Monday, December 28, 2009

Army of Orphans

21 - 28 December 2009

Speaking of Big Dem (see one or two posts back), some time ago – oh weeks by now (actually it was November 18th to be precise) – I hooked up with Big Dem and an architect pal of his for an Academy screening of a new digitally restored print of From Here to Eternity, the Fred Zinneman/Daniel Taradash film from the amazing novel by James Jones. I’m not sure what his particular interest in the film was; but then he has plenty of movie world connections of his own and who knew about his architect pal – half the architects I know seem to have at least one project or another in production design. It had been literally a lifetime since I had last seen it; and I wondered how it would hold up. The film would be worth seeing – once, or any number of times – for the performances alone. Lancaster and Kerr are of course riveting – both so tightly wound, screen chemistry smouldering – the nightclub scenes featuring the pair are meltingly passionate. Montgomery Clift is also quite extraordinary, almost emblematic, in the role of Robert E. Lee Pruitt, bred in the bone to military service, the army’s orphan child. Pruitt playing taps for Maggio still brings me to tears right along side him. But many of the supporting performances are no less strong. The pathos of Sinatra’s performance as Maggio is still affecting, and made all the more so by Ernest Borgnine’s blunt thuggery in the role of his nemesis. Donna Reed gives what might be the performance of her lifetime in the role of the nightclub bargirl-dancer Lorene – self-invented but entirely without pretense; resigned and wan yet still so alive, ready to seize opportunity – the performance is masterpiece of naturalism. From Here to Eternity is, of course, not really a war film, though it culminates – really the boiling-over point for a film that has already climaxed more than once – in the attack on Pearl Harbor; but it engages issues critical to warfare and war-making, namely military culture, training and administrative bureaucracy and the military’s cynical exploitation of the species’ endless capacity for cruelty to psychologically manipulate and intimidate its recruits as individuals as a complement to the collective military discipline enforced by service rules and the organization as a whole.

Looking at it a second time, the film (its cinematography seems, not only wonderfully pitched to the drama, but simply note-perfect from beginning to end) seems a brilliant compression of what is after all a sprawling novel. Its ending seems all the more poignant and unforgettable for being underplayed. The same resignation that swims under the surface of Donna Reed’s entire performance is woven through the entire scene – crushing even the possibility of a future nostalgia. They abandon their romance with their soldiers, the Hawaiian islands, leaving them all orphaned together – all but a seriously diminished capacity for hope.

What has stayed with me since that second viewing is the sense of the army (and perhaps all military services) as a kind of warrior-class state orphanage. It’s obvious that most military recruits are drawn from the lower socio-economic strata of any society. Lacking opportunities in their economically pillaged regions, and – absent qualities or achievements that might airlift them out – desperate for opportunity of any kind, or simply escape, they enlist and take their slender, frequently brutal chances. You would think that might be it – that this pool of recruits is thinned out by casualties and that only the survivors (and most of them finished with their service by such time) would be available to breed; with no predicting in what direction their offspring might be led. Certainly in terms of its stated codes and policies, the military generally does not encourage its recruits to breed – at the very least it seems indifferent to such behavior (and in certain respects, it is completely indifferent). There is a saying amongst U.S. Army soldiers that, “If the Army wanted you to have a family, they’d issue you one.” But, whether it has something to do with the mix of Reserve, National Guard and non-regular units who have augmented the active service rosters since the advent of the Iraq war (in other words, soldiers who would be likely to have some family beyond their spouses), or the relative age or youth of recent recruits, or some subtle combination of peer, social and institutional pressures, soldiers in recent years, both anecdotally and to some extent statistically, seem to be increasingly susceptible to starting families and having children long before completing their active duty service.

This may be partially a simply cyclical or purely statistical surge to be offset by a corresponding downward trend at some point. But the trend seems to extend to single soldiers as well, notwithstanding that such behavior and choices may be career-compromising. To be sure, many if not most such soldiers don’t start out that way; presumably many of them were married (though one might guess they may have conceived the child before marriage). It may simply be complementary to a broader social trend. People feel empowered and entitled (justly or not) to have children regardless of their marital status or other social support network or even their means – for no other reason than that they can. (You’d almost think it was nothing more than an athletic or recreational endeavour. It never fails to amaze me how often financial and social responsibilities are given only secondary consideration in these decisions and behaviors.)

But what do you do when the kid is already there. In one instance, an AP story that I believe made the front page of The New York Times, the Army in effect told its recruit (an Army cook who had already served at least one tour of duty) to leave her child in a foster care facility she would scarcely have had a chance to research or investigate. The soldier, desperate for guidance or serious assistance of any kind, missed her deployment flight from her Georgia base to Afghanistan, rather than effectively handing over her child to strangers – and in short order (no joke intended) was disciplined. The soldier, Alexis Hutchinson, had to hire a civilian lawyer to take her case to senior officers before the disciplinary measures were withdrawn. (Common sense would have dictated that this was a public relations disaster in the making – but apparently that’s something in short supply on many military bases. Come to think of it, I guess Fort Hood and the Bethesda Naval Hospital would fall somewhere in this category, too.) The back story on this was that the soldier’s mother had offered to take care of her grandchild while Hutchinson was on her tour of duty, but then decided at the last minute that the task was too overwhelming given her health. (Eventually, she did take charge of Hutchinson’s child – presumably with some outside assistance.) All more or less reasonable – but begging the question, what was the soldier doing with a child in the first place?

Rules and regulations to one side – I don’t really think the U.S. military really discourages child-bearing at all. First of all, human instinct and psychology itself work against this: when people’s lives are in constant jeopardy, they have a built-in and urgent incentive to reproduce irrespective of the consequences to their offspring. It’s all about the basic biological imperative to reproduce and spread the DNA. Secondly, the military sets in place circumstances and conditions for what to some extent is a captive audience (at least until they are college age) all but guaranteed to yield some percentage of future recruits (at least from the ones who aren’t thoroughly alienated). Casualty (or dead) parent? No problem – just that much more incentive for offspring to compensate for or avenge their parent’s sacrifice So – plus ça change – has anything really changed from the days of From Here to Eternity with its Army of orphans? Well, yes. Of course – but that change has as much to do with an entirely transformed geopolitical landscape as well as several generations worth of technological and cultural evolution. The individual soldiers being sent to the theatre of war, whether from backwater small towns or urban metropolises, have also undergone a transformation. But more of that – in the next movie, so to speak.

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