It's for it remaining a necessary war, that "Hacksaw Ridge" should make us flinch



Hacksaw Ridge


Hollywood had shelved Mel Gibson as one of the worst ill-repute -- as antisemitic -- and it's been awhile since we've heard from him. And it looked like for a moment in the film that it might contain little inferences here and there that didn't distract from the plot, but basically let Hollywood know how he'd felt about that. There's a character in the film, you see, who's nicknamed Hollywood, and we meet him early on, well before they get to the war zone. He's very beautacious and full of himself, and he wilts when under pressure. Classic attack upon liberals; close to classic antisemitic attack against Jews. But he's not revealed as empty and worthless. Really, he ends up basically just average, as an average soldier, who performs but also gets dismayed in fear too. And in this film that actually counts for a lot, because Gibson is with them all, the great and merely adequate soldiers, and soldiers of all ranks too (officers can be in error and really, really harsh, but never ill-purposed and sadistic). He's not even really mad at the Japanese, either. There's a good hunk of nobility in each of them as well: they were sized up for us early in the film, just before the big fight, as an endless onrushing hoard with no respect for their own lives, but ultimately only to stage the degree of subsequent American bravery. So if like I did you felt lured into exploring the film a bit for Mel's own disses at Hollywood, for his return fire and attempts at revenge, that came to an end, quick. And like me, with its surprising complete absence, you might then in recoil have reconsidered the main character, and began to see him as perhaps actually a sort of Mel Gibson gift to those who'd called him a bigot and banned him from his trade. 


Andrew Garfield's Desmond Doss is not just string-bean thin, he's about as overtly a geek as you can get: during his first date with the woman he'll eventually marry, he wants to talk medical terminology. His view of the war is about what most liberals would assume theirs would be if they had been living at that time: they'd feel very threatened by on the encroaching Japanese, they'd want Americans to fight, but they'd hope if they had to be the ones serving that they wouldn't have to kill to help end the threat. Doss's role would suit perfectly, if they were requited to intense battlefield duty. Rather than having to focus on and kill other human beings, like him they could perhaps find means where they'd focus only on repairing the injured. Their act would not just nevertheless still very much help the war effort, it might amount to poetry, an unsuspecting flower blooming out of a field of wilt, an effrontery to dark times. They'd be doing as Doss imagines what he'll be up to: "While everybody is taking life, I'm going to be saving it." This is the "glory" they'd seek, in what for them really would be just a sad and unfortunate development that would have to be seen through, because the threat is real. 


So if in this film the closest person to someone a liberal would naturally identify with is not only not an object of sport but a hero, should liberals react to the film -- actually warmly? Is the film akin to Glen Beck's recent recantation, his revelation that he actually loves the man he had been so committed to hate (in Beck's case, Barrack Obama)? The immediate rejoinder to this possibility would be of course that this isn't just war being shown, but massive carnage, and isn't there something a lot lurid in being drawn to battles which are just meat-grinders of human lives? ("Hi honey, I love you and we should be married, but first let me go onto this stage where I'll play Russian Roulette with guns and grenades and with half a chance of dying or losing multiple appendages or finding a crater where my stomach used to be, to see if it's worth our making any in-depth preparations.") Was it, for instance, perhaps mostly the fact that the real Desmond Doss did his heroics on a battlefield which suffered casualties akin to the worst in World War One, which drew Mel Gibson to him? That if Doss had done his many rescues in a less harrowing environment, a less catastrophic one, Gibson would of passed it by as of no interest and even chosen over it subject matter that had nothing to do with war and had less to do with courage, but got the carnage part right? And if it's lurid, if it's pornographic, then isn't it to the distraught Republican working class' taste, and rather to the educated liberal's natural aversion?  


I'm not sure this necessarily is the case. The thing I felt after experiencing so much chaos and gore is that there is some resemblance between situations I've experienced myself and what the soldiers' experienced -- that is, of being distraught by unexpected chaos and assault, but eventually becoming accommodated and beginning to realize goals -- which I've grown from and am actually proud of. There's the equivalent, I think, in many of our lives, of being delighted when during a situation that first causes us considerable stress, that is hopelessly overwhelming, we start seeing our environment less as something to only defend ourselves against but as something to start manipulating for our own purposes. At one point in an intense battle, a soldier realizes that the bodies that are flying apart and which are only affecting him, can actually serve to empower him, and he uses one as a shield to begin his troops' first legitimate advancement on a battlefield they'd found themselves simply stuck on. Mightn't a reporter who was being accosted by a street protest but who found means to get their story by pretending to be one of them, be just as grateful for their on-the-spot innovations? Of having performed well in what was at first only a stressful, overwhelming, and even hellish environment? And mightn't this film just remind them of their own adventure, not point to their ongoing gluttony for re-staging the unhealthy rush? Amount more to a paean to the human ability to successfully denature a stressful environment, than a PTSD-driven desire to repeat overwhelming trauma that'll never actually be silenced? Be more for them what the war experience will prove for Doss in that it'll not be that of fellow soldiers' fallen bodies and felled guts -- what it was ever after for his World War One-serving father -- but of applying smiles to saved souls when the possibility of any such a rescue seemed at first completely forlorn?

What for me makes this a film that Hollywood... that liberals ought to be averse to, isn't who it mocks and who it praises, it isn't that it's set in one of the most pornographically gory battlefields you can imagine, it's that there is no sense through any of it that war is an insane endeavour, that no one involved, is actually completely sane. Liberals have become unused to seeing World War Two as something insane, however. We've regressed from the brave Catch 22 sense of it. But the war nevertheless was that. As to the idea that it was something that had to be fought, note that Hawaii was left open for attack. Roosevelt was warned of what was coming and could have avoided Pearl Harbour, the whole Pacific Theatre, but he knew that his nation had become, like all other nations at that time, almost psychotic in their sense of their nation as something pure which needed a righteous cause to justify their obliteration of "the infidels" surely encroaching upon them. Americans were paranoid. They wanted a righteous fight. They were of the mindset Americans, in electing Trump, have evidently found themselves in now. And if we get ourselves back to this keen awareness of war as that, and lose this current sense of it as regretful endeavours that nevertheless sometimes remain necessary and which are sometimes even worth being proud of, we'd instinctively flinch the very moment a director portrays it as something people came to out of rational deliberation. 

Even good ol' deliberating, man-of-conscience Desmond Doss was probably insane. He acknowledges family trauma for his aversion to guns; that the war zone was his chance to undo his once having pointed a gun at someone he still deeply loved -- his father -- and nearly thereby caused a catastrophe. We need to be brave enough to consider even his desire to see just one more sweet smile from a rescued soldier, in the same light. Might he of had, perhaps, a depressed mother, who he lived to find some ways to enchant and entertain... draw an attentive smile from out of her removed, remote soul? Was his inclination to repeat, repeat, repeat, in what proved a generous sense, not much removed from his need to be seen and noticed in what proved for much of the film, a disruptive sense: his attention-drawing declaration that he not only won't shoot a gun, but he won't ever touch one either. There is nothing adult about war. It's a stage where we regress and become children fighting for our motherlands against countries full of people we've split all our "bad boy and girl" selves onto. It's in not showing any of this, that this film shows up its work against the liberal cause -- which ultimately is about mental sanity-- shows up its madness, shows up that Mel Gibson hasn't changed one bit, even as we might have moved a dismaying some, in his direction. 

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