Entry from July 17, 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 16th with a screening of Black Hawk Down (2001) by Ridley Scott, starring Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, Ewan McGregor, Sam Shepard, William Fichtner and Tom Sizemore. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about it as follows.

Before I talk about tonight’s movie, Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down of 2001, I’d like to beg the patience of any of you who weren’t here for last week’s movie to take up a small item of unfinished business about Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. It occurred to me afterwards that nobody in our lively discussion of the movie mentioned the character of Rafterman, played by Kevyn Major Howard. In a way he’s easy to overlook, even though he’s the one who shoots the sniper, saving Joker after his weapon jams at a crucial moment. He’s also the only one who mentions the "cause" (namely, "freedom") for which the Marines are supposed to be fighting — or at least the only one who mentions it unironically. Dorian Harewood’s Eightball has a funny bit where he says that "they sort of took away our freedom and gave it to the gookers, you know. But they don’t want it. They’d rather be alive than free, I guess. Poor dumb bastards." Adam Baldwin’s Animal Mother is similarly dismissive of Rafterman’s naive idealism and that, together with the latter’s having, up until that point, followed Joker around like a puppy at his heels, establishes the context in which he is to be seen.

But the film’s larger context gives us another way in which to look at Rafterman, and that is as the new version of Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) from the otherwise unmentioned first half of the film, reincarnated in Vietnam. Like Pyle, Rafterman is mothered and protected by Joker because he seems to lack the materials of manliness that we see being molded and shaped into killers in the others. Yet, also like Pyle, at a crucial moment he reveals himself as the pupil who has surpassed the master. He is now no longer the protected but the protector. Rafterman is also like Pyle in being one of the few Americans who has some other reason for killing than the quasi-erotic enjoyment of violence for its own sake. But he also reminds us that killing can be a way of claiming status, both with respect to the folks back home — in relation to whom the Marines seem to see themselves as minor celebrities while being interviewed on TV — and with respect to each other.

Recall, for instance, the moment, after Eightball has struck his deal with the Vietnamese prostitute and makes to go off with her, when Animal Mother steps in and claims the precedence. The others fall back and let him go first. Later, when Arliss Howard’s Cowboy is frantically issuing orders to which no one pays any attention, Animal Mother directly defies him to claim the moral leadership by doing the thing that Cowboy is afraid to do. That tension between the official military hierarchy and the natural hierarchy that we see in moments of extreme stress is also alluded to in Black Hawk Down. There we notice that the cool Delta Force sergeant, Hoot, played by Eric Bana, casually butts in the chow line ahead of the new Ranger arrival, Blackburn, played by Orlando Bloom. "Hey, man, there’s a line," says Blackburn.

"I know," says Hoot.

"And this isn’t the back of it."

"Yeah, I know," says Hoot again as he calmly carries on filling his plate. Immediately afterwards, he is equally casually insubordinate to the earnest Ranger Captain Steele, played by Jason Isaacs — as is, later, his fellow Delta Force Sergeant Sanderson, played by William Fichtner. But the by-the-book Captain Steele has to give way to both of them, and he is subsequently reduced to having to take out his frustrations on the lowly Pilla (Danny Hoch), whom he catches mocking him in front of the other ranks. "We have a chain of command for a reason," he says to Pilla; "I see you undermining it again, I''ll have you cleaning latrines with your tongue." We may see that, as with temporary squad leader Cowboy in Full Metal Jacket, his appeal to the chain of command is actually evidence of its irrelevance to the way these men see each other in a theatre of war.

Here, too, in other words, there is the official chain of command and the unofficial one, the latter with the cool Delta Force or "D-boys" at the top of it and the Rangers, who make up the rest of what we see of the American presence here, decidedly beneath them. Moreover, their right to precedence is again seen, as with Animal Mother, in their greater daring, their willingness to do what others are not — especially, as we are soon to witness, in the cases of the two Medal of Honor winners whose story this inevitably is, Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon, played by Johnny Strong and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau respectively. Interestingly, Scott puts that story of extreme, almost unimaginable heroism, in the middle of the movie and with very little build-up at a not naturally climactic point. You might almost miss it in the fog of war, especially as it is surrounded by many lesser heroic acts, and Shughart and Gordon are not among the characters most prominently featured up to that point. Their most memorable act, from the movie-goer’s point of view, is when the Black Hawk pilot Mike Durant (Ron Eldard) asks "Where’s the rescue squad?" and Shughart replies: "We’re it."

Yet that also reminds us of the watchword of the operation from Sam Shepard’s General Garrison as it lifts off : "Nobody gets left behind." We mentioned back in Weeks One and Two, with In Which We Serve and They Were Expendable, that the best war movies are made about defeats, and Black Hawk Down — which is like both of those movies in being quite close to the real events on which it is based — is also about a defeat, most people would say, even though the Americans inflicted far more casualties on the enemy than they took. It was even a defeat for the Ranger Code which pledges that "I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy." That’s why Shughart and Gordon volunteered for what amounted to a suicide mission, and yet they themselves, ironically, became the fallen ones who fell into the hands of the enemy — while a worldwide television audience watched on CNN. As a result, everyone saw the event not in terms of their heroism but in terms of America’s humiliation, something which surely contributed to President Clinton’s decision to withdraw our forces from Somalia immediately afterwards.

Interestingly, because the movie was made before September 11th, 2001 but released afterwards, the film-makers originally planned to include as a post script a screen card to the effect that that withdrawal was, in turn, taken as a sign of America’s weakness and irresolution by Osama bin Laden and ultimately led to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which he imagined would lead to America’s withdrawal from the Middle East. They decided to omit this message in the end because it would have been too controversial and needlessly have politicized a film which otherwise mostly goes out of its way to avoid politics — not that that has prevented it from being harshly criticized by the anti-war left. But it’s worth mentioning anyway because it shows that the film-makers must have been aware of the way in which the old-fashioned concept of honor still applies to international relations as well as to the still relatively arcane and masculine world of the military culture, to which the movie otherwise confines itself.

That culture is the chosen subject of Ridley Scott, whose father was a soldier, and it is more or less explicitly present everywhere in his movie. In particular, we may find it in the natural hierarchy of rank mentioned earlier, with the most daring at the top, and in the solidarity among the men that will leave no one behind, not even the dead. If, as Frank Buckley said last week, the answer to the question of "Why We Fight" was patriotism in In Which We Serve and duty in They Were Expendable, if it was an existential affirmation in The Train and a love of killing in Full Metal Jacket, in Black Hawk Down it is honor — honor in the old sense of the respect paid by men already belonging to an élite to the élite among them, or those who most emphatically affirm the values of all.

It would be surprising to find this cultural recrudescence of a long-outmoded concept anywhere, but especially so after the sway held in Hollywood for the previous twenty years of the feminist-pacifist model of war and military life that I mentioned last week in connection with Kubrick’s film — which was an example of that model, even though it was also subversive of it at times. I think that was because, when it came down to a conflict between ideology and reality, Kubrick had the artist’s natural inclination to give reality a fair shake. Ridley Scott, likewise, cannot take his eye off this fascinating world of honor as he found it in Mark Bowden’s riveting history of the battle of Mogadishu, also called Black Hawk Down, which must have looked to him like an anthropological monograph about some just discovered and weirdly surviving primitive culture in a remote corner of the world — which it is, among other things, since the Somali honor culture is discussed at some length in the book and is at least hinted at in the film.

When it was released, a few months after 9/11, it was enough of a box office success to suggest that lots of Americans at the time were also curious about our own honor culture, at least insofar as it still survived among the U.S. Army’s élites. Alas, this curiosity was not to be followed up or to last very long, as we shall see next week. But there are enough examples of honor here to show us how the concept can still be presented appealingly, as a living one. The most striking statement of it comes once again from "Hoot" — based, as Mark Bowden tells us, on a real-life Delta Force Sergeant named John "Mace" Macejunas whose daring awed even "the D boys," as the Rangers called Delta Force. As "Hoot" prepares, near the end, to go back out for a third time into hostile territory to bring back the dead, he says:

When I go home people will ask me, "Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What are you? Some kind of war junkie?" You know what I'll say? I won’t say a goddamn word. Why? They won’t understand. They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.

This is the only one of our six films which gives such a direct answer to the question of "Why we fight," and in a way this one includes all the other answers. For "the men next to you" are not just your comrades-in-arms, your fellow members of the honor group that you will not allow to be left behind, it’s the people next to them — the people back at home, the wife and children for whom Randy Shughart leaves a last message, read over the closing credits, or the parents whom the dying Jamie Smith (Charlie Hofheimer) asks Josh Hartnett’s Staff Sgt Eversmann to tell that he fought well, that he fought hard. Patriotism and duty are different ways of expressing how this extension outward of the honor group to include the whole nation is natural in war-time, while the existentialist absurdism of The Train and the psycho-sexual high of Full Metal Jacket are different ways of remarking on the absence of this connection between those who fight and those they are supposed to be fighting for.

If we can go back to Rafterman for a moment, his equivalent in Black Hawk Down is Eversmann, his name so fortuitously close to Everyman. He and not the heroes Shughart and Gordon is made into the movie’s central figure — the "hero" in the literary sense — perhaps as a way of underlining this importance of the connection to the wider honor group. He’s the ordinary Joe who is meant to be more like us than the relatively remote Medal of Honor guys, yet who has earned a place in their company. He is the one to whom Hoot talks about "the men next to you," but he gets the last word, when he is talking to the corpse of his friend — whose message, he tells him, he will faithfully deliver and to whom he says:

You know a friend of mine asked me before I got here — it’s when we were all shipping out — he asked me, "Why are you going to fight somebody else’s war? What? Do you think you’re heroes?" I didn’t know what to say at the time, but if he’d ask me again I’d say no. I’d say there’s no way in hell. Nobody asks to be a hero.

And then, after a long pause, "It just sometimes turns out that way."

If that is to be our takeaway on heroism and, therefore, on honor, it is perhaps because heroism doesn’t work well on the big screen anymore — at least not unless it is helped to the sort of ironic and comic distance that protects the superhero. For the same reason, Paul Greengrass all but wrote out of his movie, United 93 of 2006, the real-life heroes Todd Beamer, Jeremy Glick, Thomas Burnett and Mark Bingham, reportedly at the insistence of the families of the victims of Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11. They demanded that no one be singled out for special mention since, in the spirit of the all-shall-have-prizes ethos of the self esteem movement, all the passengers had to be deemed to have been equal, with none more heroic than the rest. The first duty of today’s movie hero is to avoid looking too heroic.

Eversmann/Everyman is also like Rafterman in being the only one in his movie who mentions a reason for fighting that is idealistic and not related to the self-sustaining one of the military culture or pride in doing a job. "Look," he says of the Somalis whom the American troops were ostensibly there to help, "these people, they have no jobs, no food, no education, no future. I just figure that we have two things we can do. Help, or we can sit back and watch a country destroy itself on CNN. Right?" It doesn’t sound quite so naive as Rafterman’s "Freedom" in Full Metal Jacket, especially in light of what we are about to see as he and his buddies fight off thousands of "these people" with guns who are trying to kill them. But Rafterman is being made fun of while Ridley Scott seems to mean for us to take Eversmann more or less at face value. Likewise, General Garrison pushes things too far when he tells Osman Atto (George Harris), Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s money man, that the 300,000 dead in Somalia so far amounts to "genocide," since the Somalis are all of one race, but this is apparently included so as to go some way towards justifying the American presence in Somalia — and its contribution to all the killing which we are about to see — to liberal-minded American movie audiences.

Yet the movie adds a nice touch of the absurd near the end, as the battered convoy returns to the safety of the Pakistani stadium and we see thousands of "these people" cheering the Americans, presumably for killing so many of their fellow-countrymen. It’s a reminder that Somalia is not a country as we are (or used to be) a country, and as the American military presence there presupposed we still were. It is rather a theatre of war in which rival clans are battling each other for supremacy — which is to say an honor culture in which the honor groups are mutually exclusive and have no connection to the wider society. Both sides in the civil war are entirely focused on their own purposes, even if that means allowing their neighbors to starve to death. It’s a neat way of showing us both the continuing necessity for honor and the perils of its excess in its wild or primitive form, and it goes together with various hints of the ominous discontinuities between the American soldiers and those who ought to be sustaining their honor group back home.

These include General Garrison’s reference to "Washington in its wisdom" — that is, though he never mentions the names, the Clinton administration and its defense secretary, Les Aspin — which has denied his request for advanced armor and weaponry because it would be "too high profile." This is another way of saying that the American lives thus saved were presumably too low-profile to count for very much with Washington. There are also references to the potentially lethal "rules of engagement" that won’t allow the men to fire their weapons until they are fired on directly. One is meant once again to get the feeling, a commonplace of Vietnam War movies, that the men know their lives are not valued as they should be by the politicians who sent them into harm’s way, though Mr Scott does not try to make much of a political point of it. Instead, the men’s awareness of being on their own in a perilous situation only goes to contribute to the loyalty they feel to each other and the solidarity between them.

But these are not the professional killers of Full Metal Jacket. We are meant to get the sense that even the locker room banter is different, as there is hardly a mention of sex and very little of the macabre humor of the battlefield. Instead at the beginning the two helicopter pilots are bickering about their game of Scrabble. I think the scene between Abdullah ''Firimbi'' Hassan (Treva Etienne) and the downed pilot Mike Durant sounds a bit contrived, but it does seem necessary to make the essential point: "Do you think if you get General Aidid, we will simply put down our weapons and adopt American democracy?" asks the Somali. "That the killing will stop? We know this. Without victory, there will be no peace. There will always be killing, see? This is how things are in our world." That should remind us of the film’s epigraph, allegedly from Plato — "Only the dead have seen the end of war" — and also, perhaps, of the comic colonel in Full Metal Jacket who says that "inside every gook there is an American trying to get out."

Yet we might also notice that the movie here puts into the mouth of America’s enemy the MacArthur principle that I mentioned last week, namely that "without victory, there will be no peace." Left unspoken is the corollary for the other side, which is left to seek the peace of surrender. But this is a necessary touch of reality to set against the fantasy that has brought these men thousands of miles from home and into a situation of extreme danger. As in Vietnam, it is only the enemy who really knows what he is fighting for, and that was to remain true through the following decade of what President Bush could only describe as the "War on Terror." We knew what we were against, in other words, but we remained diplomatically hazy about what, if anything, we were for. In these circumstances, the soldier who fights on for the man next to him, or the honor of the D-boys as the bravest of the brave, may begin to look even more impressive to us. At any rate, that’s what Ridley Scott must rely on, rather than patriotism or duty, to make honor once again, if only for a moment, look lovely to us.

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