Who remembers Kubrick’s Vietnam movie Full Metal Jacket ? It starts with young cadets being brainwashed in boot camp under a torrent of salty abuse from Sergeant Hartman (played by R. Lee Ermey). The middle part of the film was shot in Galleons Reach in London’s Docklands. The addition of a few strategic palm trees transformed this global financial centre into a perfect facsimile of a Vietnam warzone. (Yes, yes, I know …but they do say story telling is all about the willing suspension of disbelief…)
The film ends with US Marines marching into the darkening night singing the Mickey Mouse March. It’s meant ironically, of course, “Mickey Mouse” as a slang term meaning something petty, useless and senseless. It also emphasizes the soldiers’ youth. This final scene is trying to sum up the film’s core statement : Brainwashed young men follow orders from above and commit atrocities in a pointless war.
The military is almost synonymous with top down control. Generals tell Colonels what to do, Colonels tell Majors, and so on down the line until it reaches the poor grunts in the line of fire. The emphasis seems to be on following orders and the chain of command. Don’t question what you are told to do. Just do it.
In fact, things are changing and it is becoming more important for soldiers to think for themselves. They are teaching US Cadets about Immanuel Kant in West Point these days. The BBC recently broadcast a report on Radio 4 about how moral philosophy has become a key part of the syllabus when training soldiers in the USA.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can not be won through force. That may have worked for Kublai Khan, which was the last time both countries were under the thumb of the same foreign invader. But today it is all about winning hearts and minds. So what a US soldier does when patrolling in a dusty village makes all the difference. He needs to make the right moral choices. He is not following orders from above so much as using his own independent judgment.
Part of the reason America lost the Vietnam War was the obsessive top down control from Washington. The military has learnt its lesson. There are two different levels. High level strategy that can be planned and moral choices made by an individual on the ground. One is top down the other bottom up. Different levels, different rules. That is catataxis.
* if you didn’t get it, try reading this title aloud in a Glaswegian accent