A Different Kind of Avatar

Having recently returned from working as a researcher for the Army in Iraq, when I saw James Cameron's new blockbuster movie Avatar, it felt at times as if I was back in theater -- the theater of war. A lot about the depiction of the military was extremely accurate -- their looks, gear, behaviors, and ways of joking around were all disquietingly authentic.

It was this sense of authenticity that made a particular aspect of the movie very hard to take (warning -- spoilers follow): There is a scene where the protagonists are firing upon their military brethren -- firing on them and killing them. This was not firing on just the evil adversary, but also the rank-and-file soldiers and officers in uniform. Not just hot-blooded grunts, but mature officers. And they were being killed by one of their own. I understand that it was necessary for the plot, but that didn't make it any easier to take.

It hurt not just to see them die, but also because of the reason they were being killed. The "military" characters in the movie were portrayed as uncaring and unfazed by the suffering of others -- willing to take lives with nary a second thought. They were portrayed as deserving to die because of how little they cared for the lives of others. It wasn't just some of the military that were portrayed this way -- it was all of them. Only the rogue protagonist was different.

The research I was involved in while in Iraq was on counterinsurgency (eerily echoing some aspects of the movie): how to work with a foreign population to help them become able to effectively govern themselves, provide their own security, and stabilize their own societies against violent insurgency. It is a thankless job that requires a great deal of courage, humility, and compassion. The dangers are many and the rewards are few.

The soldiers I had gotten to know so well -- who was going to tell their stories? What would happen to the many, many moviegoers who would leave the theater with the only lasting impression being of a military that cared little for the lives and suffering of others -- who were cruel and callous, and therefore deserved to die? The soldiers I knew were not going to blow their own horn or tell their own stories (and there are many). So here are a couple of examples to serve as a counterpoint to the conduct of the soldiers as portrayed in Avatar -- to give real soldiers a voice.

As the field-grade officer in the Army unit, it fell to LTC Brian P. to inform the Iraqis whenever they had a body of an Iraqi (usually an insurgent attacker) that needed to be claimed. This was done together with the local Iraqi Army unit commander. Brian always went out of his way to be respectful to the family, telling them that he was sorry that their son had been killed (even though it was in the course of mounting an attack). One day, four young Iraqi children were playing in a field with what they thought was a toy parachute. Unfortunately, it was attached to a powerful, unexploded RKG grenade that had been left behind by insurgents. When the children threw the parachute up and it fell to the ground, it exploded, killing three of them immediately and mortally wounding the fourth. The U.S. Army forces ran to try to save the children, but they were only able to collect their badly mutilated bodies and take them back to the base.

When they informed the families, one of the fathers came to identify his children. LTC P. explained the tragedy and told the father that the Army had nothing to do with the children's deaths. One soldier lifted the coverings so that the father could identify the children. When the father saw them, he began to get angry and talk about the Americans -- how bad Bush was, etc. At this point, LTC P., having seen the bodies as well, began to cry. He had young children of his own and could not bear to see these remains. Seeing him cry, the Iraqi Army unit commander told the railing father, "Stop! This American is weeping for your children -- when are we going to start weeping for the children of Iraq?" The Iraqi Army commander saw that the American officer was truly sincere, and from that point on, they became very close -- a true friendship.

An Army unit in Afghanistan captured an enemy combatant with explosives in his bag. It was clear that he had been about to place them for an attack. He was arrested and brought to the Army base for questioning. When they heard about his arrest, his father and some of the village leaders came to plead to the Army commander to let the terrorist go, saying that he was innocent. When shown the evidence, the village leaders began to chastise the father for allowing his son to stray from the right path. The father hung his head in shame and sadness -- he had let his tribe down, and his beloved son was surely about to be killed. The Army commander brought the son in to see what would transpire before making his final decision.

As he watched, the father came to stand before his son -- he could not talk, and all the father could do was weep. The son began to weep as well. The commander could not believe how much it reminded him of the times he had disappointed his own father, and how that pain was worse than any punishment. He knew the leaders would respect him if he followed the strict line of justice -- and yet he also knew that he would have to start all over to win their trust and confidence. The commander called the father and the elders in front of him and had a long debate with them (with much theatrics), eventually saying that he was going to release the young man under the watchful eyes and responsibility of his father and the elders. Everyone was surprised -- the father, the son, the elders, and even the soldiers in the unit. At first, the son could not even meet his father's eyes -- and then they embraced. The commander said that it was the right thing to do, both morally and strategically.

An Army convoy on patrol in Iraq was hit by a grenade thrown from the side of the road. Luckily, the grenade failed to explode. The gunner in the targeted MRAP got a bead on the attacker and was about to fire when he saw that the person in his sights was a twelve-year-old boy. At the last minute, he held fire and let the young attacker escape. He did this at considerable risk because of the danger of a second attack. The gunner himself was only about nineteen or twenty years old. Not only did his commander not charge him for "failure to protect," but the commander held the gunner up as an example of correct strategic decision-making. Because the young gunner did not fire on the boy, he prevented what would have been a tremendous backlash from the population. The commander called this "initiative through restraint."

The purpose of this piece is not to make a statement about war. Leave that for the politicians. Rather, it is to testify to the character of soldiers -- men and women of character, compassion, and honor. There are enough stories like the above to fill a book (being written), and many more yet untold. Yes, there are bad soldiers, just as there are bad doctors, bad cops, etc. Yet the vast majority risk and sacrifice their lives to protect not just us, but innocent people of other nations as well. When it comes to the military, let's not let one (otherwise entertaining) movie be the only story that gets told.

Miriam E. Mendelson, Ph.D. is a researcher and policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. and currently working on a book on best practices in counterinsurgency based on firsthand research in Iraq.
Having recently returned from working as a researcher for the Army in Iraq, when I saw James Cameron's new blockbuster movie Avatar, it felt at times as if I was back in theater -- the theater of war. A lot about the depiction of the military was extremely accurate -- their looks, gear, behaviors, and ways of joking around were all disquietingly authentic.

It was this sense of authenticity that made a particular aspect of the movie very hard to take (warning -- spoilers follow): There is a scene where the protagonists are firing upon their military brethren -- firing on them and killing them. This was not firing on just the evil adversary, but also the rank-and-file soldiers and officers in uniform. Not just hot-blooded grunts, but mature officers. And they were being killed by one of their own. I understand that it was necessary for the plot, but that didn't make it any easier to take.

It hurt not just to see them die, but also because of the reason they were being killed. The "military" characters in the movie were portrayed as uncaring and unfazed by the suffering of others -- willing to take lives with nary a second thought. They were portrayed as deserving to die because of how little they cared for the lives of others. It wasn't just some of the military that were portrayed this way -- it was all of them. Only the rogue protagonist was different.

The research I was involved in while in Iraq was on counterinsurgency (eerily echoing some aspects of the movie): how to work with a foreign population to help them become able to effectively govern themselves, provide their own security, and stabilize their own societies against violent insurgency. It is a thankless job that requires a great deal of courage, humility, and compassion. The dangers are many and the rewards are few.

The soldiers I had gotten to know so well -- who was going to tell their stories? What would happen to the many, many moviegoers who would leave the theater with the only lasting impression being of a military that cared little for the lives and suffering of others -- who were cruel and callous, and therefore deserved to die? The soldiers I knew were not going to blow their own horn or tell their own stories (and there are many). So here are a couple of examples to serve as a counterpoint to the conduct of the soldiers as portrayed in Avatar -- to give real soldiers a voice.

As the field-grade officer in the Army unit, it fell to LTC Brian P. to inform the Iraqis whenever they had a body of an Iraqi (usually an insurgent attacker) that needed to be claimed. This was done together with the local Iraqi Army unit commander. Brian always went out of his way to be respectful to the family, telling them that he was sorry that their son had been killed (even though it was in the course of mounting an attack). One day, four young Iraqi children were playing in a field with what they thought was a toy parachute. Unfortunately, it was attached to a powerful, unexploded RKG grenade that had been left behind by insurgents. When the children threw the parachute up and it fell to the ground, it exploded, killing three of them immediately and mortally wounding the fourth. The U.S. Army forces ran to try to save the children, but they were only able to collect their badly mutilated bodies and take them back to the base.

When they informed the families, one of the fathers came to identify his children. LTC P. explained the tragedy and told the father that the Army had nothing to do with the children's deaths. One soldier lifted the coverings so that the father could identify the children. When the father saw them, he began to get angry and talk about the Americans -- how bad Bush was, etc. At this point, LTC P., having seen the bodies as well, began to cry. He had young children of his own and could not bear to see these remains. Seeing him cry, the Iraqi Army unit commander told the railing father, "Stop! This American is weeping for your children -- when are we going to start weeping for the children of Iraq?" The Iraqi Army commander saw that the American officer was truly sincere, and from that point on, they became very close -- a true friendship.

An Army unit in Afghanistan captured an enemy combatant with explosives in his bag. It was clear that he had been about to place them for an attack. He was arrested and brought to the Army base for questioning. When they heard about his arrest, his father and some of the village leaders came to plead to the Army commander to let the terrorist go, saying that he was innocent. When shown the evidence, the village leaders began to chastise the father for allowing his son to stray from the right path. The father hung his head in shame and sadness -- he had let his tribe down, and his beloved son was surely about to be killed. The Army commander brought the son in to see what would transpire before making his final decision.

As he watched, the father came to stand before his son -- he could not talk, and all the father could do was weep. The son began to weep as well. The commander could not believe how much it reminded him of the times he had disappointed his own father, and how that pain was worse than any punishment. He knew the leaders would respect him if he followed the strict line of justice -- and yet he also knew that he would have to start all over to win their trust and confidence. The commander called the father and the elders in front of him and had a long debate with them (with much theatrics), eventually saying that he was going to release the young man under the watchful eyes and responsibility of his father and the elders. Everyone was surprised -- the father, the son, the elders, and even the soldiers in the unit. At first, the son could not even meet his father's eyes -- and then they embraced. The commander said that it was the right thing to do, both morally and strategically.

An Army convoy on patrol in Iraq was hit by a grenade thrown from the side of the road. Luckily, the grenade failed to explode. The gunner in the targeted MRAP got a bead on the attacker and was about to fire when he saw that the person in his sights was a twelve-year-old boy. At the last minute, he held fire and let the young attacker escape. He did this at considerable risk because of the danger of a second attack. The gunner himself was only about nineteen or twenty years old. Not only did his commander not charge him for "failure to protect," but the commander held the gunner up as an example of correct strategic decision-making. Because the young gunner did not fire on the boy, he prevented what would have been a tremendous backlash from the population. The commander called this "initiative through restraint."

The purpose of this piece is not to make a statement about war. Leave that for the politicians. Rather, it is to testify to the character of soldiers -- men and women of character, compassion, and honor. There are enough stories like the above to fill a book (being written), and many more yet untold. Yes, there are bad soldiers, just as there are bad doctors, bad cops, etc. Yet the vast majority risk and sacrifice their lives to protect not just us, but innocent people of other nations as well. When it comes to the military, let's not let one (otherwise entertaining) movie be the only story that gets told.

Miriam E. Mendelson, Ph.D. is a researcher and policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. and currently working on a book on best practices in counterinsurgency based on firsthand research in Iraq.