Very few people who find themselves on a battlefield are ever actually new to it. When you see in a movie like “Fury,” warriors that are having to function even as people by their side are being blown apart, where who they are mostly is crazily vulnerable to death, they are not people who’ve discovered some new capacity in themselves. These are not people who’ve gotten used to blight after having grown up in civilization. Rather, what you are seeing people who are paying part of their very familiar past a close revisit.
That sense of vulnerability, that is, is what they knew as infants and as young children. Crazily vulnerable, obsessed with their own possible extinction, as they were initiated into the world by caretakers who are possessed of demons that have them simply unable to look at their children and feel only love. The child, so attuned to their moods, their intentions, takes in deep their sadism, their intention to hurt, to extinguish them. To survive, children project these monstrous intentions outside their caregivers onto outside monsters — monsters under the bed, trolls under the bridge. But the looming eyes that chase them down in their nightmares are theirs.
So in war that early childhood environment that was foundational but may have lapsed away from conscious record, “blooms” back into view — menace, death is everywhere: black blight. That early nightmare environment is restaged … and it’s reassuring to have what was still nagging your life as a more mythic and relevant reality back into full view for your negotiation, your maybe-control. You survive it, you beat it, and somehow tight muscles will relax in you that had always been hard braced against … something.
Since many of us still have had childhoods of this kind, as we watch “Fury” we’re in a hurry for the newbie fresh to war and the tank crew to become “acclimatized.” Even if we’ve already made our everyday life seem such that whatever we’ve been up to we’ve played the role of the veteran who’s seen hell, war movies are usually successful in fobbing onto us the new recruit who’s yet to barf at blood and gore as our way into the film. We want war to feel a world so different from our everyday — so to be a realm where fears and demons can be met and bested for good — and the film creators know and exploit it.
So it’s not true that we’re aghast at the gore the newbie has to clean up in the tank — the remains of the veteran warrior he’s replacing. We’re relieved he’s encountered and soon about to best stage one of his initiation into warrior. And it’s not true that we’re aghast at him having to learn how to shoot a captured “kraut,” a man with a wife, a family, but relieved that he’s passed stage two where he’s shown that he’s at least got the base now upon which familiarity and competency can be layered on. And we’re not aghast that he beds the German belle, cooperating in making their visit into the two women’s home not an adventure (into foreign female company and sex) but conquest (whatever the preamble, the narrative will be one of spoiling), but relieved that he’s now at the point where his veteran crew now have nothing on him but having done everything he’s now done a lot more.
The greatest danger the film shows is not being killed, but being killed in a humiliating fashion. A bunch of kids are responsible for a soldier’s death, and you know that not even all that warrior’s experience and war cred will cleanse him of being done in like that. When the six Shermans go up against the Tiger Tank — here’s where it would be okay to die. The Valkeryie picking up the dead will pick up every one of these, no matter how splattered everywhere on the battlefield.
When their one Sherman prepares to go up against a squadron of experienced SS — to save a supply train that otherwise would be decimated — it isn’t their dying which is a concern but their being equal to what’s being staked. If they die quickly, it’ll come across as dying for vanity: a preposterously heroic finish … something truly Smaugish in stature slain, a whole supply train saved. Which would shorn them of all they’d accrued. Fortunately the movie lets most of them die … in the afterlife we feel them entombed with the moment-to-moment capacity they’d demonstrated in battle. The one that actually lives, the newbie, is the one told he’s a hero; but his escaping the tank and hiding in the ground is mostly how we associate him now. That battle belongs to the dead men … those that started in N. Africa, moved onto France, and now into Germany. What he can take back with him is that he met the war, his own childhood horrors, and made do pretty okay … with a guide. “Bilbo” when “Gandalf” was hovering all over him, not while alone succeeding in Mirkwood.
Still, not bad. But he still feels like us in being only proximate to something we crave familiarity. Blown up towns all around us, and us acclimatized and surviving. So no surprise for us, ISIS, Ebola, blackouts, avalanches, Wall Street crash, and not so much the Paul Krugman assessment that, no alarm bells, people, we’re actually doing okay.