The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 4 of 12

(Continued from Part 3)

4. Witt in the brig

Upon being returned to the army, Witt is placed in the brig where Sgt. Welsh indicts him saying, “Truth is: You can’t take straight duty in my company. You’ll never be a real soldier.” Animated as Witt now is with a new found devotion to fearlessness and to the responsibility he encounters in the face of the other, Witt speaks truth when, with a hint of heatedness, he tells Welsh, “I can take anything you can dish out. I’m twice the man you are.”

Welsh’s response to Witt’s claim about being more of a man is interesting. Welsh does not act as if he feels at all insulted; instead, he appears to intentionally give a look of amused puzzlement. He does not answer with the reflexive vehemence that often appears when a man’s own manliness is proclaimed to be comparatively deficient – especially when that proclamation is issued by someone who is supposed to be of lesser status. Since he is supposed to be Witt’s leader, it is possible that all Welsh had been trying to do was provoke Witt, to stir some fight within him. In that case, it would be counterproductive for Welsh to respond vehemently inasmuch as that vehemence might douse the spirit which Witt had exhibited. Welsh responds to Witt with a relatively calm insistence saying, “In this world, a man, himself, is nothing … All a man can do is shut his eyes and let nothing touch him, look out for himself.”

To an extent, in these statements are both representation and contradiction of the ethic which the military prefers to have imparted to each of its members. According to that ethic, each person is not to look out for only himself, and it is by not looking out for only himself that each person becomes more than nothing.

That ethic contradicts Welsh’s advice that “[a]ll a man can do is … look out for himself”, and that easily identifiable contradiction might be intended to further stoke the spirit, the fight which is now apparent in Witt. Welsh’s comment is certainly not put forth as some sort of rebuttal to Witt’s claim of being more of a man. Welsh’s comment lacks the force of a challenge, and, yet, it seems to be something other than a psychological ploy. The remark might be intended to signal that its lack of vehemence should be appreciated as indicating a power which Welsh has, the capability not to be affected by remarks from someone in Witt’s position, but there is something in the tone of Welsh’s response which makes it seem that Welsh is in some way deferentially acknowledging – although not outright agreeing with – Witt’s claim to be more of a man than Welsh is.

There is a sense in which Welsh’s response serves to confirm Witt’s claim. According to Martin Buber, the transcendent (which Buber refers to as “spirit”) manifests in “a response of man to his Thou”, something which is very much like – if not identical to – the Levinasian face of the other. Buber says, “Spirit is not in the I” of the individual person. Likewise, spirit is not in the It, by which Buber means the things experienced simply as objects which the individual might put to some use. Instead, spirit is “but between I and Thou”,5 and “he who lives with It alone is not a man.”6 This is to say that if Welsh really does “shut his eyes” so that he never sees “his Thou” in the face of the other, then Welsh necessarily lives only “with It” and is, therefore, most certainly less of a man than Witt now is.

Shutting his eyes so that he will not see the face of the other or his responsibility to the other is precisely what Witt intends never to do, and Witt is aware that, no matter how hard or how often Welsh might try to keep his eyes shut, the fact is that Welsh’s eyes never stay shut. As Witt later says to Welsh, “You care about me. Don’t you sarge? I always felt like you did. … I still see a spark in you.” Whereas Sgt. Storm can “look at that boy dying” and “feel nothing … care ’bout nothing anymore”, Welsh, on the other hand, never attains the numbness of such a supposed “bliss.” Welsh always has feeling – whether a sense of responsibility towards, or maybe even a concern – for others, no matter how much he tries to “make [him]self out like a rock,” and it is that responsive concern for others which Witt sees as a spark of the transcendent in Welsh.

Continued in Part 5

5 Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), p. 39.
6 Ibid., p. 34.

This entry was posted in Ethics, Film, Morality, Philosophy, Philosophy of Religion, Religion and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 4 of 12

  1. Pingback: The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 3 of 12 | The Kindly Ones

  2. Pingback: The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 5 of 12 | The Kindly Ones

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