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The ethical grey area of Robert McBride

The film, Long Night’s Journey into Day, and the first part of Antjie Krog’s novel Country of My Skull, have moved me profoundly. Both have made me cry, and both have forced me to think about things in ways I never have before. Trying to decipher out right from wrong in the world of post-apartheid South Africa is messy, but I generally have been able to keep my own moral compass straight. There have been lots of different kinds of villains presented, and numerous types of victims. I have wondered what evil truly is, and pondered the question of how guilt disperses between organizations and people. Right from wrong, though, I have not had to question–until Robert McBride.

McBride is the one figure in the movie that I still cannot come to terms with. It is hard to consider him good, but hard to consider him bad. He seems genuinely remorseful for killing, but he is blatantly unrepentant for his acts of violence. From his point of view, he was a soldier fighting a war, and civilians were caught in the crossfire. Thus, he can be sorry for such sad outcomes, and wish the deaths had never happened, but he cannot be held responsible for them. In his view, the deaths had to happen, because they sent a message to his opposing army. He even compared his having to take the stand and confess for the Truth Commission to an Ally soldier being judged on the same terms as a Nazi soldier. At first, I was taken aback by the gall of that, and I thought the two were completely uncomparable–then I started thinking, how far apart are they really? The Holocaust and apartheid were two completely different systems of oppression, obviously, but can one way of holding down an entire people be better or worse than another? And if we look at apartheid as a cruel and violent system which solely did harm for purposes of oppressing people based on racial lines-which we should-can we blame a young person for joining a fight to end it, no matter what lives were unintentionally lost in the crossfire? War is not pretty. I also think it is important to note his point that he has still never received an apology for what apartheid did to him. I think it is interesting that most of the people we saw apologize in the film were black, and I think it says something about the intended audience.

One thought on “The ethical grey area of Robert McBride”

  1. This post does such a nice job of moving from a “sticky” point in the film for you – your identification of the discomfort evoked by McBride – to some terrific insights about where that discomfort comes from and how we might think about that character in ways that feel counterintuitive but open up new possibilities for understanding him. Would love to hear you elaborate on that final point about the film’s intended audience.


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