Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

February 26, 2007

Clint Eastwood's Moral Relativism

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 5:26 am

“It’s not about winning or losing it’s about what big sacrifices they made; rightly or wrongly they made them.”

Thus sayeth Clint about the Japanese soldiers in Letters From Iwo Jima in an Oscar broadcast segment spotlighting the film’s Best Picture nomination.

“Rightly or wrongly”: so it doesn’t make a difference? Just the fact of sacrifice enobles, no matter what cause? It’s a complex question, I’m not sure I know the answer but I haven’t seen much complex discussion about it by film reviewers eager to embrace the film uncritically.

“Rightly or wrongly” all sacrifice is equal just because it’s sacrifice? Could one say that about the German soliders at Stalingrad who sacrificed themselves for Hitler, whose staunch ally Clint’s Iwo Jima Japanese soldiers were?

And the 9/11 hijackers and other suicide bombers? They made sacrifices in their war against infidels? Is “making sacrifices” no matter what one makes sacrifices for something to be applauded indiscriminately?

It’s remarkable to me that in all the praise lavished upon Letters From Iwo Jima there was little examination of the moral relativism implicit in the film, and made explicit by Clint’s Oscar Night quote.

Doesn’t this encourage unreflectiveness about “sacrifice”? Doesn’t it collapse all the difficult issues involved–and I’m not saying all cases can be reduced to Stalingrad or 9/11–in order to elevate blind fanaticism to a heroic ideal?

Just asking.


  1. There was some talk about this at the new republic. Somehting about comparing this movie (I’ve not seen it) with Das Boot. It came down to this I think: Would an American make a movie sympathetic to Nazi soldiers? (Like Das Boot was.) I doubt it. Soon though. But the “otherness” of the Japanese makes it permissable in Iwo Jima I imagine. Japanese racism and xenophobia is generally ignored. As it is in Saudi Arabia.

    So as long as the psychotic fascist subject of your film is foreign enough, all that matters is the “sacrifice” I guess.

    Comment by Shmuel — February 26, 2007 @ 5:34 pm | Reply

  2. I think Eastwood is thinking along the lines of the fatalistic, “noir” philosophy he worked out in dark, critically-applauded films like “Unforgiven.” He doesn’t seem to grasp that this sort of pessimistic fatalism is inappropriate in confronting terrorists. The character Dirty Harry may have been a bastard, but he saved lives.

    Comment by WasatchMan — February 26, 2007 @ 8:55 pm | Reply

  3. Wow, who knew that Dirty Harry was yet another wimpy defeatocrat liberal?

    I wonder if that is all he’s ever said about this.

    A rhetorical question. 🙂

    Comment by Bill Bradley — February 26, 2007 @ 11:02 pm | Reply

  4. I expect that “Iwo Jima” is part of a triumphant trilogy. Soon to arrive at a screen near you:”Letters from Bataan” and “Letters from Nanking”.

    Comment by MDavis — February 27, 2007 @ 8:26 am | Reply

  5. Ron,

    It is indeed moral relativism and it is incredibly dispiriting. It is a very corrosive undercurrent in our culture today and films like this can undermine our society’s confidence in itself. Of course, the message is always offered under the pious halo of “understanding” and “tolerance,” but in the end people like Eastwood are saying that our society isn’t really worth defending because, after all, who is to say that our cause was more just than Imperial Japan’s? I thought the column linked below was an excellent analysis of the relativism and false assumptions of the film.

    Comment by Daniel — February 27, 2007 @ 12:12 pm | Reply

  6. This discussion has reminded me of a movie I truly loathed… “Decline”… where a mad, ridiculous, crazy-uncle type Hitler dupes an otherwise noble and unsuspecting Germany..Germans are portrayed merely as another variety of Nazi victim (I’ve always been more sympathetic of the “Willing Excutioner’s” over “Ordinary Men” theory.)…into the WWII; the holocaust is barely mentioned. In this film too, the prouder German military men are also portrayed as noble hostages of Hitler’s persoanlly insane policies. Of course this was a German film. What’s interesting about Eastwood’s is that it comes out of the USA.

    Comment by Shmuel — February 27, 2007 @ 12:35 pm | Reply

  7. Not “Decline” but “Downfall”

    Comment by Shmuel — February 27, 2007 @ 1:11 pm | Reply

  8. I would have thought that the whole essence of morality or ethics is to make a judgment about that which is morally acceptable or not. If there is moral equivalence, meaning that everything is of equivalent worth then the entire concept of morality is nullified. If one can’t discuss the ethics of an action because it cannot be deemed to be either superior or inferior to another then there is no point in having ethical standards. This also means that nothing is good or bad since that standard has been erased.In fact, if one follows that line of thought it is logical to conclude that even the notion of standards becomes meaningless.

    Comment by Lili Gans — February 28, 2007 @ 5:14 am | Reply

  9. Actually, I think it’s called humanism.

    You all should leave the country more. Including Mr. Rosenbaum, who could may turn off the Oscars and maybe, I don’t know, speak to some Japanese vets about what they think.

    Comment by Humanism anyone? — February 28, 2007 @ 10:36 am | Reply

  10. Coming into the discussion late –

    I’m re-reading “Battle Hymn of Freedom”, and have been thinking about the men who fought on the Confederate side. Many, like Robert E. Lee, fought because their allegiance was to their state, not because they were slavers. Many were just kids who didn’t have the luxury of our hindsight. We owe them respect for contending so mightily, even though their cause was tainted.

    I have not seen “Letters From Iwo Jima”, and have no use for moral equivalence, but we must also beware of moral vanity. Are not the young Japanese soldiers, products of a cruel training regimen in service of a cruel government, deserving of a little of our sympathy?

    I can see–possibly–some sympathy for the “young Japnaese soldiers”, but I’ve heard variations of the arguments that Confederates weren’t fighting for slavery and I just don’t buy it. “Allegaince to their states” cannot be considered in isolation; inevitably it meant allegiance to their right to enslave other human beings which, I believe is not deserving of sympathy of any kind

    Comment by Jack Woodward — March 3, 2007 @ 9:57 am | Reply

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