The Wartime Politics of Avatar: The Last Airbender

Oftentimes, we look back on our childhood memories in front of the television and come to realize our favorite television series were more mature than we realized. Avatar: The Last Airbender, considered to be one of the greatest animated series of all time, was one such show. Though we may have missed the commentary and educational value at the time, looking back, we can see how the show revolved around the politics during wartime.

Genocide

The Air Nomads were a peaceful people, wiped out by the Fire Nation in their attempt to kill the next Avatar.

The series focuses on Aang, the newest reincarnation of the Avatar, who is meant to protect the world from conflict and harm. Unfortunately, a series of circumstances leads Aang to be frozen in an iceberg for 100 years. When he wakes up at the start of the show, we learn that his entire people, the Air Nomads, have been killed by the expanding Fire Nation. Aang’s reaction is pretty devastating in the series, but the show also delves into how an entire culture was lost for selfish gain. Throughout Aang’s entire journey, the protagonist truly is the last airbender alive. 

There were small moments where the various people of the other nations would treat Aang as a novelty, entertained and confused by his culture. But, as one hundred years had passed, it sadly appeared that this was the highest level of emotional resonance the Air Nomads had on those still living, demonstrating how easy it is to forget about tragedy as history goes by, so long as it didn’t happen to your own people.

Prisoners of War

Fire Nation prisons were brutal experiences and almost impossible to escape.

Another early episode deals with one major consequence of fighting in a war: being taken captive. Team Avatar finds a young man named Haru, who’s father has been taken to a Fire Nation prison for earthbending. This is shown to take quite the toll on Haru and his mother. When Haru, himself, is taken prisoner, our protagonists go undercover to break them out, only to find that the captives have been sequestered for so long, that they’ve lost all will to fight. Though Katara eventually rallies a riot that frees them, the hopelessness of such horrible situations is very apparent.

As the show progresses further, and arguably darker, more examples of these situations are focused on. The most disturbing is that of Hama, a member of the Southern Water Tribe, who was taken prisoner many years ago. To prevent her and her comrades from waterbending, their arms were restrained and were given water through a long spoon the guards pressed to their mouths. Eventually, Hama develops a dark technique, bloodbending, to escape and seeks revenge against all Fire Nation citizens, demonstrating another tragic consequence of war.

Prejudice

Animosity on both sides was high, even towards innocent civilians.

There are two sides in war and, regardless of who the aggressors are, there are also people on both sides who want peace. However, Avatar showcases just how much negative sentiment can build up amongst civilians towards anyone associated with the enemy, even innocents. A supporting character we meet early on is Jet, whose parents were killed by the Fire Nation. Because of this, he sets out to make all Fire Nation pay. After attacking an old man in the woods, Jet sets a dam to explode and flood an entire village. Fortunately, he is stopped by Team Avatar, berating him for becoming the villain himself.

When Prince Zuko is forced to hide in the Earth Kingdom after being labeled a traitor, he too finds he is unwelcome whenever revealed to be a firebender. In one episode, Zuko protects a family from bullying Earth Kingdom soldiers. Once his identity is revealed, however, they shun him, despite all the good work he’s done for them. Even Katara and Sokka, two of our major protagonists, demonstrate a bias against the Fire Nation throughout the series. Katara particularly has trouble forgiving Zuko after he joins their team, because it was his country that killed her mother. Though she eventually gets past this, it demonstrates how even good people can come to distrust an entire group of people. 

Refugees 

The Earth Kingdom was full of refugees fleeing Fire Nation attacks.

Book 2 is largely set in the Earth Kingdom, which is battleground zero for the raging war. Because the Earth Kingdom is losing land, as the Fire Nation continues to conquer more and more territory, there are vast sums of displaced individuals and families attempting to reach safety. When Team Avatar attempts to find a way into Ba Sing Se, the capital of the country, they find the facilities swarmed with civilians, with extensive processes and wait times to gain passage.

Toph, Team Avatar’s newest edition, is able to easily get access to the city because she belongs to a wealthy Earth Kingdom family, whose name means something. They eventually choose to enter a different way, in order to help another family reach the city, but even once they enter the its walls, they find that there is much inequality. Divided into multiple sections, refugees are sequestered in the outer rim of the city, with less resources and space than the more lucrative inner circles. Being the Avatar, Aang and company are given a house in the richest district, another demonstration of how celebrity status brings special privileges. 

Propaganda

Avatar showed how governments shape their own narratives.

The purpose of journeying to Ba Sing Se is to tell the Earth King of a plan of attack against the Fire Nation. Unfortunately, Team Avatar comes to find that the real power lies within the Dai Li, who prevent information of the war from reaching the King and forbid the conflict from being talked about within the city’s walls. This is to keep the peace, particularly among the wealthier inhabitants, allowing them to not concern themselves with the devastation in their country. Those who disobey the order not to speak of the war, or simply cause trouble, are sent to Lake Laogai to be brainwashed. It is a city reminiscent of North Korea in strict police enforcement and control over information.

Book 3 shows that the Fire Nation is just as savvy when it comes to wartime propaganda. Going undercover at a Fire Nation school, Aang learns that Fire Nation children are taught that the Air Nomads had an entire army that was fought, when in fact the Air Nomads were peaceful and had no military. Whatsmore, towards the end of the series, Team Avatar attends a Fire Nation play about their own journey. While the parodies are played for laughs, it ends with Aang and company defeated and the crowd cheering for the Fire Lord, who is the hero in their eyes. There’s more to speak of in regards to the Fire Nation’s misinformation of its own people, but that is best discussed in the following section.

Colonization

The Fire Nation’s motives were fueled by ego that resulted from their wealth and technological achievements.

The Fire Nation could have easily just been a generic villain, seeking power out of selfish gain and delight in the torment of others. Avatar, however, takes it upon itself to explain how the royal family convinced its people to wage war during peace. A flashback to before the Hundred Years War shows that Fire Lord Sozin was so amazed with the technological and societal developments within his country, that he saw conquering the other countries as a way to build the most perfect empire the world had ever seen.

When Prince Zuko confronts his father decades later, having finally decided to join the Aang and help him defeat the Fire Nation, he speaks of how his country had been taught that they were the greatest civilization that ever existed. The war was their way of sharing their greatness with the world. “What an amazing lie that was,” Zuko says, showcasing how countries that see themselves as superior nations use their perception of self-importance to justify colonizing other lands. 

Europe used this train of thought when it invaded other continents. Called Manifest Destiny in North America, it was believed by Europeans that they were helping the native people, showing them a better way of life and building something of greater value than anything already established. The United States is also guilty of being taught that they are the greatest country in the world, leading to actions that hurt other innocent people, but are brushed off as necessary for the betterment of the planet. Countries may be great, but ego can be blinding.

Avatar’s sequel series, The Legend of Korra, delves into the aftermath of colonization. Seventy years later, the colonies established by the Fire Nation are now independent from both countries. However, many people in the Earth Kingdom still view it as Earth Kingdom territory, which eventually leads to an attempted annexation, proving how complicated peace can be, especially when the conflict has lasted for generations.

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