Civil War and the Prophet Isaiah

Micah Rickard

“When we grasp war’s reality, a universe collapses.” - Chris Hedges, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

“So he poured out on them his burning anger,
the violence of war.
It enveloped them in flames, yet they did not understand;
it consumed them, but they did not take it to heart.”
- Isaiah 42:25

Alex Garland’s latest film, Civil War, seems synthetically made to stir controversy. Arriving in an election year for the United States, Civil War picks at the thread of America’s political volatility.

The movie portrays the later stages of national fracturing, as the president is in his third term, vowing to eradicate an intransigent rebellion led by California and Texas. Civil War follows a group of journalists (Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, Wagner Moura, and Stephen McKinley Henderson) who are traveling from New York City to Washington D.C. with the hope of capturing an exclusive interview with the president before his government collapses. The acting is roundly strong, with each actor delivering on their opportunities to add pathos and passion to their character. But this is Dunst’s film—she claims it for herself in a brief, silent opening, her eyes carrying complex suspicion and curiosity.

By beginning in the middle of the conflict and embedding us with war reporters instead of soldiers, Garland avoids mapping the conflict onto current society. Many have criticized this narrative decision, but it enables Civil War to find a more substantial critique. The aim is not to create a politically coherent context, but to portray the visceral experience of war and its felt effects. In doing so, Civil War confronts us with the existential emptiness that occurs in battle.

The ethos of Civil War shares profound connections to Chris Hedges’ book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Hedges was a war correspondent for over a decade; the book is a probing reflection on the ways that the lived experience of battle powerfully eradicates our moral sensibilities. Hedges writes that “it takes the experience of fear and the chaos of battle, the deafening and disturbing noise, to wake us up, to make us realize that we are not who we imagined we were.”

Civil War drops us into that chaos without a handhold to provide stability. The most cutting scene finds the reports stuck in a surreal standoff between snipers amid cloying Christmas decorations. Moura’s Joel turns to one of the soldiers and asks what’s going on. “They’re stuck, we’re stuck,” is the only response. When Joel asks who the enemy sniper is, he’s calmly told, “I have no idea.” The battlefield becomes a place void of meaning, a tabula rasa of morality. As Hedges reports, “The violence of war is random. It does not make sense.”

Civil War deftly portrays the existential barrenness of battle. Soldiers shoot civilians with disturbing apathy; the bodies of those slain are posed for photos. As the reporters stumble into various scrums, it’s frequently unclear who they end up next to. Is this soldier a rebel or part of the U.S. military? Who knows. What does it matter?

Civil War deftly portrays the existential barrenness of battle.

But even as it creates a blank slate of meaning, war is ready to build upon that now empty foundation. Hedges’ book is particularly critical of this dynamic, which he calls mythic war: “The potency of myth is that it . . . gives us a justification to what is often nothing more than gross human cruelty and stupidity.” Even the reporters are seduced by the myth. In recent interviews, Garland has insisted that his journalists are the heroes, but the film is consistently ambivalent on this. Their moral detachment veers away from professionalism into something murkier. Hedges, reflecting on his experiences, admits that “the press wanted to be used. . . . For we not only believe the myth of war and feed recklessly off of the drug but also embrace the cause. We may do it with more skepticism. We certainly expose more lies and misconceptions. But we believe. We all believe. When you stop believing you stop going to war.”

Such violence can be alluring. After one skirmish, Spaeny’s Jessie confesses, “I’ve never been scared like that before, and I’ve never felt more alive.” Hedges states that “the seductiveness of violence, the fascination with the grotesque—the Bible calls it ‘the lust of the eye’—the god-like empowerment over other human lives and the drug of war combine” to dull one’s senses to reality. This critique is not far from Isaiah’s warning against Israel in Isaiah 42. The prophet cries out against a deaf people. Their injustice and lust dulled their senses to God’s calling. Will they not turn from their violent, unjust ways? Are they so calloused that even the experience of war won’t pierce their conscience?

Civil War makes a similar appeal to a desensitized people. The movie gives a fractured nation what it seemingly craves, only to depict the desolation of that desire. By confronting us with the vacuity of violence, Civil War demands that our hopes for victory be found elsewhere. Neither a sovereign nation nor a just rebellion will truly satisfy our hunger for peace. Where, then, do we find hope?

Isaiah points us beyond the reach of human violence. In the majestic descriptions of Isaiah 60, God offers a vision of his promised restoration. Among these images of the city of God, he proclaims:

I will make peace your governor
and well-being your ruler.
No longer will violence be heard in your land,
nor ruin or destruction within your borders,
but you will call your walls Salvation
and your gates Praise.

Peace in place of violence. Well-being over ruin. Salvation that overcomes destruction. All our earthly attempts at violence, however justified, will inevitably fall far short of these better realities that we hunger for. As Civil War shows, the violent means we attempt to use will only serve to disorient our moral compasses and deform us in war’s image. Isaiah’s call offers a choice to God’s people living in a fractious land: grow calloused and further entrenched in the posture of war, or have our sense of justice reoriented by God and cultivate flourishing in the land.

In our age, peace feels tenuous; battle is the default means to victory. But, in Christ, we are empowered to live toward that future hope of redemption—the kingdom of God—where enemies shall join, where lion and lamb shall both rest, and where swords shall lose their purpose. And war, no longer a force that gives us meaning, shall be silenced.

Topics: Movies