02/22/2011 03:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Who We Fight for and Why it Matters

I saw The Eagle this weekend, and thought Tatum Channing acquitted himself remarkably well, considering how contemporary he might have seemed in a historical drama set in 120 A.D. I liked the movie mostly for the production design, but also because it reminded me of what motivates men to fight.

Channing plays Marcus Aquila, who takes his Celtic slave, Esca (an excellent Jamie Bell), north of Hadrian's wall to recover the standard lost in battle by a Roman legion led there years before by Aquila's father. At one point, Esca educates Aquila that the Romans have stolen the lands of the Britons, killed their men and raped their women. Focused on the honor of the legion, Aquila has never really considered the lives of the conquered. This becomes difficult as he starts to see Esca as a human being rather than a slave. Eventually, neither man fights for his tribe or nation, or even for glory or honor. They fight for each other -- for their friendship.

We've actually known for a while that's why men endure the unendurable of war. A Marine may join the forces because of 9/11 or love of country or as a way to fund a college education, but in the thick of battle, what counts is the guy next to him who he's come to love as a brother. Restrepo illustrates this beautifully. Few of the Marines can tell you exactly why they're in Afghanistan or whether our involvement is doing any good. But all of them know they'd take a bullet for one another.

Civilians do battle for similar reasons. The protests against Vietnam erupted from the population whose friends were dying in the far-off jungles of Southeast Asia. Gay men who led relatively comfortable lives found the willingness to ACT UP because their roommates and lovers were dying of AIDS. And in Egypt, Bahrain and Libya, the revolts can only be understood in the context of the disappeared and tortured friends and loved ones of the protesters. The willingness to go back in the street, to put themselves in harm's way over and over is a function of the need to defend the personhood and dignity of others just like themselves -- even strangers like the martyred fruit-seller who started it all in Tunisia.

Likewise, the left in this country thinks horizontally. We look to either side of us, seeking equality and solidarity with our peers. We have trouble enjoying our healthcare benefits if they are not accessible to all, we believe in a prosperity that reaches far and deep. We accept a reasonable level of income inequality , but find the connection between increasingly extreme wealth and a shrinking middle class to be laughingly obvious. The idea that the rich can keep getting richer without someone getting poorer is offensive to both basic math and blinding reality.

The right in this country thinks vertically -- they look up with admiration and down with contempt. They associate increased personal wealth with moral superiority -- if you're rich you must deserve it. The Tea Party minions aspire to belong to the class above them, and vote accordingly -- often to the detriment of their own interests. They see the less prosperous and less fortunate as lazy and unenterprising, stagnant or impoverished by dint of an unwillingess to take "personal responsibility" and work hard. They indulge in magical thinking, envisaging a government starved of tax revenue that somehow still plows the snow and defends the borders while balancing the budget.

This fetishizing of individual over mass prosperity brings with it a great deal of fear. Those lower on the ladder are painted as coming to take what isn't theirs any day now -- be ready to sell your gold and head to the hills with your guns and survival seeds. The right's watchwords are "yours" and "mine" -- never "ours." Sharing and empathy are even demonized as weak and morally suspect - a peculiar view of what makes America great.

This is why the Wisconsin (and now Indiana) unions hold the moral high ground over the Tea Partiers who rail against them. The very idea behind labor unity is a regard for the work and the workers that are indispensable to a civil society. Service is elevated over personal consumption, teamwork over climbing the ladder. Caring for the sick and teaching the young are valued more than personal gain and the brute results of social Darwinism.

On the right they fight for the principles of individual accumulation and economic libertarianism -- I'll take care of mine and you take care of yours. Fox News has convinced their viewers that their mouthpieces are oracles rather than court jesters; defenders of the faith rather than lapdog enforcers of the corporate elites. Only time will tell if those who swallow the propaganda are disabused of their illusions, but the break from reality runs so deep I would imagine they'll be swallowing seawater before that acknowledge that perhaps global warming wasn't just a left-wing conspiracy theory after all.

Why we fight is important; who we fight for matters. It is better to fight for the well-being of all citizens than for the interests of a few of them. If we stick to that principle, we may not always win, but we will never lose.

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