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.

He expects others to function in like fashion. These characteristics are absolutely antithetical to those which constitute leadership, and, as becomes painfully apparent once Band assumes command of the company, these characteristics have worked their way to the very core of Band’s being.

With Band in charge, the company is on patrol, following the course of a river. Artillery shells begin to fall nearby, and as the explosions get closer and closer, Sgt. Bell (who, as a private during the first battle, had found the route which would be used to successfully overrun the Japanese bunker) tells Band, “We need to get out of here right now. Did you explain to headquarters the situation?” Band meekly admits, “No.” Bell continues, “Do they know where we are? … we’re sitting ducks out here.” Interestingly, Band responds to Bell telling him, “Well, I think that’s for me to judge.” But, that is precisely what Band has trained himself not to be able to do, and Band soon proves himself wholly incapable of judgment.

He begins to exhibit a confusion on the verge of becoming incoherence. Band says, “No. I think we just need to send somebody up there and find out how close they are. OK? It’s easy.” Then he tells another soldier to radio headquarters, basically just as Bell had indicated he should already have done. The radio operator announces that contact with headquarters cannot be made, “Line’s cut.” Band responds, “Well, we need to send somebody out there to find out where that line is being cut. And we need to find out how close they are. Come on!” Bell watches Band as Band, continuing to fumble for thoughts, points past Bell and says, “Uh … OK. OK. Uh … Hey … You … You go.” That you at whom Band appears to be pointing is Cpl. Fife, someone who was with Band alongside Capt. Staros during the entirety of the first battle. Fife becomes incredulous and his jaw drops.

During the movie, Fife has never been seen involved in any of the most direct, most heated fighting. His primary duty seems to have been to be close at hand to the commander. Fife is also the person who Pfc. Beade calls for to hold his hand as he is dying. Of course, any soldier is expected to be able and willing to undertake the most dangerous missions if so ordered, but, in the midst of the utmost confusion, would a leader turn to someone like Fife to do reconnaissance “to find out how close they are” and “to find out where that line is being cut”, especially when others who have already proven themselves more capable are right at hand?

If Band is giving Fife the order, then why does Band not just address Fife by name? After all, Fife is someone with whom Band should have been well familiar. Is it because he is so very racked with confusion - now that he needs to make judgments for which he is not well suited - that Band can only speak in terms of you? Or, is Fife just a nameless you owing to the fact that no man is an individual person so far as Band is concerned? Whatever the explanation, Band is just adding to the general state of confusion. No one moves; so, Band must name the you and says, “You’re going, Fife.”

Nearby, Witt has witnessed the entire exchange, and as Band names Fife, the camera shifts between Witt’s looking on in disbelief and Fife’s incredulous stare. Once again seeing his responsibility in the face of the other, this time in Fife’s face, Witt jumps in and tells Band, “I’ll go.”

For some reason, Witt feels compelled to add, “I want you to know I think the whole thing is a bad idea, though.” It is possible that the bad idea which Witt first had in mind is the one sending Fife on the reconnaissance mission, but, so far as Witt is concerned, he will have alleviated that situation if he goes with Fife. But, Witt also seems to recognize that someone has to step forward and be responsible for the rest of the men. That is to say that someone has to lead; someone has to take account of the men’s lives and the purpose of the mission and make a decision rather than just leave the company hunkered in the river, and Witt tries to get Band to realize his responsibility to the men under his command. Witt tells Band, “If they come down here in any strength, Lieutenant, they’re gonna knock our position to hell and flinders.” As Witt speaks, Fife seems to feel somewhat relieved. Maybe it is because Witt is there for him; maybe it is because Fife thinks Witt might get Band to change his mind.

Band completely mis-takes what Witt has said, and Band responds telling Witt, “You don’t have to go, private. There’s others who’ll volunteer.” Witt replies, “No. I wanna go, sir. In case something bad happens, I wanna be there.” Having seen his responsibility in Fife’s face, Witt wants to go where he can effect that responsibility. He would, of course, have a like responsibility to the other men were he to remain with the company instead of going with Fife, but Witt is aware that the responsibility which he is most likely to be able to effect is the responsibility towards Fife. In part, this is because there is a likelihood that the others will be responsible for one another (even if Band were to continue failing in his responsibility as commander) whereas Fife would have no one with him as capable as Witt thinks himself to be at being there for Fife.

Continued in Part 11

12 It is to be noted that Staros made sure to refuse the order in a way which would seem not to deny or undermine the hierarchy upon which the military relies. He was aware that the military code afforded someone in his position the discretion to refuse an order if that order exhibited a blatant lack of the judgment necessary to justify the order. It is interesting and telling to note Tall’s deference to reason and extenuating circumstances when he responds to Staros’ refusal to follow the order to undertake a frontal attack. Tall says, “This is a very important decision you’re making … maybe you have a reason; so, I’m coming down there … if I find there are extenuating circumstances, I’m gonna take that into account.” This is indicative of the military ethic realizing a need to have some in-built deference to the exceptionality which necessitates judgment, ultimately resulting in acknowledgment that there are to be circumstances under which judgment is to be valued over mere compliance.

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

  1. Pingback: The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 9 of 12 | The Kindly Ones

  2. Pingback: The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 11 of 12 | The Kindly Ones

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