Why do they fight? What’s the real reason, beyond the circumstances of the moment, or the doctrines used to sell violence to those who would otherwise have peace? When the news and social feeds are filled with stories of escalating conflict, this is the only question that matters over the long term. The reasons have to be addressed.
When I try to understand the real reasons, I find myself getting lost in the current talking point meta-war between Israel and Palestine. So I turn to the buffer and distance offered by science fiction. Science fiction can provide a metaphor to understand conflict, and the “confrontation with the Inhuman Other” has been fertile soil for the genre. And in the unexpectedly satisfying Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, science fiction transcends metaphor to build a myth, an illustration of a truth both timeless and bleak.
Though a sequel of a remake, the movie is a standalone piece, leading with an efficient bit of narration to establish that civilization has crumbled, there is a history of mutual blame between human and intelligent ape, and the two races have no reason or desire to interact. This is the story of what happens when they do. This is a “clash of civilizations” myth about why there is no two-state solution on the Planet of the Apes.
There are no straw men either. Both humans and apes have leaders with an interest in peace and an understanding of politics. The hawkish factions of both tribes have legitimate reasons not to trust. As viewers, we believe in the legitimacy of both civilizations’ right to exist. The movie’s plot is a catalog of earnest attempts at bridge-building and how they fail, with theoretically rational decisions paving the road to disaster:
- Can we trust their offer of peace when we know they’re preparing for war?
- Should we help them become strong, if that strength could be used against us?
- Does offering forgiveness show us as weak? And does it betray those who were harmed by what is being forgiven?
- Do instances of aid erase transgressions against us?
The answers hinge on basic presumptions about your own people, and theirs. Actions taken out of hope can sometimes create connections, but actions motivated by fear always end up justifying that fear. And as a rallying cry, fear is far more effective. When the survival of one’s people is the perceived stake, the risk of trust becomes too high for a rational leader to embrace. War becomes inevitable, a fact realized even by those who worked for peace.
Why do they fight? Because they can neither trust nor forgive. Because they fear, and nothing short of domination of the other tribe can erase that fear. On their planet and ours.