Because this not my dissertation, allow me to inflict upon you a needless biographical aside: I was ready–so very, very ready–to be annoyed by the recent film interpretation of Ender’s Game. First of all, it stars (albeit in a supporting role) Harrison Ford, an actor who has an unfortunate tendency to share his political views. But don’t worry, those political views are the product of a mind no doubt sharpened by a life spent reading lines off of a page . . . ahem. More importantly, I loved the book Ender’s Game, and we all know how rare it is for a movie to improve on a good book (two notable exceptions here being Last of the Mohicans and The Painted Veil). And finally, of course, we are all of us a little bit scarred from the horrific cinematic misfire that was Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. We all now automatically flinch at the prospect of having to view any science fiction film in a theatre, so many of our brain cells having sadly died from the latter film’s constant insults to them.
And so when it came time to watch Ender’s Game, I steeled my nerves and ordered the largest popcorn available to help me endure the experience. But I did not need the popcorn: Ender’s Game is good. In fact, I will be so bold as to declare that this is one of those movies that is better than the book upon which it is based. And that is no insult to the book. If you have already read the book, and are thus prepared for some spoilers, read on.
Despite what people will try to tell you, the excellence of Orson Scott Card’s book does not consist in its depiction of lost childhood or any other touchy-feely nonsense: its greatness is in its action. Ender fights bullies, opposing teams in Battle School, and ultimately–and unknowingly–a formidable alien enemy. Ender never “cheats” in these fights, but he does act with cooly intelligent brutality. And it is a testament to Card’s skill as an author that you, as a reader, are in no way conflicted about this. You cheer for Ender to win these fights, for his cause seems just, least in the minimal sense of positional innocence. Ender is a decent young man who has battles thrust upon him, and so you naturally cheer for him to win, come what may.
The movie retains this great action (with some of the regrettable but necessary cuts), but imports into the story some of the nuanced philosophical thought that characterize Card’s sequels to the book, such as Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide. Specifically, the movie successfully raises the issue, again and again, of the morality of “total war,” an approach to conflict that seeks not simply to “win,” but to “win all future battles”–that is, to forestall all future conflict through the absolute destruction of one’s enemy. Though there are a few key moments of dialogue that alert you to this problem (Colonel Graff: “We won, that’s all that matters.” Ender: “No, how we win matters.”), part of the excellence of the movie is that it avoids being too preachy about the issue, preferring instead to allow the viewer to experience, with Ender, the hollowness of such victories. The viewer watches, with Ender, a young man become paralyzed as a result of his attack upon Ender. And later, the viewer again watches, with Ender, as an entire planet–and with it, an entire intelligent species–is seemingly obliterated. In both cases the film errs somewhat in softening the blow; Ender’s assailant does not die and the aliens are not all gone (actually, that one is on Card, not the filmmakers). But if these are aesthetic errors, they are by no means fatal, for each situation is dire enough that the point is made: the end does not justify the means. A total war cannot be morally justified.
It is an important moral issue, and it is not a problem merely confined to the sphere of human conflict. Rather, the temptation to total war is but one particular manifestation of our deeper human tendency to never be content with a sufficiency. It is actually a rare human perfection to be truly content with one’s “daily bread,” as the prayer puts it. Rather, we want enough bread for the next decade. We want new homes and cars, lest we possibly be inconvenienced by the need for repairs. We want tenure so that we can never be fired. And these are, in general, legitimate human aspirations. But the problem with our desire for such things is that there is often no natural limit, no point at which one would be prompted to say, “Enough.” And so there is a constant temptation to acquire more–more food, more money, more power, more fame, more security. We hardly notice when we begin to trample on other persons in the course of such acquisition.
Why aren’t we content with a sufficiency, be it a sufficiency of peace, or food, or power? In one sense, it may simply be part of what it means to be alive. You are either growing or dying. Life consists in a will to power. But in the Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius suggests a less flattering interpretation of our discontent: we are trying to make up for the lack of some internal good that we ought to have. Only in the possession of such a good could one find peace. But deeper truths of that sort are, it seems, far more difficult to portray in film.
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Update: I have been informed by my brother, a former Marine infantry officer (now retired and running for Illinois Attorney General in 2014), that my term “total war” is actually a military term of art. In military parlance, the term “total war” is used to indicate a war in which there is total societal involvement to support the war effort.
A good example of such a “total war” would be Britain during World War II; nearly all aspects of British life were directed toward the war effort–food and other supplies were rationed, children were put to work digging crops, factories were re-assigned to the production of war materials, and even the Queen Mother practiced shooting a revolver in the Palace Gardens. A “total war” is contrasted to a “limited war,” a military engagement that does not involve the civilian population to any great extent.
In the review above, I do not use “total war” in this military sense, but rather in the sense of a war aimed at unconditional supremacy. Such a conflict is distinguished by its goal, which is not merely to mitigate the current threat, but to mitigate all possible future threats. The absolute nature of such a goal demands, effectively, the obliteration of one’s opponent.