Why we need to understand loss when we talk about war

War of the Arrows is a 2011 Korean period action movie, an emotion-fuelled ride of terror from the very first scene. The smooth and sensitive direction drags you into the story from the first few shots and is immediately devastating. It doesn’t really let up, and leads to a climax and end as desperate as its start. The character set ups were well designed, fitting seamlessly into the story which provided surprise after shock throughout its 122 minutes.

I won’t spoil it – please go watch the film. Here’s my takeaway from it, and how I feel it relates to the state of our world right now.

What I learned from watching War of the Arrows by director Kim Han-Min

Tonight, I learned about loss and its link with our culture’s loss of humanity. Instead of connecting war to loss, we have connected it to violence. We understand the act (war is violent) but not the emotional pain. This film was brutal to my western eyes, because of the emotional terror, but I was hooked from the very first shot.

Japanese films and games – and comics – are often castigated for being very violent, but I can think of two examples from East Asia (War of the Arrows and Barefoot Gen) – and there are probably plenty more – that are devastating because they show you the emotional losses on all sides. In contrast, western media focuses on the violent acts, but rarely aims to express the emotional pain of people we see on the TV, especially those who are in an ‘other’ group, people we see as ‘the other’ because we label them as different from us.

Showing a woman from an ‘other’ group crying and renting her clothes and hair in the aftermath of a bombing attack doesn’t make people cry and feel her pain. Showing her child’s body, covered in blood and dust might get a little nearer to the emotional centre. But it’s only after we get to know her that we will be personally affected (in a small way maybe) by her loss. To emotionally connect with her, we need to have known her and her child before the bomb happened. A lot of news programmes do try this type of work, but they don’t always hit the nerve centre of the emotional content – how ordinary and ‘just like us’ everyone is. Remember 7-year-old Bana in Syria? Hers was a story they ran with for a while.

The use of this emotional connection in fiction is what I call ‘the Casualty effect’. Casualty is a long-running British TV drama about a hospital. Every story is structured the same. You meet a character. You get to know them and like them. Then BANG! The struggling single-dad window cleaner slips on some water on his high-rise scaffold and is impaled on the railings below. You’re immediately flipped from the emotional high of liking and understanding that character, to the possible loss and fear they may not make it through their ordeal.

(Spoiler, sorry). In War of the Arrows, a teenage boy and a tiny girl of 5 or 6 run for their lives, away from men with attack dogs and swords. He holds her hand tightly until she slips and they both fall. A dog is almost upon them, but is killed by an arrow in the nick of time. It is their father. He gives his bow to Nam-yi, tells him he must be Ja-in’s father from now on, and packs them off to his friend’s home for refuge. Ja-in won’t leave her father, so Nam-yi goes back and witnesses his father’s death by soldiers. He kills them and, bitten by dogs but alive, he and Ja-in escape.

This tiny girl clinging to her brother’s hand, screaming for him to go back for her father, her pain was palpable. So brave and crazy she would have gone herself, so her brother had to tie her to a tree while he crept back.

The story whips you up and tosses you in. You immediately see so much depth in the characters, you can’t fail to respect their choices, so there’s no getting away from all the losses they endure. The overarching tale is about the Second Manchu invasion in Korea in 1636, and you witness the reactions of both the heroes and their enemies to their respective losses. The way they lay their dead out with their weapons if they have time. How they care about and respect other people, though they don’t behave with great shows of affection. The desperation as ordinary life is unexpectedly disrupted by war, and the concern of a commander when he sees a soldier in shock at what he has seen.

Why is this important?

Loss is the true cost of war. In western media we see only the violence – and much of that is censored. We don’t feel the loss, the pain, the heartache. Not fully.  If we don’t acknowledge and experience the other side of violence – the other side of war – the losses – we cannot understand the devastation of character and soul (the spiritual damage) that is war. If we cannot feel compassion and respect for our enemies, we lose our humanity during war. They are people too. They have loved ones who have lost them too. They are ordinary too.

We cannot comprehend the devastation of war unless we emotionally access and process its losses.  This is why so many westerners are so blind to their own callous behaviour. We can go on holiday and laugh as a desperate man drowns. We can send our sons and daughters to war on the back of a vote cast only by rich men, and not truly understand the significance of such a  move until our children come home in boxes. We are not there to see them die. We do not witness their bravery. We are eternally separated from their experiences of our choices. We choose to allow those rich men to vote on our behalf.

It is only really (unless you are incredibly sensitive) when someone you personally love comes home from war changed or dead, that we can start to understand a  little of the devastation of war. And even then it is one-sided. We are restricted from fully experiencing and learning from the experience because we don’t see the consequences on the other side.

War has consequences. And they go much deeper than just being life or death.

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