Are War Critics Selfish?

The Americanization of Emily (1964) starred James Garner (as Charlie) and Julie Andrews (as Emily), both whom call it their favorite movie. Be warned; I give spoilers in this post.

Here is the movie’s most famous scene:

If you don’t have time to watch that, here is a key Charlie line:

It’s not war that’s insane, you see. It’s the morality of it. It’s not greed or ambition that makes war: it’s goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny. Always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war, we’ve managed to butcher some ten million humans in the interest of humanity. Next war it seems we’ll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It’s not war that’s unnatural to us, it’s virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved.

Charlie and Emily fall in love, and Charlie proposes, but just before he is shipped off to D-day, Emily dumps him saying she can’t marry a guy without principles. She is told that he dies, but then he shows up alive and planning to expose war PR lies, and in the process publicly admit his cowardice. But Emily says don’t, because that will inconvenience her:

Charlie: Emily, I want the world to know what a fraud war is.
Emily: But war isn’t a fraud, Charlie, it’s very real. At least that’s what you always tried to tell me, isn’t it? That we shall never get rid of war by pretending it’s unreal? It’s the virtue of war that’s the fraud, not war itself. It’s the valor and the self-sacrifice and the goodness of war that needs the exposing. And here you are being brave and self-sacrificing, positively clanking with moral fervor, perpetuating the very things you detest merely to do “the right thing”. Honestly, Charlie, your conversion to morality is really quite funny.

To please Emily, Charlie lies about the war, gets rewarded, and he and Emily live happily ever after.

The movie takes on a very basic moral conflict. Those who decline to do what is widely seen as altruistic are often criticized as selfish. But these avoiders sometimes present themselves as critics-of-conventional-morality, claiming that their choice is in fact best for others overall.

While this movie is widely seen as anti-war, it can also be seen as anti-war-critic. After all, these particular war critics decline to take the I-resist-war-to-help-the-world position, and will actually promote war if they can personally gain from it.

Overall though, I do agree that viewers are expected to sympathize with these characters. But why expect viewers to endorse such selfishness? My guess is that we are expected to accept that the main point of acting altruistically is to attract a mate. So if the way to get the particular mate you want is to be selfish, well then of course that’s the thing to do.

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  • Stephen Diamond

    My guess is that we are expected to accept that the main point of acting altruistically is to attract a mate.

    This guess implies that people know (at least unconsciously) that altruism is often hypocritical. Do the people attending “efficient charity” conferences that you address really understand, at some level, that their “altruism” serves selfish mate-seeking? Why would they, when their altruism serves its function without their knowing it?

    When the movie was made, the Vietnam War was just heating up. Perhaps viewers wanted reassurance that it was OK to ignore it.

  • seymour_results

    they’re very selfish! They want all the not-murder for themselves!

  • Richard Hammer

    Thank you. I watched the film last night. It questions our biases, not only as warriors and anti-warriors, but also as family members who erect monuments to the fallen. The film raises questions which I hope to resolve one day.