On Forgiveness versus Revenge
September 21, 2013 by Thomas Wictor
I love the movie Murphy’s War, even though I hate the premise. Peter O’Toole plays Murphy, the only survivor of a British naval ship that a German U-boat sinks in the Orinoco River, probably in Venezuela. Murphy is the sole survivor because the Germans deliberately, methodically, and calmly kill all the sailors who go into the water after the ship is torpedoed.
The wily Murphy manages to hide among the bodies and then climb up on some kind of wooden pier-type structure in the middle of the river. He’s found by a French oil worker, taken to a Quaker mission, and given aid.
Once he’s recovered, Murphy spends every remaining second of his life trying to find and destroy the submarine. His rage can’t be placated. And here’s why I hate the premise of the film.
The German U-boat commander is given the opportunity to explain to the audience that he has to kill all the British survivors in order to protect his crew. He says he has the responsibility to do so. Murphy, on the other hand, is presented as a maniac. He’s endlessly criticized by Sian Phillips, the Quaker doctor. She calls his quest to sink the U-boat “senseless killing,” telling him that she understands how he feels.
No she doesn’t. She doesn’t at all understand how he feels. Very few people could, unless they themselves have experienced what Murphy suffered.
I understand perfectly how Murphy feels. In my mind he’s not a maniac at all. The Germans mercilessly, impersonally, and with businesslike efficiency kill every helpless sailor in the water, and then when the war ends, they demand that Murphy leave them alone. They’re surprised that Murphy is so angry.
Everyone in the movie says the same thing: The war is over, so what will Murphy gain by sinking the U-boat and killing the crew? Even Peter Yates the director, Sterling Silliphant the screenwriter, and Max Catto the novelist on whose work the film is based share this viewpoint. What’s the point in killing the Germans?
They should die for what they did. An arbitrary change in geopolitical status—the German surrender—is supposed to let them off the hook? They’re drinking champagne, laughing, and getting ready to go back home when Murphy attacks. These proud, unfeeling bastards should be spared? Why?
Murphy is right and everyone else is wrong for one simple reason that nobody ever seems to grasp: The Germans are unrepentant. When someone isn’t sorry, they don’t deserve forgiveness.
My own rage crippled me—physically, mentally, and psychically. It ruined my life. In many ways I never had a life. However, when the source of my rage asked me for forgiveness, I gave it. The rage had dissipated almost two years before, but I think I would’ve been able to forgive even at the height of my anger. I’m not sure, of course. At any rate, I always believed that forgiveness can’t be given unless the perpetrator sincerely asks for it. Instant, automatic forgiveness is meaningless. It’s given in order to benefit the forgiver.
I forgave strictly to benefit the forgiven. Afters years of rage and loss, I arrived at peace of mind and happiness without forgiving. I’d “forgiven” in the sense that I was no longer a white-hot jet of flame, but I hadn’t formally stated in my mind or out loud, “You are forgiven.”
When it was asked of me, I gave it, only so that the forgiven could die in peace. I’ve been accused several times of doing it for myself. Who cares? Those who make that accusation don’t know me or my motivations in the slightest. Though I’ve failed at almost everything, the one area in which I now excel is self-awareness, mainly because the self is almost all I have left.
So I understand Murphy’s desire for revenge. When my brother Paul and I were nearly murdered by the IRA on July 20, 1982, I wanted very badly to kill the people who set off the bomb. It took me almost twenty years to give up my hatred of the Irish. Today al-Shabaab committed a horrific atrocity in Nairobi, murdering dozens in a mall. This wasn’t just an incredibly evil act; it was also incredibly stupid. The Kenyans have one of the best special operations units in the world, the Rangers Strike Force. They mopped the earth with al-Shabaab in Somalia.
Many people think that after Pearl Harbor, Admiral Yamamoto said, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.” In fact, what he actually said was, “Gentlemen, we have just kicked a rabid dog.” Al-Shabbab just made the worst mistake of its existence, one reason being that the world press will not bother covering what the Kenyans do in retaliation. And the Kenyan special forces were trained by the Israelis.
Revenge isn’t a bad thing when the crime is unspeakable and the perpetrator is unrepentant. By taking revenge on them, you make them stop. Forever.
Murphy’s War is flawed because the “voice of reason” is a Quaker. She would oppose all violence under all circumstances. She’s like a person whose answer to every single question no matter what is, “Twenty-seven!” In a very real sense, her opinion is worthless. When she shouts at Murphy,”You love your war, don’t you?” his reply is completely valid:
“The war? Yeah, I started it, the whole flaming thing, didn’t I?”
None of the characters in the movie or the people who made it grasp that Murphy is completely justified in his actions. He was drafted, forced to fight, nearly murdered, and now everyone is telling him that he has to simply let the butchers sail away unmolested. Murphy is even called a “small, lonely man” because he wants justice. I find that completely unacceptable and immoral. Murphy is the only moral person in the film.
When people hurt you and are not sorry, they not only don’t deserve forgiveness, they must be stopped. By whatever means necessary. They must also be punished. I believe that refusing to mete out punishment for unrepentant wrongdoing is a sign of complete amorality, not moral superiority. Whatever the Kenyans do to punish al-Shabaab, I’ll support.
Good hunting, men. Make them pay dearly.
This isn’t to say you must follow my example. You must make your own choices, and I won’t criticize you. I won’t tell you that you have to think the way I think. However, I will say that when someone tells you that you mustn’t get revenge, those people are just as wrong as I’d be for telling you to have your revenge. Ignore anyone who tells you what to think, feel, or do. In return, don’t give me your views on what I should think, feel, or do. The question of forgiveness versus revenge is entirely up to the individual.
I love Murphy’s War, but I root for Murphy. In my own entirely subjective opinion, the director, screenwriter, and Quaker doctor are wrong. If you want a more nuanced (I hate that word) film that addresses the same issue, watch Friendly Persuasion, another story about Quakers confronted with the moral dilemma of war.
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