Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

Custom Search

© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The first atrocity

I still have not had any luck getting an Irish person to talk to me about The Wind That Shakes the Barley’s take on Ireland’s civil war.

In fairness, I haven’t been trying very hard either. I do not actively accost every Irish man and woman I come across and interrogate them about their opinions on this movie. But, if in the course of a conversation, the name of Ken Loach’s film or just the topic of movies generally comes up, I do express my interest in the way it portrays the Irish civil war. In the politest, most non-judgmental way I know how, I invite my interlocutor to give me his or her thoughts on the way the film views the Irish Free State. Not the way it portrays the British in general or the Black and Tans in specific. Not the non-issue of whether Ireland should have fought for independence. I specifically want to know what my Irish friend or acquaintance thinks of the way the movie portrays the supporters of the treaty of 1920 and of the Free State as sell-outs and betrayers, who are no better than the British themselves.

Invariably, the result is the same. As if I had asked a completely different question, my friend or acquaintance gives me an anecdote about something an English person once said or did that offended him or her. Or else he or she tells me of an incident that he or she heard about in which a Catholic was beaten or killed in Northern Ireland. The topic of the civil war—in which Irish fought and killed Irish over the question of whether to continue the struggle for complete independence through military or political means—does not seem to register at all. It’s as though that period of Irish history never happened. Indeed, I never hear anyone refer to the civil war, even though it occurred less than a century ago and, since Ireland is a relatively small country, it would have touched families all over the island. It’s as though that painful period was photoshopped out of the country’s collective memory.

Now, I am not making note of this as some sort of criticism of the Irish. I am quite sure that there are episodes in my own country’s recent history that I have unwittingly minimized or blocked out because they are painful or uncomfortable. But still, when Englishman Loach includes a scene of Free State, i.e. Irish, forces terrorizing an old granny and her daughter at their pastoral thatched cottage and it is a virtual recreation of a scene with the Black-and-Tans from the first reel, I find it hard to think that at least some Irish viewers do not find it highly provocative. But apparently, most of them are too busy with an internal monolog that repeats the mantra: “Weren’t the British terrible!”

Apart from all that, Loach’s movie is a good example of how movies that are meant to persuade us politically are usually constructed. Often it all comes down to the decision of where to begin the story. Like a lot of overtly political films, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is based on historical events. And, sadly, our chronicles of political and military history tend to amount to a series of atrocities. And for every atrocity committed by one side, the answer from its defenders tends to be to point to an earlier atrocity committed by the other side. What this means is that, if you are going to tackle a topic like the Irish struggle for independence and unless you are going to make an epic that spans centuries, you need to identify a point in the history to begin the story and one at which to end it. If you are advocating a certain perspective on that history, then the logical choice is to begin with an atrocity committed by the people you deem as the bad guys. That is what Loach does, beginning with the brutalizing of the aforementioned rustic widow and daughter and the killing of a young man who taunts the Black-and-Tans. What the film omits or under-emphasizes is that the Tans are reacting to acts of insurgency among some of the Irish. Because the first atrocity we see is one committed by the British, every act of violence thereafter committed by the insurgents comes with a built-in justification stemming from the original atrocity. This is not to say that Loach has twisted the facts or manipulated them exactly. But he makes things easier for himself by not beginning the story with, say, an ambush on British officers relaxing in a pub.

Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins takes a diametrically opposed view to the Irish civil war as Loach’s film, but it is in agreement with it as far as it regards British repression. (Indeed, I am not aware of anyone who actually defends British policy in Ireland in the early 20th century—not even the British themselves.) Jordan’s film begins with the 1916 Easter Rising. Now there are those in Ireland who would consider this the first atrocity. But Jordan’s film focuses on the insurgents’ militarily hopeless stand at the General Post Office in Dublin. To the best of my recollection, Michael Collins omits the deliberate killings of scores of people, including unarmed constables, Irish Volunteers and civilians. Therefore, the first atrocity in Jordan’s film is what follows: the summary execution of the leaders of the rising. From some accounts I have read, there was little support or sympathy among the Irish generally for the insurgents—until the executions. That was the turning point, and so it is for us in Michael Collins.

Of course, the tactic of being selective about the first atrocity is not only a gambit of screenwriters. Propagandists and even journalists, wittingly or otherwise, make use of it when providing “context” to current events. The recent war in Lebanon is only the latest example. Israel’s enemies tend to start their accounts of modern Middle East history with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the displacement of Palestinians into apparently permanent refugee status. Israel’s defenders, on the other hand, tend to begin the story (as it happens, as I did only last week) with the Holocaust. Each side has chosen the first atrocity with which to begin its account of how we got to where the Middle East is today. Of course, there are other possible starting points. Some critics of the Palestinians occasionally start with Yasser Arafat’s rejection of a peace settlement that President Clinton did his best to broker in the waning days of his administration. Israeli advocates of expanding into and holding onto territories beyond the 1948 borders like to cite events from literally thousands of years ago. From now on, you can be sure, many proponents of Hezbollah will start their history with the dead children of Qana. But, regardless of who is telling the story, they all pick the beginning point that suits them and puts their side in the best light. And the story usually begins with an atrocity committed by the other side. Some proponents of the United States’ invasion of Iraq like to begin that story with 9/11. More meticulous proponents, however, like to begin with Saddam Hussein’s massacres of Shias and Kurds and his invasions of neighboring countries.

So, if every country or tribe involved in an armed conflict is committing atrocities and they are all trying to justify themselves by pointing out their enemies’ atrocities, then no country or tribe is better than any other, right? Does this mean that sorting out the good guys and bad guys of any conflict is a matter of toting up all the atrocities and trying to determine which side is worse? Or should we all move to countries that are neutral, non-military powers and declare a pox on all armed countries’ houses? Or, if we are feeling more proactive, should we all be trying to stand in the way of violent conflict wherever it occurs?

The problem with pacifism is that it can only succeed if everyone in the world is converted to it. Otherwise, pacifists can survive only if they have a good hiding place or if there are non-pacifists willing to defend them from other non-pacifists. Common sense tells us that, barring a simultaneous worldwide conversion to pacifism, tribes or countries or alliances that adopt a true pacifist stance will eventually be subjugated or eliminated by more militarist powers. Those societies most likely to go completely pacifist would be the ones with the greatest respect for human rights. The ones that would not go pacifist and would overrun the pacifist ones would logically be the ones who have the least respect for human rights. (I want to note here that I have nothing but the greatest respect for true pacifists and, in fact, I am descended from a long line of religious pacifists on my mother’s side, who migrated from one country to another for centuries trying to stay out of other people’s wars. I will also note that it is my observation that many people who wrap themselves in the cloak of pacifism are rather selective as to which particular wars or struggles they oppose. And selective pacifism is really just a way of taking sides while trying to maintain an air of moral superiority.) It’s a conundrum, but the best hope we have for preserving the values that many of us cherish is to be willing to fight for them. And then the next question for societies trying to be moral is: can a country survive if its military is used purely for defense? Is it enough simply to meet invaders at one’s own borders? Or, in this day and age, is that leaving it too late?

This brings up a variation on the use of the first atrocity in movies. Steven Spielberg’s Munich begins with an atrocity, the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. But the ultimate point of that movie is not that Palestinians are terrible people. By the story’s end, the message is that the quest for revenge risks making us no better than the people we demonize. This is a theme that crops up regularly in movies about war and also, sometimes, about law enforcement. The idea of not sacrificing our humanity in the process of trying to preserve it is a valid one. But such movies ultimately run the risk of asserting what is known as moral equivalence. By convincing ourselves that no country or society is morally better or worse than any other, we potentially fall into the same trap as pacifism. If we don’t think that there is something about our own society and culture worth preserving and defending, we run the risk that it will be supplanted by another one. If that happened, we could hope that it would be as good or better than the culture we have now. But how likely would it be for us to feel that way? I can think of no country in history where the people thought they were better off after they had been overwhelmed by another country.

Just ask the Irish. After all these centuries, they still get annoyed by the English.

-S.L., 17 August 2006

If you would like to respond to this commentary or to anything else on this web site, please send a message to Messages sent to this address will be considered for publishing on the Feedback Page without attribution. (That means your name, email address or anything else that might identify you won’t be included.) Messages published will be at my discretion and subject to editing. But I promise not to leave something out just because it’s unflattering.

If you would like to send me a message but not have it considered for publishing, you can send it to

Commentaries Archive