A cynical perspective on military motivations, Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 Paths of Glory, with its themes of moral corruption, undisguised hypocrisy and absurd vanity, astonishes and outrages in equal measure, for its outstanding storytelling and unbearable injustice.
Usually understood as an anti-war film, Paths of Glory seems unduly reduced to a moralistic and doctrinaire tale. Colonel Dax, the audience’s alter ego, is indeed an honourable and dignified man, who nevertheless remains a military man to the very end. He even becomes outraged when his superior suggests that his quest for justice is in reality an artifice to get a promotion. However, as dignified as he may be, Dax never questions the bureaucratic structure or the raison d’être of his organization. The movie fights through some very dense philosophical issues.
In France, during World War I, General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) asks General Paul Mireau (George Macready) to commit his division to attack and hold a location, which both seem to agree would be impossible. Nonetheless, with a promotion in mind, Mireau accepts the mission and engages Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) to carry out the plan. The absurd offensive turns into widespread bloodshed, and Mireau, noticing a battalion which does not even leave the trenches due to heavy enemy fire, orders his artillery to open fire against his own men. When the commanding officer refuses, Mireau becomes hysterical and orders a court-martial to make examples of the men. In the end, three men are chosen and executed for cowardice despite Dax’s attempt to act as defence counsel for the accused.
Even before considering particularly dubious situations such as the one depicted in the film, it has to be said that the armed forces, as the muscle of the democratic body, sits on a very ambiguous foundation. Its purpose – to defend the integrity of the polity – is achieved through an oligarchic system and despite a set of checks and balances, it can temporarily – and unbeknownst to most – display unreasonable and arbitrary power. The film illustrates the contradictory nature of military life within a democracy, and surely points out the astonishing fact that an organization full of brave and strong men functions mainly through the acts of soldiers who follow orders and are prevented from making up their own mind.
..Ignorance is Its Own Punishment…
This inherent contradiction is obviously a necessary one within any democracy. For survival’s sake, the state imposes limits on its own people over certain matters. However, a similar great danger resides on the other extreme of the spectrum, for an overly docile population readily march towards the precipice of fearful compliance. Ask the Germans who lived in the 1930s and 1940s about this. Since the Milgram experiment in the 1960s – where subjects showed great willingness to administer severe shocks onto others against their own conscience – we have been rightly questioning the problem of blind obedience to authority.
What to make then of the commanding officer who refuses to obey a direct order from a superior and his battalion is then made an example of? Surely he was within his right to a response of non-compliance. Is it acceptable that courts-martial are justified by an internal logic which appeal to a supposed external threat? In fact, aspiring soldiers ‘only’ swear to willfully obey lawful orders. Apparently they can be punished for obeying unlawful ones. So if you are a military personnel, working under pressure, in a hostile environment, perhaps during a conflict, and your superior commands you to kill an old man or a woman, while yelling ‘Send this bloody terrorist to hell!’ you better have a quick wit.
That’s the whole paradoxical – and unjust – nature of the enterprising. In the name of the common good – and that is, to feel safe and secure, guaranteed by the institution that these soldiers serve – the Army trains men and women to follow orders categorically and unconditionally and then expect these same men and women to be able to decide reasonably on matters that puzzle even astute thinkers. Well, good luck with that! What on earth do they think happens when such matters come up? If the I-was-just-following-orders excuse (notoriously used during the Nuremberg trials) is not enough to absolve anyone from guilt, then what should they do if the order is suspicious? Damned if one does, damned if one doesn’t!
So a commander might order his platoon on a suicide mission and they must obey his ‘lawful’ order promptly. The funny (or is it tragic?!) side of all this is that had the three men from Colonel Dax’s battalion, who are being made an example of, asked for cyanide pills to avoid the firing squad, they would surely been refused. The institution must make sure that they walk their long way towards the firing squad not because that’s the just thing to do but because this must serve as a deterrent against any future insubordination. What’s wrong with letting them decide the last event of their life?
Exactly thirty years later, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) would deal with the dehumanizing effect that fighting wars produce on human beings – thus showing the lasting damage that it does to people. The most relevant question then has to be: How do we expect military men and women to be able to deal with such human-related issues when they are being stripped of their humanity at every opportunity? That is as possible as the mission that is asked of the soldiers in the film.