To get away from the depressing news of the day, from Ukraine to Gaza, I went to see a fantasy movie with my family: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Except it did not turn out to be a fantasy. Rather, it was a remarkably accurate parable on the causes of current global conflicts!
In the movie, a synthetic virus escapes its test lab (a standard science-fiction premise), killing most humans but endowing apes with human-level intelligence. The apes — many of whom escaped from labs where they had been subjects of animal testing — move to the forests of northern California, while a few hundred surviving humans nestle in San Francisco.
At first, both groups simply want to live in peace in their separate areas. But then the humans need to enter the ape domain to restart an abandoned hydro-electric dam. They bring guns and in a moment of misunderstanding and fear one ape is shot and wounded. This threatens to escalate; the apes make a show of force to the humans and urge them to stay out of ape territory. However, a courageous individual human persuades the ape leader to grant a few humans a couple of days at the dam to start work. The small group of humans is good-hearted; they want no trouble and even help provide antibiotics to the ape leader’s mate.
Yet the humans back in SF are fearful and so start arming themselves in case the lead party in not successful and the apes return. A scouting party of apes sees them accumulating weapons, and judges the humans to be too dangerous to be left alone. One of the scouts — an ape who had been tortured as a lab test animal and nurses a bitter mistrust and hatred of humans — wants a war to deal with the human threat once and for all. His desire for war is so strong that he steals a gun and uses it to shoot the ape leader from a hidden position; he then pretends to “find” the gun, claims that humans shot their leader, and rouses the apes to war.
I won’t give away what happens next. Suffice to say that we find out that there are good-hearted humans, good-hearted apes, and spiteful humans blinded by fear and rage, and spiteful apes blinded by fear and rage. Sadly, the forces of fear and rage carry the day.
No doubt the majority of Israelis and Palestinians, Russians and Ukrainians, would like to just live in peace. Yet on each side, there are leaders who nurse old grievances and seek to mobilize supporters by fanning their fears — Israelis are occupiers, Palestinians are terrorists, Ukrainians are fascists, Russians are imperial tyrants. As one of the apes sums up their situation: those willing to stand up for peace are few and shunted aside, the rest follow the leader to war out of fear.
Fear and anger then fuel real acts of war: Palestinians shoot rockets at Israeli civilians, Israel attacks Palestinian rocket launchers to halt the attacks. But the rocket launchers have been placed near civilian homes and schools, so civilians die by the thousands, fueling hatred and support for more war (like the ape who shoots his own leader with a human weapon to create a pretext to war, Hamas invites casualties on its own civilians to win world sympathy for its cause).
The movie certainly has this right — it is impossible for a small number of well-meaning and peace-seeking individuals, even in positions of leadership, to create peace when others are working even harder to foment hatreds, create pretexts and causes for conflicts, and want to have a war because they believe they can conquer their enemies or use violence to advance their own security.
Is there any way out in the real world? Academic research on wars suggest there are only two paths to lasting peace: a clear victory by one side, or a “hurting stalemate” in which both sides suffer so much from ongoing conflict that they consent to international mediation.
Israel/Palestine is not in either situation. Israel cannot gain a clear victory over Hamas as long as its leaders have safe refuge in other countries, and the international community supports Palestinians’ claims. But neither can the Palestinians hope to win against Israel. As to a “hurting stalemate” in which both sides suffer severely, that is not happening either; Israel is fairly secure behind its walls, its occupation of Palestine, and its “Iron Dome” missile shield. However anxious and insecure Israel may be (and legitimately so, with millions of Arabs and several states openly committed to its destruction and having experienced decades of repeated terrorist attacks), most of the suffering is on the Palestinian side.
So the current situation endures: Israel seeks to control Palestine out of fears of attacks, while Palestine periodically attacks hoping to win sympathy from the world and pressure for Israel to loosen its grip. Neither side, at present, has any real incentive to change course, nor any practical alternative. So the current situation of indefinite anxiety and insecurity punctuated by periodic short and destructive open conflicts goes on, as it has gone on for many decades.
The only way to change this situation would be for outside powers to purge Palestine of terrorists and ensure Israel’s security in return for guarantees that Israel reduce its military occupation of Palestine. This would be somewhat like the agreement that ended World War II in the Pacific, with America promising to underwrite Japan’s security in return for Japan adopting a pacifist constitution. Given, however, that Islamic jihadists are on the march in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, and northwest and northeast Africa, with the world being unable to stop them, the chances for external dismantling of Palestinian terrorist leadership and security provision for the region are nil; that leaves Israel no choice but to manage its own security and for the current tragedy to continue.
In Ukraine, Russia would like to see a “hurting stalemate.” Russia has shown it is willing — in its fortitude regarding sanctions — to endure pain in return for trying to cause sufficient pain in Ukraine for the regime in Kiev to have to accept a deal that would entrench Russian influence and relative autonomy in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine, however, is pressing for victory, encircling separatist forces in Donetsk and shelling their positions. What we do not know is how far Ukraine is willing to go to pursue a complete victory, nor how far Russia is willing to go to prevent that.
One hopes that international mediators can persuade both Ukrainian and Russian leaders that the costs of an open conflict would be so high that a face-saving settlement is preferable to the risks of continuing the military pursuit of their goals. I fear, however, that we will see further rounds of escalation of both economic sanctions and military actions before a settlement is reached.
Go see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It may not provide an escape from the real world — but it makes it very plain why war is such a recurrent situation, and so difficult to escape, for all humans.