Forrest Gump on peace

There is a scene in the movie “Forrest Gump” that I believe perfectly summarizes why so many of my friends seem to be talking past each other on the issue of the “We Are a Warlike People” billboard.

To summarize, a group of very well-intentioned, peace-loving people, some of whom are friends of mine, helped finance a billboard on I-15 in Utah that looks like this:

There are other friends of mine, all very well-intentioned as well, who reacted very negatively to this billboard. If you want to understand why, I would encourage you to read the comments on the original post, because every time I try to summarize their arguments I seem to do it very poorly and make them upset (even though my intentions are good — Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood).

In any case, let me describe the scene in the movie “Forrest Gump” and why it applies here.

Remember when Forrest goes to Washington to speak to the peace rally? Remember, Forrest is in his military uniform and has just come back from a heroic trip to Vietnam. He encounters his one love, Jenny, and she is hanging out with this creepy peace activist. The activist slaps Jenny, and Forrest jumps on the guy and punches him out. The peace activist later blames his outburst on President Johnson’s escalating of the war in Vietnam.

I have actually known people, actually very many people, who are exactly like the creepy, woman-beating peace activist. And when you know people like that you realize that they are not one-dimensional people at all. They really do want peace and have good intentions. There is a part of them that is good and Christ-like. But then there is the angry, unforgivable part of them that lashes out. If only the jerk of a guy could get his anger under control, he probably would be an OK guy.

But here is the point: the peace activist was, in my opinion, doing a good thing protesting against the Vietnam war. If ever there was an unnecessary, evil war it was Vietnam, and it was a few million people like this peace activist that finally got us out of the war after so many years.

But this peace activist was so self-righteous, so full of his own superiority, that he responded to the people around him in completely inappropriate ways. He had good intentions but his heart was filled with judgment, not Christ-like love, for the people around him.

Now in contrast, Forrest Gump is filled with Christ-like love for most people (certainly for Jenny and his mama and his close friends like Bubba and Lt. Dan), yet Forrest Gump went to war and presumably killed people who were doing nothing more than trying to expel invaders from their own country. He also beats up the peace activist, and we see it as justified because he was defending a weaker person, Jenny.

So, here we have a Christ-like warrior and a self-righteous, mean peace activist.

What is important to understand here is that God also cares about intentions as well as actions. There have been hundreds of millions of warriors in the history of the world, and God does not see them all as evil killers. Many of them, perhaps even the majority, were forced into fighting by some tyrant or some government. Some just felt like they were doing their duty. Some were protecting their friends (think of Forrest and his friend Bubba). And of course some killed in pure self-defense and in defense of weaker people. And, yes, some of them were evil, cold-blooded killers.

Meanwhile, there have been hundreds of thousands of peace activists, and not all of them are angels of light. Some like Henry David Thoreau and Gandhi and Martin Luther King were truly admirable people (with their own human foibles). Others only cared about politics and claiming to love peace while they plotted for power. Still others could be pretty annoying in their “holier-than-thou” stances.

The problem for members of the Church comes when we start seeing the worst in the people we disagree with rather than assuming the best. So, in my opinion (again, my intentions are good — don’t let me be misunderstood!), my “conservative” Mormon friends sometimes look at the “libertarian, peace-loving friends” and see a self-righteous, mean-spirited creepy peace activist like the guy in Forrest Gump. And, again, in my opinion, some of my “libertarian, peace-loving friends” look at my “conservative” Mormon friends and see warmongering people yearning for death and destruction.

The reality is that neither of these visions is true. The “libertarian, peace-loving” folk just see themselves as wanting to avoid yet another useless war, and, let’s face it, we’ve had way too many of those in the last few decades. And my “conservative” Mormon friends see themselves more like Forrest Gump, ie, defending the right to reluctantly go to war to protect the weak and to fulfill societal duties.

My personal views used to be closer to the “conservative” view, but I have come to believe that many of our recent wars are completely unnecessary, too costly and do not truly promote peace. Even though our intentions may be good, we end up getting caught in a situation where most of our choices are bad, and I personally favor a complete change in foreign policy. But I do NOT assume that the “conservatives” who disagree with me have bad intentions.

I have been re-listening to the General Conference talks the last two days, and if one thing is clear it is that modern-day prophets try to assume the best of the people around them, not the worst. And they encourage us to do the same thing. So, let’s take the advice of modern-day prophets and assume that the people we disagree with are well-intentioned.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

21 thoughts on “Forrest Gump on peace

  1. Nah, I pretty much have bad intentions. So do most of your libertarian friends. Cf. the Fall.

    Actually I have objections to this project regardless of intentions. I don’t care if you maleficent or benevolent motives for putting up a one-sided, contextless, and cherry-picked set of prophet quotes that support your political viewpoint.

  2. Hoo, boy — here comes the flood…

    NO kidding. Everyone knows that if ever there was an unnecessary, evil war it was the Civil War. Or maybe the Revolution.

  3. Mike, I really think it is pretty uncontroversial to say Vietnam was unnecessary and evil. It was not a defensive war — Vietnam was no threat to the U.S. Even when I supported the Iraq war, I made the point that Saddam Hussein was a potential threat to the U.S. because of his support of terrorism and possible WMDs (oops!) but I did say that Vietnam was not a threat and was therefore not justified. This is not to dishonor the troops who were (mostly) draft and forced to go fight there. I hope we have learned from our mistakes in Vietnam, but probably not.

  4. Alma 62:41 “But behold, because of the exceedingly great length of the war between the Nephites and the Lamanites many had become hardened, because of the exceedingly great length of the war; and many were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility….(44) and Helaman did take upon him again to preach unto the people the word of God; for because of so many wars and contentions it had become expedient that a regulation should be made again in the church.”

    War, especially prolonged conflicts, can bring out the best and the worst in people and societies. Even the “good” wars are rarely straightforward, black and white events with unambiguous heroes and villains. And even the best can become hardened by events and benefit from “a regulation”.

    I’ve been trying to apply last weekend’s talks to my Internet behavior – walking away rather than join certain online “discussions” (brawls), refraining from the easy snark, addressing issues rather than those making them. It’s not easy, but on the whole it’s been great for my blood pressure.

  5. Oh, I completely agree with you about Vietnam. I’m just not certain the majority of Mormons living in the American West do. 🙂

  6. Geoff, I thought your analogy was excellent. It really is all about intentions, not actions.

    So if you take the war in Vietnam, you have to say that as an act, the war was neither good nor evil, rather it was good or evil in the hearts of the individual actors involved.

    For someone who loved their country, who loved Democracy, and wanted to take a valiant stand against what seemed to be the dangerous encroachment of tyrannical Communism, the Vietnam War was a just, righteous war. In hindsight, it might not have been a wise engagement, but that doesn’t make it evil. It was fought for all the right intentions.

    However, you might argue that someone like Nixon fought the Vietnam War unrighteously, because he prolonged the war for prideful reasons. He didn’t want America to “loose face.” While that could sometimes be a good reason, is it really a good reason when you weigh it against the thousands of people dying so you don’t “loose face?” But I can’t see the heart of Richard Nixon, and I can’t judge whether or not he had righteous intentions. He may have, he may not have.

  7. Geoff, I agree.

    I believe (almost) everyone has good intentions and I therefore believe that the assumption of bad intentions is generally a factual mistake.

    I think there is something to be said for ‘bias’ as well. Out libertarian friends see the world through different eyes then a conservative and vice versa. So when they are reading the prophets, they have a natural tendency to accidently select out quotes that seem to confirm their point of view and have a natural tendency to explain away counter quotes through various contexts. And, of course, the reverse is true as well for the conservatives.

    One quick example: there is a consistent message that all Christians leaders (including ours) seem to have a general principle is anti-war and proclaiming peace. This can contextually be seen as a strong denunciation of a specific war or can be seen as a ‘standard position’ without taking a position on a specific war. The reality is that we haven’t had a definitive anti-a-specific-war statement for a very long time in the LDS Church. So to find one, you are forced to go back in time and then extrapolate forward.

    I personally was troubled by the billboard to some degree. However, I sort of all feel like the end result was maybe better then my ‘negative feeling’ can justify.

    The billboard was ‘making a point of view available for consideration.’ It’s hard to argue with that when put that way. But, in doing so, it was also making a certain interpretation of the prophets available. And now we’re on somewhat dangerous ground, especially when the context in question was a calling to repentance.

    The issue though — and I say this in defense of the libertarians — is that if you are going to read scipture or the prophets *you are going to interpret them via your lens* because you have no choice. To avoid interpretation you’d have to not read them in the first place.

    This is the problem then. The best way for a Libertarian to come to realize that there are other interpretations available (to say nothing of the reaction over calling people to repentence) is to publish their version and get criticism. That is what happened. It’s hard to argue with the results either. They *did* make their views known to the very people that they wanted to receive the message and they *did* receive criticism back from those people and probably were shocked to realize that things weren’t quite as clear cut to others as it was to them.

    So I can’t really even argue with the end results. I think the end results were positive all the way around.

    I suppose what I would suggest for the future is a realization that ‘good result’ is the *conflict that ensued*. If you aren’t prepared for that, you aren’t preparing for reality when you put up a billboard like that. The whole concept of conflict = bad just isn’t true in many cases.

    Of course the goal is to respectfully have your conflicts. My personal feeling was that it was *in general* quite respectful with those that crossed the line stepping back behind the line quickly again.

  8. Love the main point of this article. The First Presidency has been urging us to be civil in our politicking, and we should be especially civil with fellow Latter-day Saints. As Elder Holland said, “Suspect the best of each other.”

  9. “However, you might argue that someone like Nixon fought the Vietnam War unrighteously, because he prolonged the war for prideful reasons. He didn’t want America to “loose face. While that could sometimes be a good reason, is it really a good reason when you weigh it against the thousands of people dying so you don’t “loose face?””

    It would be interesting to see what things were like in some quantum reality where Nixon actually did decide that saving lives was more important then saving face. Is that world there better or worse in the long run?

    Of course there would also have to be some quantum reality out there were we won the Vietnam war. Was the world better off then? Or did we just end up with a group of Superheroes that decided to unite the world via a fake alien invasion? (Name that reference!)

  10. For me personally, far more important than one cherry-picked statement from a past prophet is the talk that the statement was cherry-picked FROM, “The False Gods We Worship”. It was an INDICTMENT of all of us from a prophet of God, and it was immediately, in the words of Hugh Nibley, given “the deep-six” when it came out in 1976.

    Apparently, President Kimball’s call to repentance still makes all of us uncomfortable.

  11. “If ever there was an unnecessary, evil war it was Vietnam”

    Just last month I was eating soup in a Vietnamese restaurant, musing that only a few decades ago I was indoctrinated to want them dead, and a decade before that the US was killing countless “gooks” and here I was being served by them.

    What is it about the best prophets being against war? Christ, the Brother of Jared, and now Kimball. How dare they rain on our parade. War is just business, that’s all. And what’s wrong with business as long as we’re on the winning side? Aren’t we entitled to a little mass psychosis?

  12. “Everyone knows that if ever there was an unnecessary, evil war it was the Civil War. Or maybe the Revolution.”

    (Violating Elder Scott’s GC injunction against “Loud inappropriate laughter”)

  13. I tend to wonder if there isn’t a little time spent, when one arrives in the spirit world after dying, where some introductions are made.

    “Brother Smith, welcome to the spirit world. Our first order of business is to give you some time to get to know all these people over here that you killed in the name of God and Country. Everybody, say ‘hi’ to Brother Smith.”

    Crowd mumbles its hellos.

    “Now, it’s your turn Brother Smith.”

    Brother Smith stands stock still, looking rather sheepish and dumbfounded.

    “OK, now, does anybody have any questions for good Brother Smith, here?”

  14. Mark N, excellent point. I have wondered the same thing. In God’s eyes, and the eyes of the people that Bro. Smith killed, if he was an otherwise valiant person, a good father and was, perhaps, drafted and taken away from his family, I think that the spirits he killed would look at him very differently than if he was a willing killer anxious to destroy. So, again, intentions DO matter.

    So, going back to the point of “how do we approach foreign policy,” the question should be: how can we arrange things so we only kill in the most righteous ways, ie in defensive wars (or hopefully not at all)?

  15. Geoff,
    The conclusion that I have come to is that if I am trying to be a true disciple of Christ, following in his footsteps, I can not kill at all when my own life is at stake. I can use my agency and make myself a willing sacrifice by choosing not to defend myself. Christ was the ultimate example here.

    However, I do feel that I have a moral duty to protect the rights of others to come to that same conclusion on their own. So while I won’t kill in defense of my own life, I must do so in defense of others who have not come to know Christ in a similar way and have not had a chance yet to make that sacrificial decision for themselves.

    So, violence in defense of others in order to preserve their freedom to choose (life, non-violence, etc.) is justifiable according to how I view things.

    Thus, I’m a strange sort of person, willing to carry a firearm, but unwilling to use it in defense of myself, rather only in defense of others.

    In short, I’m willing to use my agency to follow Christ, but I must not force that decision on others and will fight to protect their right to do so when under imminent threat.

  16. Chris, that position creates all kinds of difficult problems, like what would you do in a war if people are shooting at you, but nonetheless the spirit of such a position is more in line with Christ-like principles than many others I can think of.

    The thought of killing somebody absolutely horrifies me. I feel very fortunate that I live in a time when I have not been forced to do it (violence was much more common in many other times than now).

  17. “Thus, I’m a strange sort of person, willing to carry a firearm, but unwilling to use it in defense of myself, rather only in defense of others.”

    I do find it strange that you’re unwilling to raise up arms to defend the life of your children’s father, your wife’s husband, or your parents’ child. Seems like they would be grateful if you did so.

  18. I just got back from Vietnam, and it was a fascinating trip. They view the war from an entirely different perspective. Communism was merely a backdrop for nationalism and anti-colonialism. They are still recovering from the effects of the war and terrible communist policy, but they seemed genuinely friendly to Americans and didn’t hold the war against us. Of course we were spending money there so who knows.

    I think you could also make a strong case that Iraq was an unnecessary war, and has mostly served to weaken us and embolden Iran.

    I have all sorts of disagreements with the Ron Paul crowd, but I appreciate their pacifism and stance on civil liberties.

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