Entry from July 10, 2013

This summer I am presenting on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of six films on the general theme of Why We Fight: War Movies and War, Then and Now. The films are being shown at the Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street N.W., Suite 600, and you can go to the EPPC or Hudson  websites for details or to register to attend. The series continued on Tuesday, July 9th with a screening of Full Metal Jacket (1987) by Stanley Kubrick, starring Matthew Modine, Vincent D’Onofrio, Arliss Howard, Adam Baldwin and R. Lee Ermey. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about it as follows.

Those of you who have been to any of the other movie series that we have had in this building over the past six years will know that they have all been organized with different themes but according to the same basic pattern — that is, with several movies made between the 1930s and the early 1960s followed by one or two (this year there are three) made in the late 1960s or afterwards. This has been done mainly so as to make clear what a cultural revolution this country experienced in that decade — much more far-reaching and long-lasting if less violent than the contemporaneous Chinese one. But in none of these series has the revolutionary change been more profound or long-lasting than this year’s. That is partly because one of the two or three main agents of change during that decade was the Vietnam War and the reaction to it (and to the draft), especially among the young. We would naturally expect, therefore, to see an even greater effect on war movies than on other kinds. If you cast your minds back to last Tuesday, you may also remember that I mentioned the two strains in American thought going back to the country’s beginning, the pacifist and the warlike, and how if the warlike held sway from America’s entry into the Second World War in 1941 for most of the following 20 years, the pacifist strain has been by far the dominant one during the last 40 years.

Also last week, I mentioned that the difference between these two strains of thought really comes down to a difference over the necessity of fighting. For the true pacifist, of course, it is never necessary to fight. But there is another kind of pacifism which, while theoretically admitting the necessity of fighting in some cases, nevertheless manages to rationalize away that necessity in any given case by calling it, in effect, “a dumb war” — to use our President’s words about the Iraq war of 2003-2010. For such people, every war is like the Vietnam War, the prototype of the dumb war — and, in a sense, they are right. All our wars since Vietnam have been more or less dumb, and for the same reason that Vietnam was: namely that, in every one we reaffirmed the official rejection by President Harry Truman in 1951 of General Douglas MacArthur’s dictum that “In war, there is no substitute for victory.” We even thought, in the 1990s, that we had found the substitute for victory in what was called an “exit strategy,” though that proved to be as illusory as its predecessor (and now possible successor) “negotiations.” As the British Admiral “Jacky” Fisher said exactly a hundred years before the invasion of Iraq, “the essence of war is violence; moderation in war is imbecility.”

Because we continue to believe in wars for something less than victory, our wars continue to be to that extent dumb, if not imbecilic, and the pacifist strain in the American conscience, long since embraced by Hollywood, continues to be reinforced. That, I recognize, is a highly controversial statement and one which some of you may want to take issue with in the discussion after we watch this week’s movie, which is Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket of 1987, based on the novel The Short Timers by Gustav Hasford. The two most noticeable differences between this and the three previous movies we have seen here, besides the bright color film stock contrasting so sharply with the pre-Vietnam, black-and-white era, are the graphic violence and the obscene language, for both of which I hasten to apologize, though Stanley Kubrick does not. But it is necessary to sit through it if we are to attempt to understand both things, as well as what they meant to contemporary audiences, how they are connected in the author’s mind and what they have to do with the idea behind his movie.

I say “movie,” but it is, as will soon be apparent, really two movies, each ending with a big surprise but neither having anything overtly to do with the other except insofar as both are depictions of different aspects of military life. Its first 45 minutes are set in the Marine boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, in (roughly) 1967, or twenty years before it was made. Its remaining 71 minutes are set in Vietnam, mainly around the city of Hué, in early 1968. There are, it’s true, two characters that appear in both parts, Matthew Modine’s Private Joker and Arliss Howard’s Private Cowboy, but this seems entirely accidental, and neither Joker nor Cowboy ever mentions, when in Vietnam, his experiences on Parris Island, the other people who were with them there or the rather striking incident that ended that phase of their training. I would not be the first person to see a connection between this duality in the movie and what Private Joker, under questioning by a Marine colonel (Bruce Boa) in Vietnam, variously calls “the duality of man” and “the Jungian thing.” The colonel has noticed that Joker is wearing what we call a “peace symbol” — though it is actually the logo of the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament — and the legend, scrawled on his helmet cover, “Born to Kill.” What he calls “the duality of man” is as near as he can get to explaining to his superior officer what he means by the apparent contradiction.

Like so much of the rest of the film, however, this comes across as a cheeky joke. The hints of existential angst that we noticed in The Train last week, the suggestions of absurdity about so many people killing or being killed for a chimera — for “the glory of France” or for France’s great humanistic legacy to the world — have now become much more than hints and suggestions. That war in general and the Vietnam War in particular are absurd or crazy can now be taken for granted — perhaps because Kubrick’s film comes at the end of a long line of Hollywood pictures about Vietnam, beginning with M*A*S*H and Catch-22, ostensibly about Korea and World War II, respectively, and including such post-war retrospectives as The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and Platoon, all of which were saying essentially the same thing. Kubrick himself had made an avowedly anti-war film 30 years earlier, Paths of Glory with Kirk Douglas, though in fact it has the sensibility of 20 years before that when the novel by Humphrey Cobb was published. Its portrait of arrogant, stupid, corrupt senior officers ordering the men under them, all pitiable innocents, on suicide missions and then covering up when their stupidities are revealed — even, here, to the point of executing randomly chosen men for cowardice — will be familiar to those who have read much in the outpouring of anti-war novels in the wake of the First World War, when Paths of Glory is set.

But in Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick is going after bigger game than a few idiot sadists at the general officer level. In fact, there are no generals here. Apart from the colonel, mentioned earlier, who is on screen for about two minutes, there are no higher ranking officers than lieutenant, and the image of military authority promoted by the film is and remains that of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, played by R. Lee Ermey, who is the unforgettable Drill Instructor at Parris Island. Mr Ermey was himself a former Marine Drill Instructor, hired by Kubrick as a technical adviser, whose creative way with obscenity eventually persuaded him that only he could play the part with authenticity. Yet he is not a mere caricature like the French General Mireau as played, complete with a Prussian dueling scar, by George Macready in Paths of Glory. His purpose here is to represent what we might call — or, rather, what Kubrick and people who think like him might call — “war culture,” nicely symbolized for us by his initial instruction to Private Joker to work on his “war face.”

For the duality I mentioned earlier is really a ruse, since Kubrick has a unified field theory of the psychosexual origins of conflict which manifests itself equally in the perfect discipline and the spotlessly clean barracks of Parris Island and in the chaos, mud and blood of Hué at the time of the Tet offensive. He cleverly embeds the war culture in the US, as represented by Parris Island, and the popular culture of what the grunts all call “the world” in Vietnam. The latter takes the form of some of the most brutalist and repellant popular music of the period — “These Boots are Made for Walkin’” by Nancy Sinatra, “Woolly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, and “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen most notably — all played at top volume, in order to present to us a vision of the war as a kind of wild fraternity party. Kubrick always insisted that Full Metal Jacket was not an anti-war movie like Paths of Glory. Having sought in the previous thirty years to purify his art, he thought he was merely representing war as it really was: that is, as a Dionysian orgy of sex and killing.

Frank Buckley’s point last week about how the mythology of the uniformly heroic French Resistance to German occupation remained still intact at the time The Train was made ought to remind us of the impossibility of making a war movie without some sort of mythologization. At the time he’s making it, every auteur thinks he’s simply representing things as they are, but with a bit of historical perspective, we can begin to understand where the mythology, and the ideology, comes in. With Full Metal Jacket, as with Apocalypse Now, what we get is essentially the media’s version of the Vietnam War as it hardened into orthodoxy in the late 1970s and 1980s. Thus, for instance, we may notice the obligatory cliché about how Walter Cronkite was supposed to have turned American opinion against the war after the Tet offensive — delivered not just before his now famous broadcast but before the Tet offensive itself was over by the journalist lieutenant, who solemnly says: “We have heard that even Cronkite is going to say the war is not winnable.” And then, too, there is the media narrative of American atrocities, which was also responsible for the first step on the ladder of success taken by our current Secretary of State.

To Kubrick’s credit, he also includes an atrocity committed by the other side, though hardly anyone who has seen the movie will remember that. Everyone, however, will remember the door gunner on the helicopter taking Joker and Rafterman to Hué who, when Joker asks him “How can you shoot women or children?” answers “Easy! You just don’t lead ‘em so much” — this before maniacally laughing as he adds, “Ain’t war hell?” Well, it is and it isn’t. Like the bawdy, misogynistic talk among the Marines, this kind of thing is meant to sell us on the idea, made popular in the feminist backwash of the 1970s but now looking at least a bit dated, of war not as hell but as mere macho posturing. Now that we’re on the verge of including women soldiers in combat units, we might feel that we have acquired a bit of perspective on the old-fashioned, feminist-pacifist sort of leftism that informs Kubrick’s film. Maybe war isn’t always such a bad idea after all if women can join in the fun.

As I mentioned earlier, this is the first color film in our series, and what color it is! I wouldn’t trust my own judgment on such a subject, being somewhat color-blind, but others have noticed that Kubrick’s palette here recalls both brightly-colored cartoons, also alluded to in the “Mickey Mouse Club” song that ends the movie, and the color TV reporting on the war which was how most Americans at the time experienced it. There’s even a passage in part II where a camera crew appears and the main characters are interviewed, apparently, by a TV reporter. Except that what we actually see of these interviews are presumably out-takes, since nothing like them appeared or could have appeared in 1968. Rather, the Marines are like time travelers from the eighties, mouthing the official view of Vietnam as it was eventually established in the media and the works of academic historians after the end of U.S. involvement and the fall of Saigon. Private Joker is even made the apparent author of a bumper-sticker I remember from twenty years earlier: the one about wanting to go to exotic places, meet interesting people and kill them.

That is now made into a TV sound-bite, and television is always in the background of this movie, not only in the obtrusive presence of journalists, including military ones, but also in the sense that it provides the Marines with what is apparently the only culture they have, from Private Joker’s John Wayne imitations — most kids in the late ‘60s would have been familiar with the Wayne persona from TV re-runs of his old movies — to the “Jolly Green Giants with guns” that they call themselves. When Private Cowboy is interviewed about the action he has just been on he tries, not very successfully, to explain to the interviewer that “it was like a war, y’know? Like, what I thought about a war — what I thought, y’know, a war was supposed to be.” What he presumably means is war as he has seen it on television. That is the standard of authenticity against which he is measuring his authentic experience of actual war. The idea of war as perceived through television and therefore of war as performance is also present in the men’s mock casting of themselves in a movie about General Custer in which the so-called “gooks” are allowed to play the role of the Indians — which further alludes to what had by then become (and is still) an academic truism about the supposed racial motivations behind both wars.

The idea of war as theatre has outlasted its origins in that mélange of feminism and psychoanalysis that was obviously still so influential on Kubrick in the mid-1980s. We may see a different version of it in Black Hawk Down next week, and it has recently received academic respectability itself in a book, War From the Ground Up, by a British former officer in the brigade of Gurkhas named Emile Simpson. Mr Simpson’s view is essentially that, in “contemporary conflict physical destruction tends to matter less to a conflict’s outcome than how those actions are perceived. . . . The outcome is defined against several audiences who are not the enemy.” This is what he saw in Afghanistan, and it is also what we see in Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam, though the “audience” there seems to be more the Marines themselves than the television audience back at home for which they are ostensibly performing in the interview scene. Mr Simpson reminds us that the traditional audience for war’s performances was the enemy, meant to be so frightened by what Sergeant Hartman calls our “war face” as to conclude that resistance is hopeless.

But if Kubrick couldn’t have foreseen the new way in which war is performance, he had a better idea of the old way, and of how the constantly self-referential quality to what his Marines do and say expresses a deeper truth about war than the one noted by Emile Simpson. For it is in the nature of war for those who fight it to perform for each other — and especially to become brave by acting brave. Indeed, Mr Ermey’s own part in the movie — what for many is the most memorable thing about it — is one long performance. After all, he had played a Drill Instructor in real life and so was in a better position than most to recognize the performative nature of the job. And in him we see what it meant to play a Marine in the Vietnam era, especially if you were a Marine in the Vietnam era. The role you were assigned was not that of defender of freedom or any other noble ideals, though these were still in the mouths of those attempting to sell the war politically, but as a ruthless and conscienceless killer. In the final confrontation with the sniper we see the mask slipping, of course, and the traces of humanity we always knew were there, at least in Joker, showing through.

This scene seems to me a lapse into sentimentalism on Kubrick’s part, to which one might almost be tempted to reply like Adolphe Menjou’s genial but heartless General Broulard in Paths of Glory to a similar lapse on the part of Kirk Douglas’s Colonel Dax: “You are an idealist, and I pity you as I would the village idiot.” But the problem, I believe, is not so much with his belief, made explicit by Colonel Dax in the earlier film, in an underlayer of “compassion” beneath the war culture he has spent most of the film adumbrating, the other half, perhaps, of that “duality of man” mentioned by Private Joker to the Colonel. Rather, the problem is with a half-baked and ideological conception of the war culture itself, which is not — or at least need not be — an exercise in releasing the dark psychic energies of the Freudian id but rather in constraining them and binding them to rational notions of duty and honor — those words which had come to sound phony in the ears of people a generation earlier than those who first saw Full Metal Jacket. The calm dutifulness of the heroes of In Which We Serve or They Were Expendable would also have looked phony to the movie audience of 1987 — mainly, I think, because of the job the media did in reporting Vietnam, though admittedly that was made a lot easier for them by the fecklessness and imbecility (to use Admiral Fisher’s word) with which so much of the war was conducted. I take it as a hopeful sign, however, that we can now begin to see this portrayal of human conflict, as the mythologization that it is, and that may itself in time come to look phony to us.

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