Sunday, February 24, 2008

Taps: A Vision Of Military Honour

Continuing with the theme of Hollywood and the post-Vietnam rehabilitation of American militarism, it occurred to me that no discussion of the subject would be complete without mentioning what is to my mind the most intelligent, complex and poignant cinematic treatment of military honour ever made: Taps.

Released in the first year of Ronald Reagan's presidency, the movie is perhaps best known for introducing America to both Tom Cruise and Sean Penn. But in addition to providing an early heads up that Tom Cruise is a psychopath, the movie also captured, to an extraordinarily subtle degree, the challenges faced not just by America's military, but by the military ethos in general, in the post-Vietnam era.

George C. Scott, who plays the commanding officer of the fictional military academy, Bunker Hill, sets up the movie's theme when he explains to Timothy Hutton's Cadet Major Moreland that the 150 year-old academy will be closed:

There's a feeling on the outside that schools like this are anachronistic and leaders of men like you and me are dinosaurs... [Y]ou go to the movies, you read books. A military leader is always portrayed as slightly insane. Very often more than slightly. That's because it is insane to cling to honour in a world where honour is held in contempt.

To be sure, the film's pivot plays on the widespread popular animosity towards the military and its institutions that was de rigeur in America at the time: A group of locals harasses the cadets attending the academy's commencement ball. In the ensuing scuffle, one of the locals grabs Scott's pistol and is accidentally killed when it discharges.

But if the death seals Bunker Hill's fate, it is only because it accelerates the decision to close it that has already been reached by the academy's trustees, who are eager to cash in on the campus' real estate value by selling it to a group of condominium developers. That the film situates military honour as under attack from the twin menace of popular anti-militarism and market liberalism loosed from its ethical moorings illustrates the internal contradictions of the Reagan Revolution. Again, George C. Scott:

Their field of honour was a desk top. They didn't consult me. Never hinted at what their plans were. They just papered it and pencilled it and went ahead and did it because that's what the numbers said.

Six years later, the same profit motive -- boosted by credit-fueled prosperity and now sporting silk shirts, suspenders and greased hair -- would be celebrated by Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone's Wall Street. But at the time in 1981, the way forward still left many naturally inclined members of the Reagan coalition doubtful.

When Scott suffers a heart attack and falls into a coma following the local's death, Hutton feels honour-bound to keep the academy from closing. He and the other cadets occupy the grounds, only to find themselves besieged, first by the local police and later by the National Guard. From here on out, the film becomes an Oedipal struggle for the Cadet Major's soul, with Hutton (and post-Vietnam America) offered the choice between three visions of military honour.

The first, already introduced through George C. Scott's character, presents honour as the pre-requisite for glory. But as his address announcing the academy's closing that sets the drama in motion demonstrates, it is a vision of glory inextricably tied to death:

I stand here today with you and look out over these young men and of course I am reminded of other commencement days and other young men, men of courage and conviction, men who have given everything... How, then, can others say this land is for sale? It has been purchased and paid for with the blood of our graduates.

The second, more critical view of honour, comes in the person of Hutton's father, a drill sergeant who is the first envoy sent by the local authorities to convince his son to stand down. The character epitomizes the hard-nosed, leatherneck ethic of the enlisted soldier. For him, honour is a fool's errand that distracts people from the more essential duty of advancing in the face of incoming fire, both literal and symbolic, without getting hit:

Look, Brian, all the men in our family have been soldiers... Plain dogfaces with a knack for surviving. I hoped somebody would break into brass.

More concerned with the nuts-and-bolts operational logistics that decide an army's fate than Hutton's embrace of Scott's vision of honour, the father punctuates their conversation by slapping his son in the face. But if the gesture seems to say, "You'll never be the soldier I was", Hutton seems to embrace the rebuke. As he explains later to the national guard commander played by character actor Ronny Cox:

They want us to be good little boys now so we can fight some war for them in the future. Some war they'll decide on. We'd rather fight our own war right now.

Finally there's Cox, the war-weary and decent officer nonetheless obligated to carry out his orders. In his patient attempts to coax Hutton into calling off the students' rebellion, he offers the movie's moral foil, representing eros to Scott's thanatos. His response when Hutton claims the mantle of soldier offers the movie's corrective to the dangers of couching death in the robes of honour:

A soldier? No, goddammit, I'm a soldier, with the career goal of all soldiers. I wanna stay alive in situations where it ain't easy, but you, my friend, you're a death lover. I know the species. Eighteen years old and some son of a bitch has put you in love with death. Somebody sold you on the idea that dying for a cause is romantic. Well, that is the worst kind of all the kinds of bullshit there is! Dying is only one thing. Bad. Don't find that out. Please.

By defining a miltary credo that marries duty with vigilance and a respect for life, Cox provides the country with the rules of engagement it can feel comfortable embracing in the aftermath of Vietnam's confidence-shaking trauma. Safely in between Scott's glorification of death and the father's trivialization of duty, Cox offers a middle way of resolve without self-delusion.

When one of the children under Hutton's command finally dies, he, too, sees the hollowness of an idealized version of honour bound up in death:

When I knelt next to Charlie, I tried to find some justification. But honour doesn't count for shit when you're looking at a dead little boy. You don't think of the book of remembrance or bugles or flags or 21-gun salutes. All you think about is what a neat little kid he was... and how you're gonna miss him.

In many ways, Taps reflects the jaundiced view of the military ethos common at the time. It very clearly rejects Scott's lofty vision of honour as some ultimate value more urgent than life itself. Similarly, it condemns both the calloused professionalism of the father character as well as the hotheaded bloodlust of Tom Cruise's praetorian guard leader. Besides Cox, the most sympathetic supporting character, Sean Penn, represents loyalty more than duty, but a loyalty that does not exclude clear-sighted criticism and dissent.

But in the end it is Cox's resolute fatalism, accepting the tragedy of a soldier's calling without ever embracing it, that the film presents as a way forward in the moment of national self-examination that followed Vietnam.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   International Relations   

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