Last night, with my mother, I saw Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes The Barley (spoilers), which is of course quite as didactic as one would expect. With Land And Freedom, I think I minded this less: I knew it was quite unsubtly manipulating me, but I didn't particularly care since it's so easy to summon a relatively uncomplicated attitude to the Spanish Civil War; for the Republicans and against everyone else, including the Soviets. Partly because I have a not-quite-fully examined hostility to Irish nationalism and particularly what seems to me the centrality of an idea of victimhood, I was much more hostile to Loach's attempts to garner sympathetic identification for rebels fighting for what they'd have probably been given anyway. Starting a civil war in which thousands died over whether or not you had to swear an oath of allegiance to a foreign head of state - which, accurate or otherwise, seemed to be the sum of the actual, practical difference between the Free Staters and the Republicans according to Loach - is, so far as I'm concerned at least, pretty reprehensible: you don't kill people just so that you can avoid breaking your word. That is a moral vanity of a pretty monstrous kind. Nor is one extra-judicial execution or reprisal much better than another. Yet Loach wants people who hold their honour so high they'll kill their comrades so they don't have to lie or to send a message to others to be the focus of our sympathetic identification in the film. It is hard to identify with someone who kills in the service of some cause they consider just, particularly some left-wing cause they consider just I think, and does not wonder whether what they are doing is just, whether what they're sacrificing is worth what they're getting, whether anything could be worth what they're sacrificing.
The best moments, then, of the film are when people do start to ask whether what they're doing is just, as when the film's hero Damien tells the story of taking a mother of an informer he executed whilst fighting the British to her son's grave to his brother, now on the other side of the civil war. Or when the brother stoically delivers the perhaps implausibly forgiving letter Damien wrote to his sweetheart, as deeply implicated as either of the brothers in the independence struggle herself, before being executed for refusing to give up his comrades. That's where the tragedy and so the drama lies, at points where one's public and private commitments start to unavoidably conflict, where forces beyond your control make sure you have to lose something that you cannot afford or fairly be asked to give up. That's when politics becomes personal, when commitments of one sort or the other have to be sacrificed, when you have to tell your brother's lover or your friend's mother that you've shot them. Part of the point of what we might call normal politics, then, seems to be to eliminate or at least mitigate the ways in which people are pushed into making those kinds of choices: a world in which we constantly find ourselves wondering how exactly it is that ought is supposed to imply can is not a very hospitable one, and only political institutions, by controlling forces beyond the power of individuals acting alone, can deliver us from such an outcome. So then, we end up returning, almost ineluctably, to an argument against G. A. Cohen. It's almost ironic.