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

(Continued from Part 11)

12. Some additional thoughts

In Witt’s response to Fife, Bell saw grace in the midst of war. But it was just a moment, and the question remains: How is that transcendent love we know as grace to be effected more durably in the world? It may be that the only way to more durably effect the transcendent in the world is to effect it more often. This is to say that the question - How is the transcendent to be effected more durably in the world? - may well be the wrong question. Instead, the much more proper question could be: How can the transcendent be effected more often in the world?

The transcendent is often alleged to be ineffable. Some will quickly accept this supposed characteristic of the transcendent and tie it to Wittgenstein’s statement, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” in order to insist on the irrelevance of the transcendent or in order to disdain as nonsense all discussion of and reference to the transcendent. Indeed, in his Lecture on Ethics, Wittgenstein himself appears quite willing to assign matters of the transcendent to the realm of nonsense (without, in his case, being disdainful): Continue reading

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The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 11 of 12

(Continued from Part 10)

11. Grace: transcending transcendent responsibility

Bell is frozen in awe as he looks at Witt. Bell has seen through the world of appearances and perceived a great goodness which he had never before noticed – not just in Witt, but – in anyone, a goodness so rarely perceived as to give the impression of being unworldly, a holy greatness, the sort of rare greatness which gives meaning to the term holy.

Witt had for some time been dedicated to seeking out the most trying situations, thinking that it was in those contexts where he might most meaningfully effect that transcendent responsibility of which he had become aware, but no one could be aware of Witt’s motivation. After all, Witt’s dedication was to an effecting which was wholly unconcerned with appearing in order to be noticed.

Here, too, in the river, Witt’s dedication was unchanged. He certainly hoped that Fife would be eased by his presence, but Witt sought nothing more than that Fife would feel a little relieved. Accordingly, it was not at all in Witt’s mind that Fife might seek to figure out why Witt would do what he had done and might happen to see in Witt’s face the responsibility for the other that Witt had recognized in Fife’s face. For that matter, it was not Witt’s intent that Bell or anyone else might grasp why Witt acted as he did.

But, Bell did realize what he had just seen. And what he had seen was something far beyond the call of duty; it was something more than bravery. Continue reading

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The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 10 of 12

(Continued from Part 9)

10. Levinasian responsibility and the military ethic

When Colonel Tall relieves Capt. Staros of his command after the first battle, he puts Lt. Band in charge of Charlie Company. Band is no leader. This lack of leadership is foreshadowed in two scenes prior to Band being put in command.

As first the medic and then Welsh respond to the mortally wounded soldier’s repeated agonized calls for someone to help him, Band says to Staros, “Fortunately, Jim, the fate of the company doesn’t depend on one man.” Staros does not reply. Then later, as casualties continue to mount and Charlie Company gets bogged down, Tall orders Staros to have his men undertake a frontal assault. Staros objects,12 and then Band interjects.

Staros: “Colonel, I don’t think that you fully understand what’s going on down here. I formally request to be given permission for patrol reconnaissance around to the right … through the jungle. I believe the entire position, sir, can be outflanked with a maneuver there in force.”

Tall: “No! … There will be no flanking move! … Now, attack, Staros! That’s a direct order!”

Staros: “Sir, I must tell you that I refuse to obey your order.”

Band: “It’s not your fault, Jim. He’s ordering you to.”

Staros again ignores Band, and, after asking Tall once more to permit the flanking move – which Tall still adamantly refuses – Staros tells Tall, “Colonel, I refuse to take my men up there in a frontal attack. It’s suicide, sir. I’ve lived with these men, sir, for two and a half years, and I will not order them all to their deaths.”

What those two scenes indicate about Band is that he lacks any sense of personal responsibility towards the men of his company, and he lacks any sense of responsibility towards those men as persons. For him, no person matters. This might be an attitude adopted as a way of trying to buffer himself from having to face the deep horrors of lives lost. He might be afraid that if he were to allow himself to see the others as persons, as unique selves, then he might not be able to function as a soldier - especially in battle as those unique selves are being killed. Instead of investing his own person in a responsibility towards others, Band has decided that his only responsibility is to be that which is imposed upon him as orders to be effected. In effect, he hopes that there will never be a need for him to have or use judgment. Continue reading

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The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 9 of 12

(Continued from Part 8)

9. Leadership from virtue

Witt does not try to make the transcendent manifest (in the sense of more apparent) so much as he tries to effect the transcendent in the world. Dedicated as he is to effecting the transcendent rather than drawing attention to it, Witt’s actions do not appear to the rest of the men around him to be at all distinguishable from duties performed simply for being what is expected in accord with the military culture. Witt exhibits the expected bravery with his willingness to participate in front-line fighting. In that fighting, he watches out for the other soldiers just as they watch out for him, and he does not balk at orders. Unlike some of the other soldiers, Witt exhibits the respect towards prisoners which the military ethic expects.

It would be of no concern to the military that Witt acts as he does for reasons which, as the movie reveals, are themselves not products of the training and ethic - the culture - which undergirds the military. Instead, the military is predominantly interested in what Witt does only in terms of whether or not he contributes to the ends which the military seeks to attain in some particular context.

Insofar as the military ethic is developed in anticipation of times wherein the military will be called upon to extend itself beyond its rituals in service to (and as reminders of) its hierarchical structure – insofar as the military ethic is constructed to anticipate times when the military will have to effect acts within that vast part of the world which is not itself subject to or in service to the military, its ways and purposes - the military ethic ultimately requires something other than a structure which demands simplistic deference to orders that are hierarchically imposed.

Particularly in the most dire situations, it is always to be expected that there will be a need for acts which are other than what can be ordered or demanded, inasmuch as contexts very often unfold with situations that cannot always be anticipated. Accordingly, in order to enhance the likelihood that success will be attained, the military ethic properly entails some degree of flexibility in order to accommodate the expectation of a need for the sort of judgment which can be made most effectually only from within and during the sort of unanticipated situation which does not afford opportunity for action to be put in abeyance until some higher ranking person can be adequately informed about what is going on before the decision can be made for what action is to be ordered and then undertaken.

This is to say that the military ethic certainly need not be a simple matter of following orders. Some versions of the ethic itself are designed to at least encourage the development of the capability for effectual judgment. This capability is the basis for that indefinite – and, therefore, ultimately indefinable and incompletely describable – yet indispensable characteristic known as leadership, which itself is something other than the right (or a privilege granted) to impose demands through the issuance of orders. Continue reading

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The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 8 of 12

(Continued from Part 7)

8. Witt and fear in the face of the other

When Witt is in the brig after having been returned from his life among the Melanesians, Welsh tells him, “Normally you’d be court-martialed. But I worked a deal for you … I’m sending you to a disciplinary unit. You’ll be a stretcher-bearer. You’ll be taking care of the wounded.” Since Witt is devoted in responsive concern for and service to others, being assigned to a stretcher-bearer unit does not strike him as any actual punishment. Motivated as he is to make effective the responsibility he has for others (a transcendent relationship he has with those others), it is likely that Witt is not even in the least embarrassed that others in Charlie Company will think of him as having been disciplined.

Witt realizes his responsibility in responding to the wounded. He does not just transport fallen soldiers; he reaches out to the wounded, trying to give comfort and assurance. He gives one man a sip of water from a canteen and then pours a little water over the man’s head and rubs the man’s head. Witt pours a little more water on the man’s neck to help cool him down, and he rubs the man’s neck. The man says something, and Witt nods an acknowledgment with a slight smile seemingly meant to assure the man that he will be alright.

The stretcher-bearing duty provides contexts in which Witt can be responsive to persons and attend to their needs, but such situations are not of the sort which Witt feels most need that responsibility which he is dedicated to effecting. He would much prefer to be in the midst of the battle, because that is where fear will be most rampant, and Witt senses that his primary responsibility is to do what he can to dispel particular occasions of fear. That is why, when he encounters Welsh and Staros during the battle, Witt asks Staros to let him rejoin Charlie Company.

From that time on, Witt is always taking part in the most forward fighting. That is where he will encounter others from whom Witt thinks it is of the utmost importance that fear be removed. Continue reading

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The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 7 of 12

(Continued from Part 6)

7. Perception and unexpectedness

Of course, neither a sense of responsibility nor any act done in service to a responsibility is necessarily a matter or a manifestation of the transcendent. Responsibility can be a product of social pressure and can take the form usually known as duty. As duty, responsibility is predominantly – if not exclusively – a role undertaken to satisfy others’ expectations. Accordingly, duty is a service which can be demanded by others. However, that responsibility which is a matter of transcendence never comes to be as a result of its being demanded, and it can never be demanded. Responsibility as duty can be delegated; transcendent responsibility can never be delegated to anyone else. Continue reading

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The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 6 of 12

(Continued from Part 5)

6. Staros and the response to the transcendent

It may be, however, that Sgt. Welsh has misinterpreted Capt. Staros’s reaction. Staros is, after all, more concerned about the men under his command than he is interested in the military or its ethic. Already having his own sense of a Levinasian – a transcendent - responsibility, it may be that Staros was reacting to having seen the reality of a great goodness, a goodness which he had seen in or because of Welsh’s act. It may be that an awe-filled joy overcame Staros as an uncontainable ebullience which Staros let pour forth in praise of Welsh not only because Staros had seen the great goodness owing to Welsh but also because that goodness would not have appeared as it did, where it did, and when it did had it not been for Welsh allowing and enabling – frankly, effecting - its manifestation. Could Staros have done differently? Should he have done something else instead? Buber says:

Spirit is not in the I, but between I and Thou. It is not like the blood that circulates in you, but like the air in which you breathe. Man lives in the spirit … if he is able to respond to his Thou….

But the … stronger the response the more strongly does it bind up the Thou and banish it to be an object [an It]. Only silence before the Thou … leaves the Thou free, and permits man to take his stand with it in the reserve where the spirit is not manifest, but [instead simply and fully] is. Every response binds up the Thou in the world of It. That is the melancholy of man, and his greatness. For that is how knowledge comes about, a work is achieved, and image and symbol made, in the midst of living things.8

Continue reading

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