The Civil War in America was insane to comprehend in this nation historically because family members fought family members in close. This was a war waged with bayonets and bullets rather than bombs and drones. To join one side knowing someone you love was on the other meant you were willing to meet them on the battlefield and pull the trigger—not for yourself to survive, but for the cause and the man next to you. To show sympathy is to risk tragedy so the guilt of killing your brother had to be less than that of him killing your “brother”. This is true for any civil war and perhaps even worse in this day and age. Now you rarely know who you’re killing until they’re dead.
It’s individuality versus community, truth versus corruption. And it’s both on both sides. For the IRA’s fight against England, it’s terrorists against oppressors—violence and rage colliding in a fiery blaze of body parts and prison cells. You coordinate a bombing and know collateral damage is inevitable. You reconcile that innocents will die because in your mind no one is innocent. But you do this because of the anonymity. You work yourself up to act heinously because you do it from a distance. There’s no chance you meet your brother on the battlefield to give you pause or stutter. Guilt may still freeze you, but the deed will already have been done. You’re still an effective soldier, but your superiors won’t ever know if you’re also a liability.
This is where a test is necessary. We aren’t robots; we’re humans prone to trip as hearts and minds never align perfectly. This is the premise of Trevor Riley‘s A Soldier’s Song—that instance where idealism and identity crash together as brick walls with you in the middle. It’s Belfast, 1992 and a young man seeks membership in the cause. Connor McTavish (Riley) is a would-be family man scraping by in a country that isn’t quite his own. He wants to join to protect his wife and neighbors. He wants to fight for a heritage he’s embraced after his father (Steve Mouzakis‘ John) left for England to spearhead a media-based assault on their people back home. And he knows doing so forever renders his Dad an enemy.
Enter IRA leader Liam (Anthony Skordi), Connor’s card-carrying friend Jono (Richie Stephens), and a man beaten, hooded, and tied to a chair. The latter is one of many enemies that must be dealt with and a perfect first step to Connor’s initiation. And he’s game. Tell him who it is and he’ll pull the trigger. But that’s not the point. It’s not about killing an enemy you don’t know. It’s about killing one you do—sending that bullet knowing the person on the other end is both Connor’s father and not. This is where monsters and men are separated. This is when the price of a life is set. Both sides force their soldiers to this point and both have the ability to stop and search for peace.
It’s a tense situation acted upon nicely by filmmakers and actors alike. It introduces how gray everything is no matter the strengths of your convictions. We can only separate ourselves from our actions so far before it becomes impossible. You cannot talk about protecting your family if you’re also willing to murder it. You cannot talk about “righteous killings” because you commit them and then protest “righteous killings” when your side is the victim. The film therefore speaks to who we are and asks us if we truly weigh the stakes of what we do before doing it. It vilifies everyone by showing them as they are: hypocritical killers. It’s a shame our world is overflowing enough to make good men join their ranks every single day.