Growing up we were taught that the Fire Nation was the greatest civilization in history. And somehow the war was our way of sharing our greatness with the rest of the world. What an amazing lie that was. The people of the world are terrified by the Fire Nation. They don't see our greatness — They hate us! And we deserve it. We created an era of fear in the world. And if we don't want the world to destroy itself, we need to replace it with an era of peace and kindness.
— Prince Zuko
Disclaimer: Those who have not watched the show or are in the process of watching may want to click away. This essay is overflowing with s p o i l e r s and niche references.
A few months ago, I started watching Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA) for the first time since it aired over 12 years ago. I felt a familiar rush of emotions that reminded me of the purity of childhood experiences. As a kid, I was enthralled by the action and superpowers known as bending. Now as an almost-adult, I’m still obsessed with the elegant bending battles but also find myself captivated by the beauty of the world they live in, the complex issues faced by these kids, and the perfection of characters like Iroh. And Appa, of course.
War is a complex topic, with nuances that people have written entire textbooks about. Therefore, in order to scope down the topic into something manageable I will try to explore the following ideas in this essay:
How is war depicted in ATLA? And what parallels can we draw between these depictions and the reality of war?
The Hundred Year War
In the good vs. evil dichotomy of ATLA, the hundred year war is an ongoing conflict that has ravaged the world. After generations of peace and prosperity, Fire Lord Sozin became bored and decided to wage war on the rest of the world. He felt as though peace wasn’t enough and wanted to be remembered as somebody who did something meaningful. In short, he wanted to have an impact on the world to appease his ego. The first idea about war that we can learn from the show is:
War is sparked by egos that are in pursuit of an Immortality Project.
Ernest Becker was a psychologist and cultural anthropologist that wrote The Denial of Death, a Pulitzer Prize winner. Becker spent his life thinking about people and their motivations and spent his last few years writing this book. The Denial of Death introduces this concept of an Immortality Project, which is a mechanism used by the self to ignore the reality of its own mortality. By focusing on an external project with which to leave a legacy, the self can find solace from its own fear of death.
Becker argues that all things that have had significance in the eyes of history (organizations, movements, empires, cultural narratives, etc.) are immortality projects created by people that wanted to transcend their own material existence. He argues that the arbitrary nature of human-invented immortality projects naturally invites conflict. As immortality projects clash with one another, the conflict that emerges simmers with accusation. One says to the other: ‘your way of life is wrong', inviting an antagonistic response. Each party wants to prove to the other that their way of life is superior. Thus, these projects serve as a primary driver of human conflict, war included.
The desire to transcend beyond one’s self is innate to all humans who are high on Maslow’s Hierarchy. There exists a divergence however, between those that use this desire to better the world and those that use it for personal egotistic gain. In ATLA, I’m reminded of Uncle Iroh, who channeled the struggles of his life into a force for helping others as a beacon of hope and positivity. On the other end is Sozin, whose legacy was spreading the superiority of his nationalistic vision. The world paid the price for his choice, as Sozin wiped out an entire society and subjected the rest of the world to an excruciating war.
A People’s Perspective
Although it’s clear as day that the hundred year war was a catastrophe not worth its weight in blood and tears, the real world is more gray. There are nuances and incentives at play that are impossible for even the world’s leaders to make sense of, let alone the average citizen. This leads us to the second idea that we can learn about war from this show:
Most people think that what they believe is the Capital-T Truth.
The rationale that people use to justify their points of view has been shaped by a whole life’s worth of experiences. This set of experiences is unique to the individual and thus impossible for anybody else to understand.
One of the more chilling themes of the show is censorship, which is caricatured by the attitude towards the war in the Earth Kingdom capital, Ba Sing Se. In the walls of Ba Sing Se, mention of the war is forbidden, to the extent that the military police will brainwash those that try to say otherwise. The conspiracy reaches a boiling point as we realize that the Earth King himself is a figurehead who doesn’t know about the war and is kept sheltered in his castle.
These suppressive tactics give the people of Ba Sing Se a false sense of security, with their entire worldview shaped by state propaganda. When the inevitable war does reach the city, there’s a palpable sense of disbelief from its citizens. After all, how can Ba Sing Se fall if there’s nobody out there that wants to see it fall?
The reality is that this tendency for people to accept their beliefs as Truth can be exploited. Through censorship and propaganda, a governing power can systematically shift the Overton Window of the governed towards a particular agenda. Censorship and propaganda are cans of worms best explored in separate essays, but are important ideas to understand. They are crucial players in the framework employed by governing powers for getting compliance from the people.1
This cognitive bias applies to leaders as well — not just civilians. During World War II, Hitler truly believed that he was right in invading Poland and shoving the blame for Germany’s systemic issues on marginalized groups. This echoes how Sozin believed he was right in his thinking the Fire Nation way of life was superior, and that the rest of the world should be an extension of that way of life.
Is War ever justified?
This all begs the question: in our complex and nuanced world, is war justified? Your opinion on this topic is shaped by spheres of influences including family views, political leanings, personal experiences, and financial incentives. It’s a difficult question to answer because depending on your situation, you might either benefit from or be disadvantaged by war. This leads us to the underlying philosophical question: is war morally justified?
In reality, universal peace is a utopian ideal rather than an achievable goal. Peace in some parts of the world can invite opportunities to incite brutality in others. In his book In Defense of War, Nigel Biggar argues this point through examples such as the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, Twa, and moderate Hutu ethnic groups in 1994. What was a peaceful time for the Western World turned out to be a nightmare for Rwanda.
In ATLA, Sozin’s first atrocity was to wipe out the Air Nomads and ensure that the Avatar2 would not ruin his plans. The Air Nomads were a peaceful people, with many of them detaching themselves from worldly problems and reaching enlightenment. Therefore when Sozin attacked their temples, many did not fight back and accepted their fates without resistance. There is something poignant about Air Nomads’ transcendence beyond the material world… But it’s not practical when a megalomaniac wants to destroy your society. The pacifism from the Air Nomads fueled the fires of the war, and the other two nations had to act in defense. This leads us to the third lesson we can learn about war from ATLA:
Malevolent forces do exist and will try to ravage the world if left unchecked.
Here, a malevolent force is defined as a bad actor out of touch with reality. Such a force pursues a self-seeking end at all costs, without empathy or serious consideration of long-term consequences.
What would have happened if America and other world powers didn’t band together to prevent the Axis powers from perpetuating cruelty? The Earth Kingdom and Ally powers alike acted out of defense from these fascist regimes that could’ve swept the world if left unchecked. Man in High Castle is a chilling interpretation of what could’ve happened in our world if history turned out differently — a reality filled with censorship, fear, and oppression.
How did we get here?
Maybe it’s my American opinion, but a world of fear and oppression isn’t ideal. However, is it possible to move the world forward and prevent these bleak realities without some level of infighting? We’ve been able to put people in space, connect the whole world in a global forum unlike any other, and eradicate diseases that have put the world at a standstill (rip covid). However, we can’t seem to get over the petty squabbles and ideological issues that cause wars. Narcissistic leaders are put into power by virtue of the system used to elevate them in the first place. It’s a zero-sum spectacle that the instant-gratification monkeys inside of us eat up, and that these status-seeking egos thrive off of.
There are very real, fundamental issues that cause conflict within our world. It’s almost impossible to get someone to listen to nuanced ideas or to try and understand a perspective deviating from theirs — unless they want to. This is something that I will admit, comes from a place of immense privilege. Why would a working class citizen (in America or elsewhere) care about somebody else’s perspective when (1) they’re working their asses off to provide a basic level of support for their families, and (2) the familiar talking head on the news tells them exactly what they want to hear? Nuance isn’t sexy3, and it doesn’t come without work.
Beyond the individual, many modern platforms and entities work to productize and commodify human attention into a stock exchange for advertisers in order to print money. Humans are gifted with higher order thinking, but such thinking takes an immense amount of energy. Instead, corporations, news media, and politicians follow the path of least resistance and target the limbic system, which I like to call the monkey-mind. This primitive part of our brain is prone to influence through implicit biases and base desires (status, pleasure, ease). In the grimmest of interpretations, individuals are being systematically re-wired to act as flesh puppets servicing the agenda of self-serving predators.
This is… a very bleak reality. However, it is important to consider these ideas. War has existed in society for as long as society itself has existed. There has always been the universal notion of us versus them. Those that are within the tribe, and those that are outsiders. And the outsiders have always garnered suspicion. Society may have come very far, but our biological vehicles for interacting with it move at a snail’s pace. Thus, war as a manifestation of tribal conflict will be an artifact of our world for many years to come — albeit in different forms.
A Twinge of Optimism
It doesn’t feel right to end it there. The world is molded by altruistic individuals that refuse to become jaded and accept the status quo. Why should the question of conflict between nations be any different?
Yes, war has been happening since the dawn of society. Yes, it’ll continue to happen in different forms. However, war has been decreasing in recent decades. After the great wars of the 20th century, there seems to be an implicit contract amongst the world’s powers to set aside their differences for the sake of not destroying everything.
It is a bit unnerving when petulant individuals are in charge of the world’s most powerful militaries with enough nuclear power to stop photosynthesis4. I think that paradoxically, this threat of total annihilation decreases the chance that it will happen. Nobody actually wants to face the negative consequences of war by losing their loved ones, dedicating years of life to a cause they didn’t choose, and putting the world in peril.
The 2000s have been an experiment in uniting the world in real-time. Never before could you know what’s happening in Italy, Japan, or Kenya on-demand. We’re more aware of what’s happening outside of our immediate world. This leads to resistance from the ego, which finds it difficult to accept ways of life that it’s not familiar with. However this hyper-connectedness is here to stay, for better or for worse. Unfortunately we don’t have a transcendent being like the Avatar to usher an era of peace in our world. So that means we need to make the commitment on the individual level to come together and work towards a better future — nobody is going to save us.
ATLA is such a broad show with many nuanced topics. It’s pretty incredible that a Nickelodeon show is able to introduce these ideas to kids in such a delightful way. What are some other interesting ideas and issues that this show touches on? I would love to hear your thoughts 💭
Thanks to JC, Mackenzie and Spencer for reading drafts of this!
Noam Chomsky has explored propaganda and censorship in his work extensively. Manufacturing Consent examines the role of news media in defending the economic, social, and political agendas of powerful groups that dominate society and state. ↩︎
The Avatar is reincarnated upon death, with the Avatar Spirit passing from nation to nation in the cyclical order of fire, air, water, and earth. As Avatar Roku (the Avatar before Aang) was of the Fire Nation, Sozin knew that the next one would be an Air Nomad. ↩︎
S/O Spencer Chang for coining this phrase 😎 ↩︎
According to IFL Science, if all of the world’s nukes (over 15,000) went off at the same time… we’d be in trouble. Beyond the immediate death of anybody within a few dozen miles of the blasts, the world would be shrouded in a cloud of debris. There would be an almost complete cutoff of solar radiation coming to earth’s surface. This means that plants would not be able to photosynthesize and generate oxygen. No oxygen means no people. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen. ↩︎