intoxication beyond all intoxication." If they were tricked, it was by something a lot older than the "politicians and profiteers" back home in Berlin. Something to do with violence a long way back, and wrong rewards, and arrogant eternity. Something Darwinian, which is usually underlying these things.

Falstaff made a tidy profit from war, soliciting cash to substitute one man in some other man's place. But that's not the same as starting it. The politicians are a lot worse than the profiteers who follow after. "France must be so weakened as to make her revival as a great power impossible for all time." Belgium "must be reduced to a vassal state, must allow us to occupy any militarily important ports, must place her coast at our disposal in military respects, must become economically a German province." "A continuous Central African colonial empire." "Germany's economic dominance over Mitteleuropa."

Here's one meaning of selfishness: I value my life more than I value yours. I value mine more than I value any civilian's life anywhere, lined up and shot by the Germans in their rush to the Channel. I value my life more than every other life on the planet.

Some men die fighting, but other men will pay bribes, or feign illness, or get themselves a spot in the National Guard and thereby stick some unlucky SOB with the work. Falstaff collects his payment, and Monte rests up in bed. "You fools. Why do you let them kill you like this? What are you fighting for?" This is ironic, coming from a man who is himself putting them in his seat, forced to do his job when he absents himself, picking up the slack he's dropped in their hands. What makes his life worth so much more than theirs? Not just from his own perspective, but if he could also take into account, like a good economist, the life of the man he'd very much prefer to see die in his place?

The only life he's got is the only one he's thought about. He's not helping anyone, or changing anything. Germany's war pushes on. He's in no position to tip the scales against that. All he can do is make some other less fortunate son die so that he can stay out of harm's way.

He thinks he sees things as they are. What he doesn't see is that he's sending some other man up to die in his place. He blames "politicians and profiteers" far off in the background for what he's doing himself, putting his brother in the hot seat instead, putting himself at the back of the queue behind his whole band of brothers, putting everyone else ahead of him to get shot. Sydney Carton he's not. He's not even Nora Durst in the second season of The Leftovers. And he's no Falstaff, ultimately, because at least Falstaff wasn't fooling himself.

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