Once in a while, gentle reader, I’m going to inflict a dose of Xena fandom upon you. But bear with me. It’s actually quite relevant to the discussion we’ve been having about torture, the war on terror, and the dilemma of whether one can win and keep one’s hands clean. (See my earlier posts here and here.)
A second-season Xena: Warrior Princess episode, “The Price” — made in 1996 — deals with an almost uncanny prescience with a lot of the issues involved in the War on Terror today.
Xena, a reformed warlord with a dark past, and her young idealistic companion Gabrielle find themselves in an Athenian fort besieged by a mysterious tribe of nomadic warriors, the Horde. The general who commanded the fort has been killed, and Xena takes command (since this is a fantasy version of the ancient world, her gender is never an issue). Things do not look good: the Athenians are running out of soldiers, weapons, and supplies, reinforcements are not expected, and the Horde — with whom Xena had a run-in years ago — are a vicious bunch known for skinning their captives alive. In a desperate situation, Xena resorts to desperate measures. She orders Gabrielle, who has taken over the infirmary, to withhold food and water from wounded men who won’t be able to fight. She also kills a fleeing enemy with an axe in the back because he has been inside the Athenian battlements and has seen their defenses.
When Gabrielle is horrified, Xena retorts, “This is war! What did you expect, glamor? There are no good choices — only lesser degrees of evil.” Gabrielle begs her to stop fighting and try to find another way. “They are not like us,” says Xena. “There is nothing about them that we can or should understand.”
Finally, after Xena tortures a captured Horde warrior by using pressure points to cut off his air supply in order to get him to disclose the location of the Horde camp, Gabrielle confronts her again.
XENA: We didn’t ask for this. If they want a fight to the death, they’re going to get it. What part of that didn’t you understand?
GABRIELLE: You! Who are you, Xena? What happened to the Xena that I know?
XENA: That Xena can’t help us now. If losing her is the price for saving us all, I’ll pay it.
Gabrielle has other ideas. Deciding that she would rather “die my way” than lose her humanity and watch Xena lose hers, she gives water to the Horde prisoner and then sneaks out of the fort to give water to the Horde wounded dying outside the gates. Unexpectedly, Gabrielle’s actions lead to a truce that allows Xena to step back and take a deep breath; and then, Xena establishes enough communication with the Horde prisoner to figure out that he has his own code: He will not fight an opponent of superior rank but will reaction with deference and submission. Armed with this knowledge of the Horde’s peculiar ideas about rank and honor, Xena comes up with a strategy to defeat them: She challenges their leader to single combat and beats him (whereupon his own men kill him to avoid loss of face, and vanish as mysteriously as they appeared).
Some conservative Xena fans dislike “The Price,” which they consider squishy. I don’t think it is. Yes, a part of the episode’s message is that it’s important to try to understand the enemy and to see them as human; but this understanding is used to defeat the enemy in the most effective way possible, not join them in a group hug. Xena’s arguments for realism in the face of war are actually quite compelling, while Gabrielle’s idealism may be less compassionate than selfish and self-righteous (she’d rather see all the people in the fort die than compromise her moral purity). But the point is that by itself, Xena’s harsh realism can’t win the war any more than Gabrielle’s stubborn idealism: the two must complement and temper each other.
Could there be a parallel in this to the War on Terror, in which we have our own Xenas and Gabrielles? The realists need to be in charge if we’re to survive; the idealists must have a voice in the matter if we’re to keep from losing our soul.
But there’s a caveat; more than one, actually.
At the end of the episode, Xena tells Gabrielle that the Horde will be back; their defeat is only temporary, and ultimately, they can be stopped only by peacemakers — Gabrielles — in their own midst. That’s not very encouraging, if analogized to the War on Terror (though perhaps the analogy is that radical Islamic terrorism can only be vanquished when the majority of the Muslim population turns decisively against it).
The other, more important caveat is that, on Xena, “The Price” is not the last word. In later story arcs, Gabrielle has to confront the fact that she cannot fight for the greater good as she wants to without getting her hands dirty. In the third season, she chooses to allow a man to be executed in a case of mistaken identity, knowing that if he is freed, he will not only get away with the numerous crimes he has committed (as a Roman commander) but will likely commit more atrocities. By the end of the series, having shed much of her idealism, Gabrielle must lead a tribe of Amazons on a suicide mission in an episode that consciously echoes “The Price,” and has to make some harrowing decisions — for instance, to order one of her soldiers to a certain death to create a distraction that will allow the others to get past the enemy.
There is no way to fight for a good cause witout getting one’s hands dirty. But there are still lines that shouldn’t be crossed. There are times in war when a morally shocking tactic that seems necessary isn’t — and may even be counterproductive. And sometimes, it’s the pesky idealists with their moralizing who help us realize that.