Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Land of the free. Home of the brave.

In Queen's Gardens, in Dunedin, so close that I can see it, partially obscured by trees, from the window of my office, stands a cenotaph, honoring, as it reads at its base, 'The Glorious Dead' from several wars.

And last Friday was 'Poppy Day', when a lot of, mostly younger, uniformed and semi-uniformed men and women, boys and girls, stood around the country handing out little pin-on poppies and expecting you to drop some money into a tin, which is meant to go toward benefiting returned soldiers and their families; whatever isn't swallowed up in bureaucracy, that is. And Wednesday is ANZAC Day, which is a day of remembrance—and a day off-work for most, except retailers, who are expected to open at midday.

So, it seems kind of fitting that we should end up seeing Shooter last weekend, and that last night we saw a flick called Home of the Brave; downloaded via p2p. For this isn't a movie you're going to see in wide theater distribution anytime soon, and probably never. In New Zealand, chances are, it will be seen by a handful of people at the most—ever. The copy I saw still had an occasional bit of writing at the bottom of the screen saying 'Property of MGM', so I assume it's a rip from a preview DVD. The reviews on IMDb were either scathing or overflowing with praise—which means that it's one of those movies that pushes buttons.

Again, a SPOILER warning for what follows.

HotB is about three soldiers returning back from a tour in the ongoing war in Iraq and their adjustment issues. In the leads: Samuel Jackson as army surgeon Will Marsh, who feels guilty about his powerlessness to save people and about having become desensitized to their suffering; Jessica Biel as supply runt Vanessa Price, who got her right hand blown off by a roadside bomb, triggered by a kid with a cellphone; Brian Presley as soldier Tommy Yates, who lost his best friend just days before the scheduled return home as a result of the same ambush that occasioned Vanessa's injury.

That ambush of what amounts to a humanitarian supply convoy is what loosely connects the characters; as Marsh is the first to tend to Vanessa and she briefly catches a glimpse of Yates as well, before everything goes to the dogs of war.

The first segment, in Iraq, portrays some of the pressures of being a soldier, at all levels and in all functions; always having to be on guard, because anything else will kill you. The operative term is 'always'; unrelenting tension and stress, sometimes apparently qualifying as mild, but it never leaves you. For there are people around who hate you and will kill you whenever they can. There are also those who don't hate you and who may even be glad you're there and doing what you're doing, but it's in the nature of things that they will not go out with the same fervor and try to protect you; nor will they speak out in your defense with the same vigor as your opponents. This is, after all, the nature of these things.

So, these three come home—plus a few other, more peripheral, figures—and, unlike is the case in other 'soldiers returning home' movies, nothing much actually happens. Which is part of the problem. For the normality of the life of those they are charged to defend—for whatever reason and motivation—is stifling with its normality and the complete lack of appreciation of their situation by those they return home to. So Marsh walks into a home where his son is disgusted not only at the war, but also at his father being a part of it; plus he has trouble sleeping, because he had gotten so used to not getting much sleep. Vanessa has to deal with being a solo divorced mum whose relationships with former boyfriend, Ray (James McDonald), is gone to the dogs some time ago, and who has to deal with being a one-handed cripple, who can't accept help even from friendly strangers like Cary (Jeffrey Nordling). Tommy has to deal with his father, who's a good guy but a bit dense and simple; a former buddy who's gone mentally AWOL for a number of reasons, and whose rage focuses on his former girlfriend who isn't interested in him anymore; as well as Tommy's own nagging guilt feelings at leaving his fellow soldiers behind to fight, while his own life's become 'safe'—in a manner of speaking.

The problems at home would have appeared trivial in comparison to those these three faced while in the warzone. But they're not, because all problems and their magnitude are relative. Still, all of them have this notion that they don't fit, all for apparently different reasons—which are, at heart, all the same.

Irwin Winkler's direction and the script focuses on the ways in which it might be possible to overcome those problems; the manner in which those exposed to the brutalities of war may be redeemed and become, if not 'normal', but at least 'adapted' to life outside a warzone again. In the process the movie is careful to lay open the mood in the US with regards to the Iraq war; both sides of it, and with equal and evenhanded fairness. In the process it avoids making what amounts to a judgment, because that's not what what this movie is all about. It has much more the air of Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, which also focused on soldiers, rather than politics; all the time acknowledging that there were political issues, but they were at another level and sometimes had to be put aside—with the notable exception of a certain, entirely justified, cynicism toward all politicians; as well as all those who basically don't end up having to put themselves in harm's way—except maybe in an election, which hardly compares.

The solutions offered by the film are fairly simple, and they have to do with love, understanding, consideration and appreciation; not just as carried out by the professional machinery of organized 'rehabilitation', but by the only ones who can do this in a sustained way: family, friends, neighbors and so on, in an ever-widening circle. And this isn't happening, by and large, though the movie suggests that it might. Sometimes. For the lucky ones. Because, as far as the fate of returned soldiers these days are concerned, all three main protagonists in HotB were lucky.

The style of this film is interesting and fits with the need to follow the fates of three separate lives without too much discontinuity as the focus shifts from one person to another and another and back again. It's also difficult to tell the passage of time, but once one gets used to it it flows easily enough. The moving shots in the warzone contrast with the many static ones 'at home'. Short scenes alternate with long ones in deft timing. The pacing is thoughtful and measured. At the end there are more questions unanswered than at the beginning. Which is as it should be.

Some afterthoughts, prompted in the main by the title of the movie. For those who don't understand the reference, look here.

Only the US, due mostly to historical contingency, could have come up with the kind of self-image contained in 'home of the brave' and 'land of the free'. It's not a bad self-image, derived in the main from the time of the foundation of the nation. Unfortunately, it has become somewhat of a mockery; not because of any particular deficiencies in the American spirit—quite the contrary—but because there is a price to pay for what we call 'civilization', and especially the 'highly developed' kind. It's always been that way, and with technology being what it is, it's more so today perhaps than it could ever have been in the past.

As for 'bravery', with the advancement of urbanized civilization, the need for 'bravery' decreases with every moment. Of course people are still 'brave'—some of them—but the environmental need that tests and breeds bravery and makes it stand out as a quality in a significant proportion of people is small compared to what it would have been on a 'frontier' society. With every new element of protection from adversity comes a reduction in the need to be brave—and, by and large, people habituate to the new state and with a comparatively few exceptions are 'brave', if at all, only sporadically—or even worse, prompted by artificially created situations, which nowadays have degenerated to the levels of the abominations known as 'Reality Shows'.

And as to 'freedom'... With every law passed our freedom becomes more circumscribed. Of course, one could argue that we are 'free' in other ways now, like for example to pursue goals that we might never have had a chance to even conceive when things were...different, I guess. Roger Scruton argues, correctly I think, that 'politics' as we know it in the democracies of the West is partially a way of making those of us who choose to relegate the administration of our affairs to others, more 'free' to pursue our private goals whatever they may be and as long as they're 'legal'. But our freedoms, extensive as they are, have changed to something that's a mere shadow of what we knew them to be. In particular—and this is true especially in societies, 'left' or 'right' leaning, who pass laws that interfere in what was once considered one's 'private' life—what is taken away are what one might call out 'deepest' freedoms, whose exercise allows us to truly find out who and what we are.

Of course, we remain 'free' in the sense that we can choose to obey the laws imposed on us or not. But we are at the same time reduced to a freedom that's merely based on a choice between doing something and being punished, or not doing it. The notion that we ought to be free to choose by ourselves—and act in this way or that as a consequence—because we will it so, not because it is imposed law...all that becomes more and more diminished with every law passed, and especially with those laws relating to what goes on behind the closed doors of a home or, say, a bedroom—or any place where nobody else knows but those who act from the choices they make.

And, yes, it is true that there are good reasons for why it needs to be so. How else can we protect those who can't protect themselves, unless we visit punishment or the threat of punishment—and its enforcement!—on those who do not comply with the rules set by social consensus?

In other words, I'm not saying it is wrong that things should be so. But 'land of the free'? There is no land of the free. Civilization is, in a very real sense, the advancement of unfreedom—or maybe I should say of 'directed freedom'. Which is a variety of unfreedom. A 'land of the free' is a utopia that will never exist. Once upon a time there may have been parts of America that were, for a short while, almost 'lands of the free'; depicted, very romantically and yet tragically, in The Last of the Mohicans—which is partially about that kind of thing. But land of the free is the land of the law of the jungle. Only in developing 'society'—even if it's only in small groups—can men raise their and their families' odds of survival. And even that's no assurance—unless there's someone to stand between them an others, who have equal interests that oppose them to one another. And so on.

You can't win this one. There is no solution; except, as Plato pointed out, to eradicate all life from the planet. For it is true that only the dead have seen the end of conflict.

Freedom and bravery are only two of the 'victims' of civilization. All virtues—and 'being and acting freely' is a virtue, the way I see it; requiring, as it were, bravery—that require a serious testing ground for validation are by necessity toned down, and have, by and large and with a comparatively small proportion of exceptions, become flaccid, artificial and basically lifeless. Their backbone is gone. This is unsurprising. Comfort and security does not nurture strength, neither of body nor character.

It occurs to me that is may be true that those soldiers out there who aren't just hooligans and natural-born killers, but who still go out and put the only life they have on the line for those left behind...that they are the ones who have the best chance of displaying or being witnesses to something clearly recognizable as 'courage'. It is possible that this is one of the reasons why some seek out that profession.

It is also possible that those who condemn them for doing so, and who call them either 'simple' or 'evil' or 'stupid' or 'misguided' or 'manipulated', do so not for reasons of care, ethics and morality, but from a profound and bitter sense of envy.

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