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Far sides of the world

By Jackson Murphy
web posted November 17, 2003

The first thing you notice in the new film "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" is that the faceless, ruthless, and treacherous enemy is none other than the good ole French. Isn't it always the French these days? But it is just a film after all.

Russell Crowe is seen as Capt.'Lucky' Jack Aubrey who commands a British navy fighting ship in the new film 'Master and Commander The Far Side of the World.'
Russell Crowe is seen as Capt.'Lucky' Jack Aubrey who commands a British navy fighting ship in the new film 'Master and Commander The Far Side of the World.'

The film isn't just about the French. Yet while watching the movie one starts to wonder what the world of author Patrick O'Brian would have looked like had it included a few Michael Moores, the U.N., pesky international law, the modern Press Corps, France, and everything else that makes the situation in Iraq seem terribly difficult today.

The fact that navy ships once roamed the planet free from communication and orders, yet a mission somehow remained is pretty remarkable. Thinking that these crews were warriors, builders, sailors, ambassadors, and explorers all at the same time and it is simply hard to fathom. Today some wonder why the military could not protect a museum during the tail end of major battle, or why they cannot get electricity back. Some things never change.

Then again today we have the GPS, the laptop, precision guided munitions, aircraft carriers, and every other modern day toy. It's hard to say which group of things you would rather have. The toys are nice, but the absence of a chirping nay saying choir from the nosebleeds might be a worthy trade.

For the crew of the HMS Surprise there are no doubts about the mission or leadership. It is a singular and strangely simple world. No wondering about what the definition of the word of "eminent" is, what the exit strategy of the Napoleonic Wars will be, and why they are half way around the globe so far from home.

The other important thing in this film is the dynamic of the two lead characters. On the one hand you have the dashing and powerful Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey, on the other, Dr. Stephen Maturin. Maturin is ship's surgeon first, humanist second and part of the British Royal Navy third. The balance between the two makes it worth watching. But the humanist doctor knows when to get into the fight and understands that fighting is sometimes necessary.

Christopher Hitchens doesn't give this film much credit. He believes that it doesn't have any deep significance for events today but suggests, "we need Stephen Maturins with their skepticism and cynicism and their determined enmity to tyranny, and not just Jack Aubreys who will discharge blasts of cannon at whoever is nominated by His Majesty as the enemy."

He is absolutely correct on both points. This film doesn't necessarily have much to add nor detract from our current situation. The threat we are facing today is not really akin to facing down Napoleon or Hitler. It has always been more comparable to what Robert Kaplan describes, in his book Warrior Politics, "to that of the late Victorians, who had to deal with nasty little wars in anarchic corners of the globe." Except that modernity has given a considerable edge to the anarchist. They have access to dangerous weapons and the ability to project them anywhere in the world.

Secondly we do need sensible skepticism and cynicism about this current global conflict not just rabid anti-American carping. If you were casting a real life Maturins you could do no better than someone like Hitchens. He would have the perfect bedside manner and the moxy to understand as his Slate.com colleague David Edelstein does that Maturins is a, "humanist who nonetheless understands the necessity of occasionally slicing people up for non-medical reasons."

So imagine conducting a long term war under the specter of a media that shapes public opinion and a section of the chattering class that never thinks anything is worth fighting for. The war in Iraq is tough and frankly it is a wonder that we've made it this far on the war on terror without giving up.

And as death tolls mount it is worth noting that even a rocky Iraq is better than a Saddam run Iraq. As P.J. O'Rourke noted in a recent interview at the Atlantic Monthly web site, "everyone talks about Iraq not being stable, but when it was stable it attacked Israel in 1967 and in 1973, it attacked Iran, it attacked Kuwait, it fostered terrorism in the Middle East. Who wants a stable Iraq? It's better for us and, in a way, better for the world that this government has been weakened and destroyed. Does it leave a mess behind? Do we owe it to the people of Iraq to try our best to clean up that mess? Yes."

On the far side of the world there are new Captain Aubrey's and Dr. Maturins trying to make a better place out of Iraq today. It a fantastic gamble, but if we can put Iraq back together again under the dark shadow of media scrutiny it will be an equally enormous victory.

Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He a senior writer at Enter Stage Right and the editor of "Dispatches" a web site that serves up political commentary 24-7. You can contact him at jacksonmurphy@telus.net.

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