On the need to remember the origins Some notes on the injustice involved in the art of war
Let us now think about the story the other way around. All of this happens because Stonebanks pretended to die, but did not die. His superiority to Ross in terms of deception is extraordinary. Stonebanks does not seeks vengeance. He has learned from from the peculiarly unprincipled liberal idealism of American power that you need to go into business for yourself. Self-preservation & prosperity & might end up looking like the same thing: Power.
That this man is willing to let his enemy think he has won shows he has no self-respect, so to speak, no honor, no humanity. Humanity was the problem built into the Expendables project from the beginning: The cruelty of command & the honor in obedience both are evoked. Mercenary justice was a rebuke to idealism & glory both. It is heroism for the democratic age, when no grand achievements are possible anymore.
Stonebanks has solved the problem by eliminating humanity. people who ignore how profitable war can be have no business talking about international courts of justice. & people who know how to get what they want have no business talking about humanity. Without a god to put limits to what man can do, it’s really a matter of being inventive. Stonebanks is the most advanced creature, in his humble way, of the world created by the proud folly of American liberalism.
Ross cannot fight for America’s cause – no one is allowed to do that anymore. We live in the post-war age, when wars are just started, unnamed, unknown, without talk of victory & peace. The consequence is that there is not achievement in sacrifice & no strength in achievement. Ross has to do what America should do: Prevent great evil from thriving by destroying the evil that threatens America.
Ross’s delusion about how a new team could outsmart Stonebanks should send us thinking. This shows up our illusions about technology. But also that we dehumanize people we send to their deaths when we do not acknowledge the greatness of war & of the men who fight it. This is true even of computer warriors leading machines to kill people. Ross is forced to bet on the future, on youth, because the old men have not found in themselves any seriousness about the nature of chaos & war.
All the old men must learn that they have an ancient enemy, who is very like them, because they are born of the same political crisis about the nature of power & justice. When American progress required that power create justice & produce world peace, new evils were born, who can exploit the idealistic ignorance & feed the soft arrogance. That is the face of the devil.
On the need to replace the old by the young Some notes on the necessary dishonor of political life
Let us think about how this story unfolds. Barney Ross, mercenary extraordinary, throws out his Expendables team in favor of a new team, in order to destroy his oldest enemy, who is also his oldest friend. We know Ross to be a good man, so we assume the other one is evil. Why is this the way to fight evil?
Ross may be said to argue: You people are expendable, you’re fired. They thought expendable meant mortal, like all people, but more so, death-obsessed even, but friends. Ross may be said to be thinking: It is precisely because we are mortal that we must defend our lives & not go foolishly to death. But the thinking in his plan to kill Conrad Stonebanks is foolish risk to his own life. & the man who cannot ask his friends to sacrifice is hardly in a position to ask strangers.
A crisis of authority & a crisis of identity meet here therefore. Are the Expendables mercenaries who live by contract, for money, free individuals of the modern age? Or are they the last men of the pre-modern order, where justice could require sacrifice? Is Barney the boss of these people or only their leader? Friends have no chain of command, but all armies do. Witness the contradiction between the necessity for united will in war & the necessity for deliberation & respect for community.
Is Ross so cruel as to take children to war because their lives are expendable, because they do not matter as human beings? He may be a hero in his fight – but this is not their fight. Can they becomes heroes, too, or where do they go to get their dignity? These men joined the US army & are now turning mercenary. America treated them like mercenaries, is that it?
Both old men & children end up looking needy, & without women. They all live on the respect that says their lives are worth living. Without each other, there is nothing in this world that can teach them what it is to be a human being. One of them lost his men in yet another one of America’s miserable failures. He looks pathetic, & lost, & desperate for the friendship of the death-devoted. He alone shows the poetic gift.
Ross’s ability to sacrifice for old & young alike shows that he knows the crisis better than anyone else. He knows how important it is to kill evil men, & that this requires success, not only nobility. Power cannot be replaced by fine sentiments. Ross must prove that caring for people does not make you weak & powerless. That being bound to men is better than post-patriotic rationalism.
The third in Stallone’s serial attempt to resurrect or immortalize the action heroes of the 1980s. Better for boys than any Hollywood movie made this year.
Just war Some notes on the piety required for a founding of freedom
This is the obvious action movie, of which all others are pale images. The crisis underlying any action movie is a crisis of justice. Now, we understand that justice fundamentally is founding or saving a nation.
For the first time, we learn why a policeman would surrender his weapons, which just shows cowardice in face of tyranny, being the opposite of an armed citizenry. But our hero is no mere policeman or soldier. He is the deliverer of a nation; he cannot fulfill his mission without a miracle. This woman, like a Madonna, is the object of his piety. For her, he may die. We may say that God spares his life at the decisive moment, but he obeyed unhesitatingly. This man believed that there is a worse fate than death, that some lives are not worth living.
The end of war is peace. Necessity drives men to fight; that is to say, men fight to defend themselves. Consider the relative differences between men in respect of fighting & you will arrive at the basic possibilities for peace. Most of them, you will find, mean one thing, at the bottom: Slavery. But the fundamental political fact is the difference between freedom & slavery, or that men will rather fight than be slaves.
Why do men fight when they are not attacked? Why fight for others? Our heroes fight for another nation, whose deliverers they become. They are not defenders, but conquerors. They do not want to replace a tyrant; they want to abolish tyranny. Will this island become free? The best that men can do has been done. Perhaps honor & the good men of war share among themselves explain just war. But something beyond human power is required to create a new community.
One tyrant is undone by his family. He made everything public his private affair, minding everyone’s business. But he failed to mind his own & his daughter rebelled. Perhaps she believed that everyone’s problem really was her problem: The tyrant who fathered her. He is finally a just man, for he is not willing to kill his own daughter to save his tyranny.
The other tyrant, the bureaucrat, says he is beyond good & evil. He has learned that power is unjust. He speaks of money, but he acts by murder. Unintended victims are welcome, because they feed terror; most victims, however, are what we call the people, victims of necessity; finally, the political victims, or competition, are few & incapable. The difference between victims of necessity & victims of dread shows that even tyrants are political men. The difference between victims of necessity & political victims, however, shows they misunderstand men’s insistence on politics.
Men at war Some notes on the mysterious change in America that led to the transformation of warriors into mercenaries
Men are harsh creatures who live with war; to fight together, they must quickly come to agreement on all practical things. But our heroes are old; their anger no longer makes them feel invincible. They must somehow confront their weaknesses & they do it with a measure of humor. They laugh at the pettiness of the evil; & at their own boasting, too. Churchill once said that a hero faces defeat with defiance…
We might be ashamed to admit we are privy to speeches which seem ridiculous to the sophisticated, banal to the comfortable, & dumb to the very educated. But if you can put their speeches together with their actions, you will discover men who would love their country if they could, who see in the basic acts of politeness the fulcrum of justice. What everyone assumes is right, what the public opinion has come to be, these men know to be questionable. Peace is desirable, but almost impossible.
That what is good for us is grounded in nature, that peace is superior to war, or that God will justify pain & the suffering in the souls of men – these are the questions these men must have answered. But men of war are not given to reflection.
America does not really like such men, because Americans are suspicious of warriors & America does not allow for great distinction. The army is respected; & cowards are usually despised; but the country’s leaders for two generations have usually lacked military experience, not to say avoided it like the devil.
We would be surprised therefore to see what these men show: That men’s insistence on the difference between men & other animals is also the cause of war. One warrior speaks of the sounds of war & the primal terror they unleash, but he himself knows the arts of war & is unafraid. Their two leaders are like twin kings; this must eventually get them killed. Each sees the other in himself & their common love of honor & justice will get them killed. Each alone might concede that his survival & self-interest limit heroism. But together they are pulled toward the greater good.
Mercenaries, they believe they once were soldiers: Courage was once political & it meant that they could expect the public opinion to lead & reward them. Only political courage makes the cause of war also the cause of the men of war. Something changed. They are now anonymous. We may believe that they do it for the money, because we have no better idea of what they really are. Perhaps this is how we brought great men to their knees: They cannot rise, much less soar among us.
Much like Christ, Harry might die for our sins. His willingness, however, is not the whole story – unlike Christ, he is not unarmed. & our sins have less to do with God than with cowardice. Nevertheless, Christ had followers, whereas Harry is almost alone. The three times Harry confronts the killer, there is something in the picture to remind us of Christ. Harry, of course, means no forgiveness – likelier, he means judgment.
The man who does justice might be punished for it as a criminal; the people might believe the unjust man who accuses him; with the slightest show of self-control, he might deceive them.
I think we are supposed to think about what changes are coming. The story suggests Harry was a policeman before the 60’s & the legal decisions that changed law enforcement, as well as the relation between citizen & state. In this new world, he might not at all fit. This raises a question about the difference between enforcing the laws & the increasing legislation of life. Harry is not a soft man; maybe soft people can only thrive with increasing legislation. This raises a question, did Harry choose his way of life because he chose policing or did policing fit his choices? He clearly does not think he is free to live another way of life.
The revolution sweeping the city removes from men their freedom of action, more or less slowly. We see it taking over the police. A degree of aloofness is expected of men who do harsh things & live with terrible risks. American habits add to this the fact that Harry dresses like the citizens do, or the way they used to do before comfort & flamboyancy replaced propriety. There is neither a uniform nor something else that would make these people look public.
But a new danger is coming to America, which will separate state & society in such a way that Harry cannot appreciate. He may not look it, but he is the last of his kind. In order to guarantee the private life, which the state violates more & more through science & which the citizens publicize more & more by breaching the public mores, society is taken under control such that it is no longer possible to be free, which requires choices & actions now unthinkable.
Think merely of the difference between Harry & the manly men with which we are today acquainted – the Navy SEALs & other special forces. These other men live lives of strictest discipline, greatest harshness, & darkest secrecy. In that case, private action against private men, whether or not they are citizens, with a view to defending the public, is still possible.
Maybe the problem is the strange power of political correctness. The policy disagreement between the mayor & Harry turns on noticing what’s going on in front of you, as opposed to the news or the laws. Evil cannot be mentioned – Harry treats these people with contempt, because they will not acknowledge what’s what. The mayor reads the killer’s extortion note, but cannot utter the last word, even in private. Both killer & policemen utter it, to prove a point.
The disagreement on evidence between the district attorney & Harry also depends on noticing what’s in front of you. Only now does it become obvious that the blindness of the laws is so amplified by democracy that citizen & criminal cannot be distinguished. In this kind of democracy, looking for a killer means keeping everyone under surveillance! Maybe all privacy, all property is a crime against the city.
When the society cannot see the need to go beyond the laws to enforce them, all action that is not public & authorized is conspiracy or tyranny! At the same time, the state reacts by imposing transparency on all human action. Citizens might still act without authority, but there are no secrets left. Without the saving action of a great man, this leads to the worst tyranny. It takes the opinion that mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent as a suggestion.
Perhaps Harry has no better ideas than the others, but he is not deluded. You cannot defend millions of people living private lives. They either start defending themselves, or the state must take all scientific power & use it continuously to prevent them from anything that might lead to harm, to say nothing of crime. But this mayor could never conceive of encouraging people to imitate Harry.
Remembering that citizenship requires some degree of manliness is trouble. To say that human security & human dignity work this way together – we should protect human dignity – is to wonder who really is a citizen & who just offers a passable resemblance… Harry is willing to sacrifice for a complete stranger, because the weak & the innocent need the help of men like him; & he accepts the help of his partner, because the nobility of that defense is greater than pride in one’s own powers.
Harry might have found a solution, but it is impolitic. The laws prefer not to see anything but citizen, which the criminal again learns to exploit in order to attack the laws. This is what the story was always coming to – we have to learn just how much we are inclined to aid & abet those who will our destruction. They see only weakness in peace.
We have seen that Harry stands against the modern opinion, that you can rationalize human life. Paying criminals would bring them back into the civil society. But all citizens must see this as tyranny: Might makes right. The public monies should ransom the public peace? Liberalism now pushes its innovations in the administration of justice too far.
To let go of vengeance is to let go of family. To let go of family is to let go of the divine sanction for human life. This crisis, then, is serious: Liberalism needs an atheistic society, which would not require punishment. But people hope in divine justice, without which there is nothing to protect human dignity. Indeed, the only time the mayor uses the word honor, he says he gave his word of honor to the criminal that he will not be molested. That may summarize the childish terror of liberalism.
If both those who obey & those who break the laws want money, & the law has no majesty, but is negotiable, even property rights lose their meaning. The state of nature which is a state of war returns – even in that case, a badge would be useless.
Harry cannot explain why he does his job either because it is not a job or because there can be no reason. He does not say God told him to do it. The laws cannot compel their own enforcement! People might prefer to sacrifice the laws to expediency… What if Harry really is incorruptible? Promising him a wealthy private life might not be enough…
Obviously, nobody would want to share his fate. Partner has a double meaning; both his wife & one of the policemen are dead; two others are wounded. He visits one, who had saved his life, breaking the laws & his orders, thinking they are becoming friends. The man, however, is married – his wife wants him back in the safety of private life. If civilians do not defend themselves & dare not contemplate law enforcement, what & who will defend the peace?
If freedom is the democratic principle, we can see why people refuse to enforce the laws, & why imprisonment might satisfy democratic justice. But even democrats are born into families, so until the family is abolished, killing is still necessary. This reminds us of the limits of human powers. Even killers can be killed; & there is nothing more terrible than death which the laws can offer for vengeance. This may also be said to be democratic justice, as all men are mortal. Individualism would answer – dead people do not drink blood. This is to argue, you cannot bring back the dead, & therefore cannot protect the living.
The next thing we have to figure is how Harry draws the line. His aloofness suggests, he is no servant. He obeys orders up until he doesn’t anymore. How does he know when he has gone beyond the laws? The end of the story depends on a conflict between the laws of the city & his pursuit of justice.
Harry deploys his challenge twice, in the beginning & the end. He scares one man into surrendering & humiliates another into getting himself killed. Both criminals risk their lives for money, & are willing to kill, but only one of the criminals does kill, on the assumption that if you kill people, they will pay you to stop. Obviously, Harry does not kill for money, although he is paid to do his job. In fact, his superiors would rather he stop killing.
Harry does not believe you can pay criminals to stop committing crimes, which he does not take to be a matter of economics: He thinks what makes a killer crazy is that he likes killing. This is as close as he comes to saying that he himself does not like killing. It is implied that the people cannot stop killers.
Those who want money might get it by threatening to kill, but the threats might suffice. Harry’s challenge is about risking death in order to kill, as opposed to getting money. Evil men would get what they want peacefully without men like Harry, who risk their lives for no advantage. Harry does his citizen duty in calling the police about a robbery, which only requires some knowledge & a phone. But the police cannot get there in time – he makes it his business to prevent the getaway. Policemen enforce the laws, unlike the citizens. Which of them is free?
Harry is ordered to take the money to the killer, which is a suicide job. He knows it, they pretend they do not. He tells them that no good can come of their appeasement, but they are being realistic: They know they are cowards, they believe their voters are cowards, & therefore it does not matter whether the killer is a coward – anonymity is taken for granted in a big city.
This is Harry’s story because it pushes him to his limits. He throws away his badge, finally, because no laws can authorize what he has done, which necessity required. That depends on knowing good & evil, which has nothing to do with the consent of the governed – he no longer cares about the criminal’s rights. Harry avenges the victims. Otherwise, their families would take up arms against the city. Public law cannot overcome its origins. Punishment is necessary.
The policemen talk about why Harry is nicknamed ‘dirty’. A guy on the force says, it’s because Harry hates everybody – one ethnic slur after another. Can a hateful man do justice? His new partner wonders whether he’s called dirty because he spies on people’s private lives. How else to espy crime? Harry tells him, it’s because he gets every dirty job that comes along. He apparently gets things done, which is immoral. His partner eventually concludes, he’s called dirty because he is maltreated.
There being no Homeric heroes in these latter days, we have to deal with dirty Harry. What people call him does matter. He does spy, which is a violation of privacy, which may be covered by the 4th Amendment, or some laws regarding decency. He does not act as if the law were his ruler, but in fact seems to come to believe he needs to do more than the laws says, or allows.
Some men assault him while he’s spying in a window. His partner saves him – they do not believe he’s the police. The partner wants to arrest them, but Harry wants to let it go. This doesn’t really mean anything, he could say. People come out of the night, then recede again into the darkness. Who can uphold the majesty of the law in the person of the policeman?
Harry is rude & vulgar. Further, he does not seem to care what people think about him. This leaves him with one thing only, doing his job, at which he seems to excel. We learn, the wife is dead, or else how could she bear what he does, what might happen to him? Above all, Harry does not hesitate when it comes to killing. His calm suggests something like hatred of men, as does his exasperation with the hopes of our times, which hold him back.
Harry is annoyed when the mayor keeps him waiting & he tells his partner’s wife he doesn’t know why he does his job. He takes his job seriously. He never complains about the routine of the job. He never flinches at the things he sees on the job. He never talks about the rewards of the job, as if it was its own reward, or proof that there is no reward.
Calling Harry dirty is a way to make his excellence questionable. His results are tainted by bloodshed, & an evil streak. His aloofness means he won’t defend himself. Harry’s unwillingness to plead his case forces us to at least state it for him. But the story is so close to his perspective as to show, it is not possible that he be corrupt, that is to say, self-interested.
One of the best movies about policemen. It should be required viewing for male students.
How democratic heroism is about dealing with suffering
I have given some thought to the team of heroes. If you think about them, the fact that they can never seem to die may be a curse. Two have lost their families to enemies they cannot reasonably hope to vanquish, one is the result of cruel, terrible experiments, & the protagonist is an orphan who was denied humanity & brought up among pirates. One hopes his father is a god… The fifth is simply alone & cannot communicate almost with anyone!
Unseriousness may not be a rhetoric failure: Maybe there is a reason to hide from us such ugliness or suffering. The story does not give almost any attention to the great suffering nor to the reasons why the heroes might sacrifice to save a planet not our own. This makes the plot hard to understand, not stupid.
We learn at the end that interracial marriage is happening on that planet. It may just be our future… People are surprisingly human there, that is, civilized. Politicians are not hated or held in contempt, nor the military. This despite the far higher technology the inhabitants there take for granted. They use it to carry out evacuations with surprising efficiency. We might learn a few things.
That this is the question of the plot is established not just by that planet, but because the hero is asked point blank, why should he save it, because he is asking them to die for civilization, from which they have not profited, which they have treated as a nuisance & she them as criminals, & which they do not care to join, because then they would have to obey laws… It is worth considering that only after he establishes his reputation as a hero does the boy think to find his father, that is, the origins of the powers he has displayed.
We might connect the criminality of these heroes with their sense of humor. Two of them are humorous; one is sarcastic or contemptuous, which is not quite the same. The other two are serious. There is a connection between disobeying laws & laughing at what other people take seriously. There is a connection between that & the mercenary lives of the two jokers – community is discounted, private advantage is front & center.
But the story shows them as friends; that’s some kind of community. Their ways of life derive from their suffering, which is understood as a loss or a mutilation. What’s shocking is how innocent they all are. These are people who live with evil because they never had a chance. Some have a comic bent, others tragic, but they are all aware that the promises of the laws are inadequate…