No man’s land

“No man’s land” is the title of one of the outstanding films in the recent Cinemanila International Film Festival. It tells the story of three wounded soldiers at the height of the war in Bosnia – one Serb and two Bosnians — who by chance find themselves trapped together in a foxhole on disputed territory.  One of the Bosnians lies immobile on top of a landmine that will explode if he lifts his body.  The other Bosnian and the Serb are made to confront this strange and ridiculously tragic situation with unfailing irony. None of them can climb out of the foxhole without being shot by either of the two sides.

They alternately argue, tell stories, threaten each other, share cigarettes, hatch a rescue plan, and actually shoot one another. Theirs is the story of all peoples, caught in the web of armed conflict, acting against their better instincts to destroy their neighbors that the war has identified for them as enemy.

The United Nations multinational peacekeeping forces are requested by both the Bosnians and the Serbs to rescue the men.  The UN British commander ponders the situation and decides that attempting a rescue might cause them to do something that could easily be misinterpreted as taking sides.  A young French sergeant from the UN forces, fed up with this spectator role, defies the assessment of his superior officer, secures a temporary ceasefire from both sides, and proceeds to the foxhole in no man’s land.  He is puzzled by what he sees, and his questions provoke a new round of argument and recrimination from the Bosnian and the Serb.

A woman correspondent from a global television network gets wind of the situation and, with her cameraman in tow, badgers the French sergeant with her own questions.  Why are you doing this, she asks, reminding him of the peacekeepers’ mandate as a neutral party.  He mumbles something that takes the form of a stunning sound bite: “Because in the face of murder, to do nothing is to take sides.”

But the rescue is far from easy. A German bomb disposal expert is brought into the trench to disarm the land mine underneath the body of the wounded Bosnian.  To his dismay, he discovers he cannot do anything: the bomb is US-made and is tamper-proof.

Meanwhile, more reporters and photographers from the other media networks have come onto the scene.  The British commander feels compelled by this unwanted media attention to personally come and survey the situation.  He is seething.  Privately, he gives the French sergeant a tongue-lashing and instructs the German bomb expert to pretend he is busy defusing the bomb.  He then faces the media with all the aplomb of an officer in full control of the situation.

Finally, he announces that the bomb has been disarmed.  The two soldiers from the warring camps emerge from the trench.  And as the commander of the peacekeepers gives another speech to the media, the two men who have just been rescued manage to snatch some guns and fire at one another.  They both die.  The cameras continue to whirl, beaming instant images of violence to insatiable viewers back home.  The other Bosnian soldier lying helplessly atop the American-made land mine takes out the photo of a loved one from one of his pockets.  He knows he will die soon; the bomb had not been disarmed.

In another trench not too far away, two soldiers talk during the lull. One of them peruses an old magazine and seeing an article on the conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsi tribes, casually remarks, “What a mess Rwanda is!”

I thought that was the film’s most powerful line. The irony is subtle, and the indictment is collective.  We tend to see all the mess that other people create everywhere else in the world, except our own. And when we do see our own, we spend more time apportioning blame or assigning responsibility, or scoring ideological points and digging up memories of past resentment, than finding pragmatic solutions to the mess in which we find ourselves.

Wars do not sprout overnight.  The circumstances that make them possible and sometimes inevitable usually develop over such a long duration that it no longer makes sense to ask who started it all.  The more important questions to ask, as the film makes clear, would have been: How do we both get out of the foxhole alive?  And how should we deal with land mines?  The answers that the film provides are quite simple: Stop arguing especially in front of media and start talking about joint action.  And don’t mess with landmines especially if they are US-made.

In many ways, countless situations in everyday life may be regarded as “no man’s land” not only in the dictionary sense of “unoccupied region separating opposing armies,” but also in the philosophical sense of not being easily summarized as any particular person’s or group’s doing.  Situations evolve through time, the product of many antecedent events, yet we tend to view them from the prism of imputed motives.  We do not delve rigorously enough into the multiple causes of situations.  We tend rather to go for those explanations that offer us the quickest relief because they confirm our prejudices and beliefs about others.

The result, as the sharpest observer of such great human errors, Nietzsche, once put it, is that “One way of positing causes becomes increasingly prevalent, is concentrated into a system and ultimately emerges as dominant, i.e. simply ruling out other causes and explanations. – The banker’s first thoughts are of ‘business’, the

Christian’s of ‘sin’, the girl’s of her love.”


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