At the heart of every military movie I can think of is the question of obedience. Most turn on a crucial act of disobedience, from the (pleasantly) ridiculous (Three Kings, I Was a Male War Bride) to the sublime (Paths of Glory, Altman's M*A*S*H, Mr. Roberts)."Yes, Captain, I have understood that order"--[sound of phone cord being ripped out of the wall]. The epitome of this sub-genre is the mutiny movie: Mutiny on the Bounty, The Caine Mutiny, Two Years Before the Mast.
Even more striking is the treatment of obedience in military movies. Almost always, to obey leads to tragedy. Think of Gallipoli; think of Breaker Morant. (It's an interesting side note that both of the examples that first spring to mind are Australian--a telling commentary on colonial heritage?) Think of Bertrand Tavernier's brilliant, chilling Capitaine Conan.
Now, the casual observer might think it odd that in an organization that depends for its very existence on the chain of command, there would be no stories of the success of obedience, only of disobedience. But think about it. Is there anything more abhorrent to adults than obeying? In Roman Catholicism, the vow of obedience is traditionally considered 10,000 times more difficult for priests than the vow of chastity. Obedience is defined as feminine. The bride is the emblem of doing what one's told.
So there's this thing that's completely repulsive (yuck) and equated with women (yuck), and yet everybody in the armed services has to do it (double yuck). And we're surprised that tale after tale turns on refusing to do it or doing it to bad effect? Seems pretty elementary.
The appeal of defiance is so strong that it figures even when it makes no sense. "History is made by those who break rules." That's the tagline for Men of Honor. I don't mean to pick on this movie. It's bad, but it's not especially bad; it just illustrates the point I want to make about obedience. Cuba Gooding Jr. portrays Carl Brashear, the first black underwater salvage expert in the Navy and then subsequently the first amputee underwater salvage expert in the Navy. (The guy has had a hell of a life.) Robert De Niro gives a bland performance as the master chief diver (love those military ranks!) who first tries to break Gooding, and then, when Gooding has disobeyed several of his orders, embraces his cause. Hal Holbrook plays a completely gratuitous role as a crazy old base commander whose only function is to add another layer of disobedience so that when De Niro changes to Gooding's side, they can both be defying Holbrook.
Well and good, but the story of the racial integration of the American armed services is not a story of disobedience. On the contrary, Harry Truman, as commander in chief, issued the order that the military services were going to desegregate--and they damn well desegregated. Truman is right up there on my Heroes of American Life wall along with William Pitt and Rosa Parks, and I have been at pains to avoid reading any history book aiming to inform me about his motives.
Uncle Andy's stories of military life match the military movie to a T. There's the time when he commandeered a shipment of beefsteaks for his men, who needed some kind of fortifying treat. There was his convenient deafness when his commanding officer ordered him to moderate his behavior on a strafing mission. There was his hilarious cooking up of a false set of orders to get my brother, Ben, home from Vietnam for a weekend. There was his oh-so-cute insistence on piloting a commercial flight on which he was supposed to be a passenger. (That one contributed to my fear of flying for years.)
Notice that even though he was an officer, his stories are all about disobeying orders from his higher-ups. I know better. He was, like everybody else in his family except my mother, an insouciant racist. In 1948 he wouldn't have gone out of his way to knock a Negro down ("Negro" is the word he would have used), but he was cheerfully certain that he would never have to. He knew black people as maids, washerwomen, bootblacks, porters, and refuse collectors. No problem. But when Harry Truman gave him his marching orders, he marched.
Barley Blair is the pseudonym of a little old lady who thinks "Don't ask, don't tell" would be funny were it not so tragic.