The Hell That I Avoided

My biological clock is ticking: I’m fast reaching age at which I will be too old to enlist in the military. It’s a strange thing to be wistful about. One of the biggest reliefs of my life is that I didn’t have to go to Iraq or Afghanistan. But I can’t help but feel a twinge of regret that I won’t ever know the military, which was such a big part of mens’ lives for so much of U.S. history, but is now vanishing into a tiny segment of the society. That’s a good thing, insofar as a smaller military means fewer people have to face the horrors of war. Fewer Americans, anyway. But at the same time, I can’t help but worry about the implications of creating a distinct warrior class.

This is on my mind because last weekend my wife and I watched Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now and Platoon.

As a film, Platoon is the least good but Oliver Stone is the only one of the three who was actually in the war. That seems to have given him a better eye for details that really make you feel like you’re in the middle of a godforsaken jungle, like the ants crawling all over Taylor’s neck in an early scene. It doesn’t have the psychological depth that Apocalypse Now has, but it makes up for that in visceral experience. In terms of sheer craft, Full Metal is the best of the bunch, but it’s lacking the intimacy of experience the other two have. That’s not surprising, given Kubrick’s cold, clinical style. But here it seems out of place. The brutal look at bootcamp, and what it reveals about the philosophy of the Marines, is the only thing it really adds to the conversation. But what what an addition! I hadn’t seen the film since high school, and I recalled the bootcamp portion taking up at least 70 percent of the film. But in reality, it comprises only about 30 percent.

Taken together though, the three films form a large whole, a reflection of the authoritarian hell of bootcamp, the physical hell of the battlefield, and the psychological hell lingers even after you go home. The hell that I avoided, but all too many people live every day.