This week, my ongoing efforts to be better cultured landed Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film Paths of Glory on my television.
The generals in the French army order a regiment to take a German fortification during the First World War. It’s an impossible command, and the attack fails, with large segments of the force pinned down such that to charge is to die instantly. The general in immediate command demands a show trial and execution of three randomly chosen soldiers as an example to the others, and their colonel asks to represent them as their defense.
The officers conducting the court martial hearing give Colonel Dax no chance. They treat one soldier’s medals and proven bravery as no defense against the charge of cowardice in this case. Another soldier’s testimony that he didn’t charge because he had been knocked unconscious by, and pinned under, a falling dead body is insufficient to overcome rank speculation that he could be lying and could have inflicted a serious head injury on himself after the fact.
Kubrick subtly interweaves the very human tendency of the generals to rationalize their acceptance of injustice because they had conflated their own interests with the good of the military and the country. In his closing argument, Colonel Dax expresses shame at being a member of the human race: “The case made against these men is a mockery of all human justice.”
Watching that scene, I wondered how it is that we have not all been acculturated against such behavior. (Unfairness in state and local politics were in my thoughts.) But then my mind separated the themes of the movie and its imagery. The court martial consisted of a group of white men in military costumes before a national flag in a large room at Schleissheim Palace. One can’t deny that our society has been well trained to see injustice in such settings and with such characters as that.
We too easily lose sight of the reality that the particular cause in whose name human beings treat each other unjustly is not ideological or demographic. Not only traditional authority types are wicked or prone to rationalizing harm to others. Any one of us can fall into the same role.
Insisting in the name of identity politics or intersectionality that only certain types of people can be inhumane is a dangerous mistake that our civilization seems at risk of making.