(Continued from Part 4)
5. Welsh and the wounded soldier
Welsh often seems to deride or mock the transcendent which animates Witt, but there is one scene in particular which suggests that Welsh’s apparent derision for the transcendent has absolutely nothing to do with any adamant denial of, or hard-held disbelief in, the possibility that the transcendent is real. In fact, this particular scene – where Welsh braves enemy fire in order to get morphine to a mortally wounded soldier and is then praised by Capt. Staros – reveals Welsh as the person possibly most broadly aware of the nature of the transcendent and, therefore, most tortured by the problem of transcendence – the fact that any appearance of the transcendent in the world never endures clearly.
After a medic is killed while trying to bring morphine to a mortally wounded soldier who is screaming incessantly in agony, Welsh takes it upon himself to weave through the field of fire to get to the dying soldier. Welsh first tries to take the soldier back to the covered position where the rest of the company is, but it very quickly becomes obviously impossible. So, Welsh retrieves the morphine and gives it to the soldier before leaving. When Welsh gets back to the company position, Capt. Staros begins to effuse, “Sergeant, I saw the whole thing through the glasses. I’m going to mention you in orders tomorrow! Recommend you for the Silver Star!” Welsh cuts him off: “Captain, if you say one more word to thank me, I’m going to knock you right in the teeth. You mention me in your fucking orders and I’ll resign my rating so fast and leave you here to run this busted up outfit by yourself. You understand?!?!?”
Welsh did what he did for the sake of the soldier writhing in agony. He did not risk his life in order to be noticed. He did not risk his life in order to be praised. He did not even do what he did in order to alleviate any deleterious anxiety which that fallen soldier’s continuing screams might have caused the rest of the company. All that Capt. Staros could see with his field glasses was Welsh in action. Staros saw that action as Welsh’s; Staros saw the greatness or the great goodness of that action as Welsh’s, and, as a consequence, Staros heaped praise on Welsh. But, what Staros seems to have turned away from with that praise – what Staros seems to have been blind to – was the goodness itself. And this is what drives Welsh almost to apoplexy.
Arendt remarks that “the moment a good work becomes known and public,” such as when it is praised or even called good, “it loses its specific character of goodness, of being done for nothing but goodness’ sake.”7 An act can make (indeed, an act is necessary to make) goodness or some other supposedly transcendent quality manifest, but that manifestation does not endure when there is focus upon the act or the person who does the act rather than upon the transcendent quality which is to be found in or which motivates the act.
The vehemence of Welsh’s reaction to the praise which pours out of Staros is consistent with the character of a person pained by the problem of transcendence, a problem which itself manifests as people’s blindness to the transcendent and its nature. It is as if Welsh does not want to be praised precisely because what he most wants is for the others, including Staros, to see beyond the act to what it is that makes the act appear good. To see beyond is to be better aware of the good in order that it can then be continually made manifest until it is no longer so rare and out of the ordinary. The tendency to see only the man who acts – to praise the man and his act – only results in using the man as an example of a thing to be imitated. But, to imitate makes manifest only an imitation, and the transcendent is never – and can never be – made manifest by imitation. It is almost as if, despite his repeated disavowals of other-worldliness, Welsh has his own quite strong sense of the transcendent.
The idea that what he did would be proclaimed an exemplar for military behavior in particular enrages Welsh precisely because it is not the military ethic which motivates Welsh’s act. Welsh ends the tirade directed at Staros by exclaiming, “You understand?!?!? Property! Whole fucking thing’s about property.” Although it sounds like mere hackneyed anti-war sentiment, Welsh’s remark nonetheless punctuates the fact that, no matter the rhetoric used to justify the war, no matter how very evil the enemy might actually be, the institutions fueling this war are by their very nature necessarily motivated by and limited to a thorough this-worldliness of a sort which Welsh rejects.
Continued in Part 6
7 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 74.