Warriors and Avatars

Jessie Allen, School of Law, University of Pittsburgh

BOOK I.  Chapter the thirteenth.  Of the MILITARY and MARITIME STATES.

This chapter is about soldiers, or, “such persons as are peculiarly appointed among the rest of the people, for the safeguard and defence of the realm.”  p. 395.  Blackstone takes a dim view.  I read it the same weekend that I went to see the beautiful blockbuster Avatar, and I was struck with the movie’s Blackstonian view of the military state — in particular, a shared dread of standing armies and a certain romantic vision of citizen warriors.  

Initially, Avatar seems like an anti-war movie.  There are scattered pejorative references to the war in Iraq.  The military base and hardware are grey and scary, and the guy in charge is a caricature of a dumb, mean soldier with his scarred face and racist attitudes.  But it turns out that what the movie doesn’t like is the war machine.  War itself is glorious.  The human invaders are despicable not because they use force but because they fail to see the personhood of the creatures they attack and the complexity of the natural world they are ready to destroy — and, most important, their fighting is uninspired.  In the end, the native Navi repel the invaders and triumph not because they are a more highly evolved, less violent society, but because they are superior warriors.  

The movie’s view of the difference between the exquisite Navi and the invading human force is the difference between “warriors” and “soldiers.”  Like Blackstone, what Avatar deplores is not war or even warriors, but a standing army.  “In a land of liberty it is extremely dangerous to make a distinct order of the profession of arms,” warns Blackstone. p. 395  In Avatar, that threat materializes.  The humans are professional soldiers.  Between wars at home, they have signed on to fight in a mercenary interplanetary army that’s as dull and impersonal as it is deadly. There’s a moment when the hero, Jake, the American marine who crosses over to lead the Navi’s successful routing of the earthlings’ invasion, first identifies himself to the Navi chief.  I’m a warrior, he says.  Ah, a human warrior, the chief nods, we have never met one of those before.  The human soldiers lose their individuality in a military state whose machines are more interesting than the people inside them.  The Navi fight with wild romantic elan, ferocious intensity and, most important, exquisite individuality.  They are warriors.  Unlike the human soldier-drones, the Navi’s fighting elevates and exposes their true natures.  Instead of being subsumed into an anonymous war machine, battle is where they become most themselves.

 There’s a kind of liberal humanist war fantasy at work here that is eerily similar to the Commentaries’ vision.  In a “free state,” Blackstone explains, there would be no such thing as a “perpetual standing soldier.”  p. 395  Like the Navi freedom fighters, Blackstone’s ideal soldier fights only “to defend his country and it’s laws.”  Id.  He doesn’t shed his civilian identity when he takes up arms.  Indeed, he fights only to maintain that identity:  “he puts not off the citizen when he enters the camp; but it is because he is a citizen and would wish to continue so, that he makes himself for a while a soldier.”  p. 395  Mind you, this free citizen army existed in Blackstone’s imagination, not on the ground in 18th-century Britain, where,”for many years past” it had been judged necessary “to maintain even in time of peace a standing body of troops” to protect  “the safety of the kingdom” and “the possessions of the crown.”  p. 401  

One of the places the British standing army was deployed in Blackstone’s time, of course, was the American colonies, which were obtained, as Blackstone acidly pointed out, by “driving out the natives (with what natural justice I shall not at present inquire).”  p. 105.  Indeed, Blackstone’s disdain for the entire American project seems to be partly the result of the gap between the founders’ high democratic principles and their savage treatment of Native Americans and enslavement of Africans.  Avatar is very much a response to this dark history. Indeed the whole movie could be read as a utopian reimagining of  American colonization — a kind of heroic rebirth of American potential through the bodies of the next targets of colonial conquest.  

At the end of the film, the defeated human invaders are being shipped back to their own ruined planet.  But our American hero, Jake, and a few other sympathetic Americans, remain to make a fresh start in the new world.  Jake has chosen to enter that new life in his hybrid Navi-human avatar body,  leaving behind his old human form, along with his old world attitudes.  The fantasy is of an America that finally comes into its own by identifying and merging with a hyper-physical, dark-skinned other rather than by subduing and exterminating them.

In Avatar there is merging and there is fighting, but there is very little talking.  The war for freedom that determines Jake’s and the Navi’s shared fate is presented as inevitable.  There is never any question of a diplomatic solution, or a deal, between the wise Navi and the greedy humans.  Despite the humans’ technical prowess and the Navi’s sophisticated knowledge, no thought is given to developing an engineering fix that might allow the humans to extract the element they need without destroying the Navi environment.  The Navi never consider trying to share or sell the resources their human invaders are desperate to obtain.  Nor do they entertain the possibility of moving to allow for its extraction.  For that matter, the movie presents their current location as the sole place where the Navi’s culture could ever flourish.  There is no room for negotiation.  Period.  But that’s okay, because Jake and the Navi are warriors, not wimps, and god — or goddess– is on their side.  They do not compromise with invading terrorists. “This is our land,” Jake declares.  Thus does a critique of America’s twenty-first-century military adventures transpose into a (gorgeous) time-transcendent battle for self determination.  

It is striking how the approach of another self-declared American hybrid, or “mutt,” — i.e., President Obama– is left completely out of this picture.  There are different angles here on the clash, communication, and infiltration of different cultures.  But diplomatic engagement is not among them.  In this too, the movie’s sensibility has something in common with Blackstone, who displays little if any faith that commerce and compromise with other cultures could improve the lot of British citizens.  On the other hand, Blackstone does express serious qualms about the toxic effects of foreign wars on free states.  To minimize some of these, he suggests that laws passed during wartime ought to be “looked upon only as temporary excrescences bred out of the distemper of the state, and not as part of the permanent and perpetual laws of the kingdom.” p. 400   Avatar, however, for all its condemnation of a particular “preemptive” war, displays no particular concern about the potential toll any war may take on a good society.

It may be too much to ask that a movie that makes such an amazing technical and aesthetic leap forward also contribute some new insight into statecraft and foreign relations.  In any case, none is offered.  Indeed, in this department the movie’s approach is decidedly old fashioned.  As my nine-year-old daughter remarked, “it made it seem like war is the answer.”

First posted January 12, 2010.