Full Metal Jacket
Although it is an obvious fact that war is conducted by individuals, there is a stereotypical perception which is culturally reinforced which works to deny this reality by shaping “soldiers,” “generals” and “casualties” into generic representations of individuals. Also a part of the cultural diminishing of individuality in relation to war is the idea of military “training” and induction meant to break down the individual psyche of the recruit and replace it with the more highly specialized but far less autonomous soldier. Stanley Kubric’s film “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) explores the impact of the collision of these two radically opposite viewpoints in relation to the Viet Nam War, which was, technically not a war by military terms, but a “conflict.” To more thoroughly explore the theme of the destruction of individuality in modern warfare, Kubrick traces the journey of a group of marine recruits through boot-camp and chronicles the psychological breakdown of one recruit, Private Pyle, after undergoing the rigorous training regiment and disciplinary conditioning at the hands of his drill-sergeant, Hartman.
Although it may seem that the boot-camp segment of the film concentrates mainly on the impact of a brutal and often violent conditioning regiment on a single, unfit soldier, Kubrick’s theme is actually much more complex: the other soldiers, those who have navigated boot-camp more successfully than Pyle are, in actuality, no better off than he, perhaps they are even worse off. Although Pyle ultimately kills Sergeant Hartman and then himself, the murder-suicide scene reveals that Pyle has maintained his individuality in the face of the dehumanizing drill-sergeant. This is an ironic function in the film, one which extends its core-them which is: it is individuals who must make war, not institutions, not nations, and not armies, but individual human-beings. The cost of creating a soldier who will not maintain individuality is that the aspects of humanity which prevent the race as a whole from becoming brutal and depraved are also taken away and the individual so robbed of their individuality may become like Pyle, or they become like Joker or even Mother, but the result is always the same.
By looking at the film in this way, some insight regarding Kubrick’s notion of the causes of war can be discovered because it is precisely the capacity to dehumanize each other and to be dehumanized ourselves which is the cause of war. In other words, without the breakdown of the individual psyche it would be highly unlikely that massive armies could even be mobilized. The disciplinary actions and training are enacted officially to provide for a more orderly and therefore capable fighting force but in reality it is necessary to breakdown the individual psyche in order to even raise an army at all. During the boot-camp segment there is a conspicuous absence of war-related talk. None of the soldiers discuss Viet Nam’s political, cultural, or military issues; none of the soldiers reiterates the “reason” for going to war. Even when Hartman suggests to the recruits that there is a very good chance than many of them will die in Viet Nam, he relates their probable deaths not to a specific reason or motivation for fighting the Viet Nam war but to the hallowed privilege of simply dying as a marine for whatever reason. The core will live on beyond the individual soldiers and by extension grant them immortality.
Later in the film, after the boot-camp segment, the story picks up in Viet Nam itself and the film’s main character, Joker, is attached to a fighting infantry unit. The group’s most aggressive and “crazy” member, when asked what is the reason he is fighting replies that he is fighting for “Poontang.” Another soldier says that he thinks the Americans are fighting the wrong side; still another says that he pities the North Vietnamese for preferring to be alive than free. The entire war-segment of the film is blackly comedic and contains a great many incident of outright irony and black satire. War is shown, even just by the visuals of them burned out Vietnamese city, to be insane, senseless, anarchistic, tragic, and dehumanizing. There are no heroes, only victims and killers. The scene where Joker murders the sniper shows that he has himself become utterly dehumanized even though the viewer might have been led to belive by the boot-camp segment of the film that Joker somehow evaded the more harsh, dehumanizing and brutal breakdown of his individuality that are so apparent in others in the film.
In fact, Joker, has himself become lost. He has ceased to exist and at the moment the he, with a clear vision of selfhood and self-generated morality, is displaced by the ravages of military training and actual war, is the moment he becomes a real, killing soldier. He is finally of use to the state and the Corp which created him. Although Joker claims mid-way through the film to be grappling with the essential duality of man: half peace-lover, half-killer — this is also a dark irony in the film and one which facilitates the complex themes of individuality and war by demonstrating that Joker, who was obviously an “intact” personality in boot-camp and even afterward, maintaining his insolence and swagger, has been riven in two. he now sees himself in duplicitous rather than whole terms. This is the belated but still highly effective impact of his military training which did kick in, just as Hartman had promised it would, when Joker found himself in real combat.
Whether Kubrick’s message in “Full Metal Jacket” is that there lurks within every person a latent capacity to kill and become savage, or whether his theme is that the damaging of the human psyche causes violence and depravity, one thing is certain. Kubrick is certainly suggesting that whatever the means: this latent capacity can be, and is, exploited by powers unknown to those who are being exploited, for reasons which are never truly disclosed (if indeed they are even truly known by anyone). It is unnecessary to provide a reason for a soldier to kill; it is merely necessary to create a soldier and send them to war.