The Becoming and Unbecoming of a Soldier

Paper by Kennedy Olivia.

With the War in Afghanistan, the United States reached the milestone of conducting the longest war in its history. This war began in 2001 and continues today. The thought of war for most people in the United States conjures up images of faraway places and peoples, creating a detachment from the realities abroad. What is not always considered when thinking about war is who the fighters will be and how we create them by instilling the ability to kill into ordinary citizens. War is an incredibly complex entity that makes machines out of people. Through three Vietnam War films, Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987), Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986), and tBorn on the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone, 1989), the loss of humanity that is required to create these military personnel is demonstrated through the constant struggle between the public and private personas, as the characters undergo this transformation. These films provide a point of reflection on what it means to be in the military today and the effects of this dichotomy on the lives of our soldiers.

The Vietnam War, or the Second Indochina war, lasted from 1955 to 1975 and was fought between the communist North Vietnamese and Viet Cong and the South Vietnamese and the United States. America became involved in the war due to the fear of the ‘Domino Theory’ in which, “as one regime falls to communism – little by little, others will follow” (Vietnam War: The Second Indochina War, 2). America feared that as nations became communist, others would shortly follow, and the loss of Vietnam to communism, would instigate the loss of all of Asia to communism. Over three million Americans served in this war which resulted in over 150,000 wounded and nearly 60,000 deaths (Vietnam War: The Second Indochina War, 143). It was a long and bloody war that many disagreed with, but as the United States Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, claimed, “we can’t change human nature” and thus, “we cannot avoid military conflict” (Errol Morris, 2003). This war was highly controversial, with many disagreeing and protesting the very premise of the war; this sentiment continues largely to this day. An interesting facet of this war was the public’s tremendous desire for films about the conflict in the 1980s. The Vietnam War was the first “television war,” and thus garnered mass interest from the public and harsher opinions, as the devastation was seen on the evening news in real time (Wetta and Novelli). The film industry largely sought to avoid discussions of the war during the 1960s and 1970s, as the topic was believed to be too political and would result in box office failure (Prince, 2007). Originally aiming to maintain the honor of the soldier, this thinking quickly shifted into more politically charged films, “offer[ing] what appeared to be the most realistic and gut-wrenching depiction of the ‘grunt’s’ experience of jungle war yet filmed, and a flood of pictures followed, many offering close-in depictions of combat” (Prince, 2007). It is in these films that filmmakers took a more holistic look at what it truly meant to be a soldier during this war and the price paid by the American youth.

One film in particular, Full Metal Jacket, examines the beginning of the loss of individualism of the soldier as he becomes institutionalized by the United States armed forces. The opening sequence of the film reveals the first, and most basic, stripping of identity in the shaving of the new recruits’ hair, symbolizing one of the first steps towards conformity. Hair is seen as an outward expression of a person, thus the loss of hair exemplifies a dramatic loss of self. Immediately upon introduction to the Senior Drill Instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, the group is told that they are to “speak only when spoken to” and that they are “all equally worthless” (Full Metal Jacket). It is within this introduction that the recruits begin to lose their rights as individuals, as even their freedom of speech is transitioned to government ownership. It is in this state that Gunnery Sergeant Hartman begins to tear down each recruit in order to rebuild them into men capable of killing on behalf of their government. In order to do this, the men are harshly verbally ridiculed and humiliated. They are given new names that are meant to degrade them, thus stripping them of yet another piece of their identity. Within the film, “Kubrick emphasizes the part of the Marine Corps that forces men into a collective identity…responding to him with a collective voice that resurfaces each time the men march and sing in cadence. Rarely do any of the recruits speak outside of this collective voice within this first half” (Perel, 2008). The film’s first half is dedicated to recruit training, in which the camera refuses to focus on a single recruit, suggesting that they are no longer individuals, but rather a collective group. The training and creation of a Marine requires a person that, beyond being physically strong, is mentally strong and acts as part of a larger group. Two of the main characters, Private Pyle and Private Joker, exemplify the physical and mental toll this process takes on the person. Private Pyle’s natural clumsiness makes him different from the collective, unable to complete both the physical obstacles and personal maintenance required of him. This causes him to be punished constantly by Hartman, and eventually by the group, as they all face punishment due to his individual mistakes. Pyle absorbs the doctrine, despite his personal failures, and this becomes his only mentality, as he shoots and kills both Hartman and himself in an extreme act of violence triggered by his loss of individuality. Contrastingly, Private Joker conforms in each of his given tasks, but maintains a small sense of individuality behind his mask of conformity that allows him to survive. The creation of a soldier is one that strips the identity of the individual and places emphasis on the collective, thus giving over ones’ self to the government in both body and soul.

The soldier at war is an aspect investigated by these three films, each providing insight into the process of soldiers becoming engulfed by war. The soldier at war is shown to experience horrors that are unthinkable, yet remains loyal to the group mindset. In Full Metal Jacket, the audience witnesses Private Joker’s entrance into combat wearing a helmet that states both ‘born to kill’ and a peace sign button, which he explains as a representation of “the duality of man” (Full Metal Jacket). This is a visual representation of, “the battle between the shadow and the self, as well as the individual and collective sides of identity, that a man must balance within the service (Perel, 2008). Despite this grappling, Private Joker is ultimately overpowered by his learned desire for the collective. When his group is in battle against a sniper and his friend, Cowboy, is killed, he is overcome with the desire to avenge his friend’s death. The sniper is found and shot, but does not die, it is then that Joker decides to have both mercy and his revenge by shooting the sniper. He chooses to take an individual action, but this action is one that is ultimately representative of the group’s collective response to the deaths of their comrades. The final shots of the film show the group walking with the burning buildings to their backs, thus obscuring their individuality one final time as they appear as a group. The group mindset ultimately wins over the individual.

Platoon demonstrates similar themes by showing the loss of individual identity to the group amongst the brutality of the other soldiers. During war, the body is lost to whomever is in control, as soldiers become actors in events that they cannot control. The film follows Chris Taylor and his two Sergeants, Elias and Barnes. The different styles of leadership portrayed by Elias and Barnes determine the fates and actions of the lower-ranking men. The actions and expressions of these men show how the war shapes different people; Sergeant Elias is portrayed as the ethical and calm leader, while Sergeant Barnes is portrayed as the merciless and hardened leader. In this film, the audience encounters the duality of man in a different respect, as the audience is shown how soldiers handle the brutalities of war. The film, “is, in fact, a morality tale in which the battles between good and evil in a platoon are presented as a microcosm of the entire war, if not a universal experience of war” (Sturken, 1997). Barnes acts to demonstrate the utter loss of humanity by soldiers. He becomes overwhelmed by the realities of war and, thus, loses the understanding of the value of human life. In a tense scene at a Vietnamese village, Barnes puts a gun to a child’s head and kills a woman, even though she is not an active member in the war. Elias responds to his actions by hitting Barnes, creating great tension between the two. Barnes’ actions show the desensitization of a soldier who no longer values human life. Barnes later shoots Elias when he is alone in the jungle so that he can blame it on the Viet Cong, as he does not want Elias to reveal the actual events that occurred in the village. After announcing Elias’ death, the platoon begins to leave via helicopter and, “those images that have the capacity to encapsulate a narrative event”, Elias is seen running with the Viet Cong behind him as he is ultimately shot and killed while falling to his knees (Guillen). This image encapsulates the struggle of the film and the struggle of the soldier. One can attempt to remain moral and human in war, but even those in your own platoon may act to prevent this. The way in which soldiers are forced to adapt to their circumstances results in a ‘kill or be killed’ mindset. When one becomes a member of this group, the value of individual human lives diminishes as members see themselves in a battle for good versus evil, thus making killing both natural and necessary. Even the bodies of fellow soldiers lose their value.

The body of an individual soldier must lose value for the overall cause during war. In Full Metal Jacket, when Eightball is shot by the sniper, Doc Jay attempts to go out and grab the injured soldier, only to be shot himself. In an attempt to locate the sniper, the machine gunner disobeys orders and determines the location; unfortunately, at the cost of Eightball and Doc Jay. In battle, soldiers are often willing to risk possible injury and/or death in order to save a member of the group. The indoctrination of group think allows the group to sustain itself, as members no longer think about themselves, rather they think of other members. A similar disregard for the personal body is displayed in Born on the Fourth of July. During a firefight at a village, Ron Kovic is shot in the heel, but this does not stop him from engaging in battle, rather, he pulls himself up by his gun in order to continue to shoot at the enemy. It is this decision that ultimately results in his paralyzing gunshot wound to the chest and spinal cord. In war, the preservation of self is lost to the mindset of defeating the enemy, thus helping the group and government. The body is no longer one’s own, it is a weapon where they buy the latest AR-15 rifles for fighting wars; therefore, a soldier is no longer a person, but instead is a machine designed to kill. The struggle of a soldier returning home from war and attempting to regain his personhood and identity is exemplified in Born on the Fourth of July. In this film, Kovic is paralyzed from the waist down and is forced to reside in a wheel chair for the remainder of his life. Kovic lost the health and function of his private body for what he initially perceived to be the public good. His sacrifice for this cause will follow him for the rest of his days. It is this loss of himself and his body that forces him to reexamine his perspectives on war and to change his ideology. Upon his initial return, Kovic attempts to fit himself back into the society that he left, as exemplified in his short, well-kept haircut. However, he is quickly faced with the reality that assimilation into private life is difficult and nearly impossible following war. When giving a speech at a fourth of July parade, a baby’s cry immediately takes him back to a home in Vietnam where he and his group accidently killed a family and left a crying baby to die. Kovic illustrates the reality beyond the physical wounds; the war veteran cannot fully return to private life, as the public will always hold a piece of his person. This film is an “extended wail of sorrow for the wounded veteran and his loss of masculinity (and by extension for all veterans and all American men), Born on the Fourth of July also focused on a naive, unsuspecting young man who was shaped by his stunned realization of how little his life mattered” (Sturken, 1997). It is Kovic’s attempt to become a private citizen again that results in his downward spiral, as he comes to realize that people do not care about his service or his health; he is seen as an ‘other’ and an outsider. As an outward display of this, his hair becomes longer and more disheveled as he realizes his loss of identity. He turns to alcohol and prostitutes to regain his sense of self, but only finds them to be hollow solutions. It is only when he truly discovers antiwar activism that he finally begins to find meaning in his life. He needed to be a part of a new group seeking change, “the collective effort of the veterans turned protesters is presented as a vehicle of historical change, as it was in real life” (Davis). This story illustrates how difficult it is to relinquish the soldier mentality and to learn that one must now fight for the individuality and personhood that they had prior to war.

In each of the three films, the ultimate loss of innocence is portrayed through the creation of soldiers and the actions of war. In Full Metal Jacket, Joker begins as any recruit, even earning his nickname for attempting to make a joke in front of Hartman. Despite this grip on his personhood, it is ultimately forsaken for the good of the group. He is no longer an innocent man, but finally becomes the killer his training has shaped him to be. In Platoon, the audience witnesses the idealistic and naive Chris Taylor, who dropped out of college to join the military and do his part for his country, learn and grow in himself. However, in war, he is forced to join his platoon in the destruction of a village and ultimately kills his Sergeant in an act of revenge. Instead of his naive dreams to grow and become a man in the military, he has been dehumanized to the point that he is capable of committing a vengeful murder. Similarly, Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, begins as a hopeful teen yearning to do something for the greater good of his country; it is this deep patriotism that ultimately prompts him to join the Marines. In doing so, he lost his ability to walk, as well as his identity. Kovic’s patriotism was reshaped by the realities of war, as he was forced to see that war takes things from its soldiers that they can never recover. All three films reflect this sentiment, injured or not, all those who go to war lose their sense of self as they are forced to conform into what is believed to be the ultimate good. The cost, however, is their loss of humanity. War forces public ownership of the body and the mind upon the private person, leading to an internal struggle. In its attempt to make machines, the systems of war create broken men who must rediscover how to extricate themselves from this ideology and reintegrate into society.

Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, and Born on the Fourth of July illustrate the internal battle of the soldier as they are forced to become a member of the group, thus losing their individuality. These films show that this integration into the life of the soldier comes at the cost of the life of the individual. As we enter a time where the United States has been in wars longer than ever before, the films of the Vietnam War era serve as a call to reflect on history and not to make the same mistakes with our soldiers. The films force one to ask if the losses of humanity and lives for war are worth the sacrifice. As one reflects on the continued problems facing our veterans, both old and new, one can see that this loss of identity is carried with them along with the horrors of war. For some, the battle internally is so great that they experience post-traumatic stress disorder and some even commit suicide. The Vietnam War is the second longest war in American history, and through the films about this war, people are forced to reflect on how the brutality of war impacts lives long after the war is declared to be over.

Works Cited:
Davis, Jack E. “New Left, Revisionist, In-Your-Face History: Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July Experience.” Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, vol. 28 no. 3, 1998, pp. 6-17. Project MUSE,
Guillen, Michael. Hidden Certainties and Active Doubts: An Interview with Abderrahmane Sissako.
Kubrick, Stanley, director. Full Metal Jacket. 1987.
Morris, Errol, director. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. 2003.
Perel, Zivah. Pyle and Joker’s dual narratives: individuality and group identity in Stanley Kubrick’s Marine Corps. 2008. Literature/Film Quarterly (36:3) 223-32.
Prince, Stephen. American Cinema of the 1980s: Themes and Variations. Berg, 2007.
The Vietnam War: The Second Indochina War. The History Hour, 2018.
Stone, Oliver, director. Born on the Fourth of July. Universal Home Video, 2007.
Stone, Oliver, director. Platoon. 1986.
Sturken, Marita. Reenactment, fantasy, and the paranoia of history: Oliver stone’s docudramas. 1997. History and Theory 36 (4):64–79.
Wetta, Frank Joseph & Novelli, Martin A. “”Now a Major Motion Picture”: War Films and Hollywood’s New Patriotism.” The Journal of Military History, vol. 67 no. 3, 2003, pp. 861-882. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jmh.2003.0263

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