By Theodore Vito
It is a common trend in movies, when two sides fight, there is a clear distinction between the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’. Normally, the good guys fight for values such as freedom, justice, and peace while the bad guys fight for power, resources or simply to fulfill their thirst for killing. In this article, we will examine the differences between how two opposing sides are depicted in the movies War for the Planet of the Apes (Reeves, 2017) and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (Lawrence, 2014) and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (Lawrence, 2015). For Planet, these sides are the ape tribe, led by Caesar, fighting Alpha-Omega, led by The Colonel. For Mockingjay, these sides are the rebels, lead by President Coin, fighting the Capitol, lead by President Snow. The differences between these movies are striking. Planet clearly distinguishes the good and bad, while Mockingjay prompts us to question the righteousness of both sides. However, it is impossible for an essay of this length and scope to define ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and apply it to compare Planet and Mockingjay. Instead, it would be more understandable and feasible to define ‘good’ as ‘justified’ and ‘bad’ as ‘unjustified’. It is for that reason that I will refer to several essays regarding justification of war in the following paragraphs to help determine whether or not the actions done by combatants in Planet and Mockingjay are justified. Although Planet and Mockingjay took place in their respective fictional universes, my analysis and arguments still hold as these movies are works of fiction that are inevitably inspired by the real world.
This essay will evaluate whether or not the acts committed by different sides in Planet and Mockingjay are justified in three aspects: how combatants treat the innocent, the reason(s) the war is fought, and the way the war is fought. Parallels would then be drawn to wars in the real world, and determine which movie more accurately depicts the real world. I argue that Mockingjay more accurately depicts the real world as it is very difficult to argue that someone’s actions are justified when it involves killing and/or harming another party, especially when that party is innocent.
The way the innocent are treated
Jeff McMahan, in his article Debate: Justification and Liability in War (2008) argues that it is not justified for combatants to harm the innocent, while it is justified to kill in defense of the innocent. In Planet, Alpha-Omega soldiers indiscriminately kill apes, regardless their combatant status. This is evident when the apes are escaping Alpha-Omega’s base near the end of the movie. As the apes are escaping, the base comes under attack by other human military organisations. Instead of engaging their human enemies, who pose more of a threat since they are equipped with attack helicopters and armored vehicles, Alpha-Omega soldiers instead fire on the escaping apes, only one of whom is armed. Contrary to this, the apes only kill Alpha-Omega soldiers when necessary. This is proven after the first battle, when the apes capture surrendered Alpha-Omega soldiers and release them instead of killing them. Later in the movie, Caesar and his group adopt a mute girl, Nova, showing that unlike Alpha-Omega soldiers who indiscriminately kill apes, they are unwilling to take the life of an innocent human.
Using the same argument by McMahan, we can see that in Mockingjay that the actions of both both soldiers of the rebels and the Capitol are unjust as they harm the innocent. This is evident in Mockingjay part one, when a pair of Capitol aircrafts bomb a hospital containing not only rebel fighters but innocent, injured civilians as well. Although a point could be made about how bombing the hospital would reduce the rebels’ ability to replenish their troops, hence their capability to fight, McMahan pointed out that if gains are made at the expense of innocent lives, the attacking Capitol soldiers are unjust. The rebels commit a similar act in Mockingjay part two when they hijack a Capitol aircraft and bomb Capitol children in an effort to frame President Snow for such an inhumane action. Again gains are made at the expense of innocent lives, making the rebels unjust soldiers.
From the two examples above, I argue that Mockingjay would be more applicable to the real world more than Planet since it depicts a situation with a higher tendency to happen in the real world due to uncertainties in war. It is near impossible to fight a war without harming innocent people, and by extension it is difficult to avoid being unjust in a war. In Planet, it just so happens that all the humans the apes face are combatants, except Nova (whom the apes adopt), and it is very rare for this to happen in the real world. Even with the most advanced detection and aiming technology, the United States’ drone strikes on terrorist targets still cost numerous innocent lives. This is partly due to the lack of complete, detailed information about the targets, leaving a sizeable margin for the attack to end up costing innocent lives (McKelvey, 2015). It shows the difficulty in making sure that the innocent are not harmed during a war, despite all the resources, such as technology, we have at our disposal. However, it is unfair to not consider that before a conflict begins, parties involved would often have evacuated civilians in the area so that they would be safe. Unfortunately, this has not always been done successfully.
Why the war is fought
As a development to the previous section, other than the actions combatants committed during a war, whether or not the combatants are just or unjust can be argued from their intention. In his article, “Just Cause and ‘Right Intentions’” (2014), Uwe Steinhoff argues that actions of belligerents in a war must be considered alongside their intentions in order to determine whether or not they are justified. For example, Steinhoff argues that for a state’s intervention to defend its people from a genocide to be considered just, this intervention needs to be done with the intention of defending the people, instead of having the intention to enhance the state’s influence in a certain region.
Based on Steinhoff’s argument, Caesar and his tribe’s reason to go to war is justified. This is because they participate in the war so that their tribe could survive through the onslaught brought upon them by Alpha-Omega. From the start of the movie, this is already very evident, as Caesar and his tribe only fight when the tribe is attacked; they never attack Alpha-Omega. It is never their intention to destroy Alpha-Omega, they just seek to find a new place for them to safely settle in. Alpha-Omega’s objective is exactly the opposite; to kill all apes. They actively seek out the apes’ outposts and bases to attack in order to kill as many apes as possible, no matter the cost. In the first battle, when the Alpha-Omega’s attack on an outpost is repelled and it is evident that they will lose the battle if it continues, instead of ordering his men to retreat, The Colonel orders them to fight on and bring down as many apes with them. Later in the movie, they only let captured apes live to be slaves without food or water. Here, we can see two different intentions for war; the apes want survival while Alpha-Omega wants a genocide of the apes. The apes’ actions reflect their intention of defending their tribe, justifying their actions. Compared to this, even by virtue of their malicious intention alone, Alpha-Omega is unjust in its actions.
When we apply Steinhoff’s argument to compare the rebels and the Capitol in Mockingjay, we will find more similarities than differences. Initially it may seem that President Coin and District 13 are leading a resistance against the oppression of the Capitol. However, when the Capitol is defeated, a power vacuum emerges. President Coin uses this opportunity to consolidate her position as the President of Panem (the region where the series takes place). This shows the intention of the war being a gain of power, and not solely to defend the rights of the citizens of the districts from the Capitol. By Steinhoff’s argument, this is unjustified. The Capitol’s actions are equally unjustified. They fight because they want to keep the status quo where they can oppress the districts so that they can live in luxury. Here, we can see again that the rebels’ and the Capitol’s actions are unjustified.
By this argument, Mockingjay depicts the real world more accurately since it is difficult to justify the intentions of belligerents in a war. There have been military actions in the real world that stated their aim to be justified since they intend to protect the innocent from some form of oppression, but their intention can be arguably different. An example of this is Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin have stated that Russia’s annexation of Crimea is done for the protection of ethnic Russians in the peninsula. However, analysts and world leaders have questioned the credibility of his intentions, stating the possibility that President Putin is trying to divert attention away from Russia’s wavering economy (BBC, 2016). This shows the difficulty in justifying intentions of military actions in a war. By this reason, I would argue that Mockingjay more accurately represents the situation in the real world, since it is also difficult to determine the true intention of President Coin until she reveals her hand in the movie.
How the war is fought
In this section, I would like to go back to McMahan’s arguments that it is not justified for combatants to harm the innocent, and apply it to tactics used in the wars fought in Planet and Mockingjay. The apes use very straightforward military tactics, mostly focused on the battlefield itself. It is for this reason that they produce no damage to the innocent, since all humans on the battlefield are Alpha-Omega soldiers, justified targets to kill. Alpha-Omega uses a different tactic, which is to assassinate Caesar in his base. Caesar is a combatant and military leader, making him a justified target to kill. However, since Alpha-Omega is attacking the apes’ base, there is the possibility of innocent apes getting harmed in the assassination attempt. This proved to be true as Caesar’s wife, Cornelia, an innocent, is killed when The Colonel misidentifies Blue Eyes, Caesar and Cornelia’s son, as Caesar and kills both of them. His actions are unjust as killing Cornelia does not reward him or Alpha-Omega with military gains, except maybe demoralising Caesar, reducing his capabilities to lead.
If we apply McMahan’s argument to the rebels in Mockingjay, their tactics would prove to be unjust. During the rebel attack on ‘The Nut’, an underground Capitol fortress in District 2, their plan is to bury it alive in an attempt to disable it by triggering avalanches on surrounding mountains. The rebels know that there are citizens in The Nut but they choose to go with the plan anyway, giving the civilians a chance to surrender via an underground tunnel. Based on McMahan’s argument, even if the civilians are given this chance to surrender, there is still a very real possibility of harm being done to them, making this attack an unjust act. The Capitol’s actions are equally unjust, as during the start of the war they hope to extinguish the rebellion when it have not grown in size yet. In order to do so, they aim to destroy the rebel’s morale by killing everyone who oppose them. They do this by firebombing District 12, the gruesome aftermath of which can be seen in Mockingjay part one. This is a legitimate military tactic but McMahan argues that such a tactic would not be justified as they involve an intentional harm to the innocent.
In the real world, again Mockingjay would be more accurate as modern tactics being used in wars carry a risk of harming civilians, as they may consider civilian objects as military targets. For example, the United States employ the effects-based operation doctrine in dealing with asymmetrical warfare. Such a doctrine would lead to non-military, “war-sustaining” objects, which primarily supports the economy instead of the military (Ipsen et al., 2010), to be targeted for military actions to create certain effects on the country’s population, such as demoralising them. This may result in harm being caused to civilians since they may be in the proximity of such targets. The tactic itself may be considered an unjust tactic in warfare.
Based on the three aspects I put forth above, I would conclude that Mockingjay represents the situation in the real world more accurately than Planet in depicting the justification in war. This is so because it is difficult to not harm the innocent during a war, difficulty in obtaining a clear and honest intention of war in this political world, and the military tactics being used in the increasingly asymmetrical nature of warfare would increase the tendency for civilians to be harmed by military actions. Additionally, even with all these arguments considered, it is still very difficult to determine whether or not a party is just since it is an ethical argument.
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