To Justify War – The Hunger Games

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After spending last week reading and loving  Suzanne Collins Hunger Games trilogy I have only one thing on my mind and that’s what I want to write about today.

While I haven’t set out to review the books as such I guess that you could consider this a bit of a spoiler so be warned!

The Hunger Games struck a chord with me both personally and professionally.  After seeing the movies (I saw the first two –  third isn’t yet made) before picking up the books I was initially fascinated and singularly occupied by the inward and outer journey that our protagonist, Katniss Everdeen was undertaking. Being the mother of two daughers and being something of a woman that doesn’t always ‘toe the unspoken feminine line’ I was initially sucked in to thinking this was a film about her and more specifically about how Katniss might be a good role model for my not-yet-coming-of-age daughters.   The fact that she was a ‘she’ was smart, that she wasn’t about her looks was a bonus and that she wasn’t defined by a ‘significant other’ was awesome but what was better was that she was a fighter, a warrior, a doer of stuff and (at least in one form) a winner.

After the films I sought out feminist reviews, wondering what they thought of this powerful hunter, this wild young thing with a passion for justice but it was there that I realised that I had missed the point entirely.

I should have realised my mistake earlier especially given that other than the obvious (being thrown into a game where one has to fight for their survival) Katniss spends much of her time wrestling with who she really is after her image is hijacked and branded as a reluctant and (in the first film) oblivious FACE OF THE REVOLUTION, the MOCKINGJAY!  How sad that I’d been suckered into that same mentality away from the screen.

After reading the books I had a better idea of what Collins had created and by the time I’d turned the final page I was in no doubt that this is about the politics of war. Katniss is indeed a strong and grounded individual and one worthy of being held up as a role model but I’ll come back to that later.  For now it’s to war we go.

It is a long time since my tribe has been to war – 1939-45 being the last time my blood was thrown into the arena. I don’t know what it is like to live under that kind of threat and more importantly (in relation to the Hunger Games) I don’t know what it would feel like to have been born into a regime  as morally corrupt and restrictive as the postapocalyptic Panem and its dystopian rulers in The Capitol. Individual rights to practically everything are limited, work is tough and eking out a personal identity risky.

On first introduction it would seem that District twelve, the coal miners (each district is known for its produce and 12 has coal)  – the home of The Mockingjay, Katniss – is the very definition of hell on earth with its food shortages,  dangerous and dirty industry,  electrical fencing and poor housing conditions but later into the story we discover that it was possibly one of the least tyrannous,  overlooked by the capital as any real threat to their system due to the poor health and vitality of the people who lived there, their weakness of  ‘will’ and their ability to get massacred in all but one of the previous 74 hunger games.  The all-but-one is where Hamitch comes in, a hardened drinker and mentor to our young protagonist and her District Twelve partner Peeter.  In short District Twelve was seen as a bit of a joke but that joke backfires later in the piece as we witness the spark that lives within Katniss ignite the passions of the masses when she defies the capital at the end of the first book. This autonomous act of defiance turns out to be enough spark to light an inferno that ultimately brings down the system.

And that brings me onto my question, a question that I feel is the central theme of the book.

Is there ever a time when war is justified?

Once I had got over my ‘holding out for a hero’ view of Katniss I started to pay more attention to the detail of what she (and yes, I know she is fictional) was saying.  Keeping in mind her agency – that she is a minor  (16 in the first book, 17 and a bit in the second) from a broken home (dad died in a mining accident, mum suffering on and off from depression) and sole provider and support for her sister Prim she tackles this question frequently and personally.  It is understandable that  she (being 17 and with her background)  carries the burden of what is unleashed almost singlehandedly,  quietly but painfully working out ways to pay her debts to each of HER victims, sitting with the burden that she collects during HER battles against the Capitol. Wondering if it would have been better if she had died and prevented all of this.  The realisation that she was the spark (the girl on fire) and that the bomb and ignition source were beyond her control was beyond her comprehension.  You only have to ask the average 17-year-old activist how much they can change the world to know that the answer is  often ‘COMPLETELY’…..

And with that we come back to the question and an answer that I have found in Bertrand Russell’s 1916 essays ‘Why Men Fight”.

“The supreme principle, both in politics and in private life, should be to promote all that is creative, and so to diminish the impulses and desires that centre around possession”

So what does that mean?

The human cost of war weighs  heavily on Katniss’ mind. It all seems so pointless, so wasteful, so much pain and to what end?

Only now I am not so sure that it is pointless.

There is nothing good about the Hunger Games but the ugliness and brutality of the games is not the point.  They are merely the spectacle, the detail, the distraction from the day-to-day soul breaking, spirit wrenching, hope draining life that those in the districts endure.  They are the tool that hammers the final nail in the coffin that maintains the status quo.   The Capitol don’t need hand cuffs, they have gained ultimate control through fear and more specifically what you personally fear – a poignant fact that was made clear in the second book/ film when President Snow visits Katniss…..

Russell’s words, penned nearly 100 years hence capture the reality of the (fictional) Hunger Games brilliantly and form the perfect justification for what played out amongst the pages of the third book and yet-to-be-made film.

Russell goes on to talk about the conditions needed for war in his essay ‘the principe of growth’  and again I find that his words re-enforce the horror within the details of Collins book transforming it from the purely fictional to the ‘I recognise that’  actuality.

Looking beyond the titillation, shock and spectacle that is the Hunger Games I am left with what looks like a justification for war, a proposition that war is sometimes the right course of action, and that sits heavily on my mind.

I have been mulling over this all weekend, trying to work a way out of that being so, wondering why I find it so hard to swallow, so wrong and my attention turns inwards, to my own experiences.

Up until a month or so ago I would have told you that there is no place for war.  That nothing good comes of it and that it is morally inferior to negotiations – the pen is mightier than the sword etc. That was before I felt provoked into defending something that I personally held dear.

I don’t know why but this particular occasion rattled my cage to the point that it rattled the bolt clean out.  I was angry and what was more important was that I felt that I had every right to be.  I also felt something that I’d never felt before – that it was time to put down the pen and fight.  Direct action style.

In my case this didn’t mean punching anyone or anything and neither did it mean getting out a Katniss style  bow and arrow (although I do like a spot of archery) no, this meant standing up for myself and saying it as it was (and still is).

This represented a big turning point in my life, a life where previously  if I happened to find myself merrily meandering down a certain lane only to find that others had followed me, got ahead while I was smelling the roses and then built a barricade I’d just shrug with an ‘oh well, plenty of other lane ways to explore’.   I had never considered this to be a bad or self-limiting strategy until this one day.

What happened is that I realised that I was being forced into a position that wouldn’t allow me to promote all that is creative (my preferred route was being cut off),  would tie me up in detail (having to find a new way, make a new start etc) and would render me hopelessly weakened (physically, emotionally and financially).  The time had come for me to stand strong and fight.  To unleash my inner warrior.

and that I did and it turned out to be the best decision I’ve made in a long time!

I am still of the belief that all-out no-holes-barred war fare is not something that one should enter into lightly or frequently but I can now see the tipping point more clearly, a tipping point resting on the shoulders of human agency – our ability to act freely, creatively, from love.

With that in mind I have a new-found respect and appreciation for what it means to be free and I’d like to thank Suzanne Collins for tackling such a delicate and triggering topic as even if I’ve missed the point entirely I’ve gained a lot from it!

Remember who the enemy is.

Amanda x

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