Avatar and Just War Theory

James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar is a thrill to see, and various commentators have judged the film for whatever ideological message they have found in it, but what struck me most is that the Na’vi people, in defending their land on Pandora from the imperialist exploitation by the humans, are engaging in one of the few just wars you’ll ever see, in fiction or real life. It reminded me of the clearly just defense of Narnia in the first Chronicles of Narnia film, so stark was the issue of right and wrong.

The movie has been lambasted by some conservatives who want to conceive of the movie into a message about environmentalism. Of course, actual pollution, strip-mining and the destruction of indigenous people’s lands by uninvited foreign corporations empowered through militaristic might should not be defended in any event—and such devastation of habitats is a very real, tangible act of aggression, unlike the far more tenuous environmental concerns like global warming that have distracted the entire conservation movement from genuine environmental degradation.

And the key point here is that the Na’vi are in fact people, sentient beings, much like the seemingly primitive alien races brutalized by the human-dominated empire in the Star Wars saga, or many other such epic stories. The Na’vi also command their own environment, taming and domesticating lower lifeforms, willing to put their own lives above those of the flora and fauna on Pandora, when need be.

It is true that they have a different set of values than modern industrialized man, but this is no reason to dispense with their property and community rights over their own territory. Whether one comes away admiring their cultural values or not—personally, unlike many who saw it, I was glad to be back inside with modern technology when the flick ended—the Na’vi rites and rituals work for their own circumstances. The Na’vi respect nature, but understand this respect as important in the context of utilizing nature for their own health and happiness. Their rituals of nature worship could be twisted into some message about the green movement, but so could the fact that the invaders in Independence Day sought to steal Earth’s natural resources. It is a real theme in history and an established one in myth that criminal gangs, bands of aggressors, states and quasi-governmental corporations will conquer indigenous peoples and rob them of their land and resources. Besides, even considering the peculiar relationship the Na’vi have to their land, one could see it as a form of technological transformation, a command of nature that the Na’vi have learned to wield. They treat nature with respect, but in a human way—taking control of animals and plants—and thus are very unlike the modern anti-human environmentalist ideal that sometimes puts sentient beings below other life forms. If James Cameron indeed intended a typical environmentalist trope, he failed.

The Na’vi have a mystical connection to their land that might bug some people, seeing all lifeforms as interwoven in a somewhat holy relationship, but this should be no more objectionable than the way the Jedi approach the Force. It is also plausible to say that the Na’vi simply have a respect for natural law, objective truth and morality that is completely lost on the materialistic, utilitarian and militarized humans who come in to steal their land. This movie is about one people defending their property rights as well as cultural values against an unambiguously rapacious and aggressive modernist invader. In any event, primitives have a right to defend whatever seemingly bizarre yet peaceful cultural practices are part of their identity.

And the way they defend it is unquestionably just. The war is winnable, unlike most that modern governments find themselves engaged in. It is declared by the proper authority, insofar as all the tribes voluntarily congregate to fight the invader. It is a last resort, since the human aggressors seem intent to exterminate all who try to stay on their land. The violence is proportional and no innocents are attacked. The only people who are harmed are belligerents. What’s more, the Na’vi take prisoners, who seem to be humanely treated, in massive numbers and let them return to where they came from in peace. Although defending their turf and having lost many of their people to the humans’ aggression, the Na’vi are much more humane in their response than the aggressors.

It excites me that people see this movie and cheer for the good guys, because rarely in a movie are the good guys so emphatically in the right and the bad guys so inescapably in the wrong. I love cheering for the white hats in an action or fantasy movie, but few protagonists offer as much with which to sympathize without reservation as do the Na’vi people. Even in Star Wars, there is more moral ambiguity, as the rebels and Jedi commit acts of fraud and violence against non-aggressors. But the real lesson here is that a truly just war is much more difficult to find in the real world, where usually both sides are at least somewhat substantially in the wrong. However, generally one side is more wrong than the other, and when we look at this movie in the context of America’s ongoing foreign policy that has persisted for decades, it could not be clearer than the Na’vi, whatever they symbolize, do not represent the U.S. government.

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