Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Heart of a Soldier

In my 12th grade English class, our AP Literature teacher taught a unit on Conrad's Heart of Darkness and the film Apocalypse Now. There are a number of lessons in high school which stuck with me--which struck me--but I distinctly recall my scalp prickling as my brain opened wide with that awesome ohmygoodnessIneverthoughtaboutitthatwaybefore epiphany as I watched Kurtz from Apocalypse Now demonstrate the contradictions inherent in being a good soldier.

When I taught AP Literature years later (and alongside my former teacher), I included that unit in my syllabus. My last year teaching English before becoming vice principal five years ago, I had a 6th-period 12th grade English class that was nearly all boys (except for two girls). Teaching seniors in the last period of the day was challenge enough; keeping these boys engaged through graduation was my ultimate aim. We read The Stranger before tackling Conrad and Coppola; when the movie Jarhead was released that year and the film's main Marine ("Swofford," played by Jake Gyllenhaal) carried a copy of Camus's existential novel, I gave them extra credit for explaining why that was apt.

Three years later I received an email from one of my students:

I really had an epiphany the other day when I was watching the movie FullMetal Jacket, because I realized that the character "Joker" is the epitome ofthe anti-hero that you tried so hard to get me and all the other thick skulled kids in the class to learn. I was in love with this dude's character. He had such an honest and caring way about him but with this kind of rebellious attitude. I remember your lecture returned to me when he sarcastically said to the interviewer "I wanted to see exotic Vietnam... the crown jewel of Southeast Asia. I wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture... and kill them. I wanted to be the first kid on my block to get a confirmed kill!" I sat there and felt kind of dumb that I am just now grasping the concept of your lecture.

As this graduate wrote his email, several of his classmates from 6th period were deployed abroad, and since then, more have enlisted.

Heart of Darkness is not an easy novella to read, despite its relative brevity. The descriptions are thick and rich, and grow even more so as Marlow delves deeper into the Congo. Conrad was vilified for writing this racist work, for depicting colonized Africans as dehumanized "shapes." I viewed his novella as if it were a photograph, taken through the lens of the colonizer. The nature of the colonist's mission, of his role--subjugating others--requires that he views natives as lesser beings. Conrad's portrayal mocks the assumptions and vanities of Europeans as they set out to exploit the resources and peoples of "exotic" lands.

Coppola ingeniously connects the Vietnam War with the colonization of Africa and its inherent evils in Apocalypse Now, suggesting there is a "heart of darkness" at work in each episode in our history. Both Conrad and Coppola shrewdly recognize that the intriguing conflict here transcends the killing or the abuse required of colonization and war. The conflict they exploit is the one which arises from attempting to reconcile these "necessary" aspects of the institutions with attempts at civility and maintenance of "normal" life. Conrad ridicules the Company's accountant, who appears superficially preoccupied with immaculate and elegant dress. An unforgettable scene from Apocalypse Now is of troops surfing waves amidst defensive napalm blasts. The viewers are meant to question the appropriateness of each. Our discomfort lies between our desire for those following the directions of higher-ups to get their due, and the discordant setting. Why shouldn't the Accountant wear what he would back home? Why shouldn't the soldiers surf? Every working stiff deserves a break. And yet, in the background are naked folks, dying people.

My "aha" moment was this, an important reality check for a high-school senior who once spent hours punching studs into her sweatshirt in a peace-sign design and puff-painting the quote, "What if they held a war and no one came?" on the sleeve: All is not fair in love and war.

We're asking a lot of our service people.

We're expecting them to be prepared to kill, but not to massacre, or torture.

We're expecting them to recognize the "enemy," and distinguish who is not.

We're expecting them to put their lives on the line for their comrades, and for us, appropriately.

We're expecting them to believe in their mission, and represent it faithfully.

Meanwhile, they have time off on deployment, but it's not private, and they're held to higher standards than you and I: they're accountable for over indulgences and infidelities.

Both Conrad's and Coppola's works feature men who struggled with the line--the boundary--between appropriate and absurd, expected and unacceptable.

In the 12th grade I began to understand there were many shades of grey between purple hearts and dishonorable discharges, and that humans occupied that zone.

The heart of a soldier is heavy, I began to understand. What we need from those who serve on our behalves is so big and so unfathomable it inspires art, film, fiction. Most manage it with grace, and a courage and determination to return to us no worse for wear.

As Kate wrote so succinctly today, "I am oblivious." But not so oblivious to know that judging is dangerous. We, who so comfortably flip others off from the comfort of our cars, ought to wonder at what happens when the enemy we so easily vilify from afar is met by our young neighbors, my former students from down the block, overseas.

Hate that we have war; don't hate the soldier.

I am in awe, veterans. I have respect for all you are willing to face, all you have surmounted, and have yet to tackle.

I fear for a generation of vets whose wounds may not be visible. We ought not to ask what these young men and women have done for our country; ask instead what we must do for them. And for their families.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The most poignant mobilization email phrase I have recieved is Husband's declaration that "there are no fakers here." I am afraid of what that means, in a way. I too remember Bud's class vividly, and my moment (which involved Marlon Brando's character). I'm glad you're passing it along to the next generation.