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“If You Want to Change the World, Change the Armies.”

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I finally saw The Men Who Stare at Goats this weekend. A significant number of reviews from last year when it came out reference the epigram to the film, “More of this stuff is true than you think.” However in my mind, the most important quote in the film is the one in the title of this post.

If you try to read this film through any other lens – pacifism, war reporting, truth v. fiction re. the paranormal – it doesn’t work very well. That’s why a lot of reviewers either read the film as inept satire or as failed story-telling. But they don’t look closely at the two central questions driving the story: what constitutes just warriorhood, and can you incorporate an expansive view of just warriohood (one which includes respect for the planet) more fully into existing military institutions? In other words, how do you change armies in order to change (and maybe save) the world?

The first of these two themes is brought into sharp relief by the Jedi subtext associated with the New Earth Army. You can read its central feature as the use of psychic warfare or “Jedi mind-trick” mythology, but the Jedi language is also about something deeper: the just use of limited force in the service of peace, justice and (now) environmental security.

Read through this lens (as opposed to some decisive statement about the possibility of psychic warfare), the ending is much more satisfactory than many reviewers claim. To be a “super-soldier” is to walk the path of the just warrior, to be on the side of the innocent and vulnerable, and to be at one with the universe of which we are part.

And how do you change armies to this effect? For part of the genius of the story is in drawing out the contrast between these ideals and existing military culture. The film is a bit agnostic on this second point. So is the actual history on which it is based, which you can learn about by reading the book or watching the documentary. I leave it to readers to offer their thoughts about the take-home message there.

Lt. Col. James Channon, on whose career Jeff Bridges’ character in Goats is based, remains optimistic.

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