There's a scene in Sam Fuller's The Big Red One, a movie about World War II, that takes place in an insane asylum. The Germans have set up an artillery observation post on the top floor of the asylum, and the ensuing artillery fire has been creating issues for the American army. For those of you who are not familiar with these issues, what happens is the observation post says, “The Americans are over there! I can see them!” And the cannons blast away, and the Americans are unhappy. All this, of course, requires much speaking in acronyms, and the relaying of map coordinates, and that sort of thing.
Anyway, Lee Marvin’s infantry squad gets the job of going into the asylum and killing the Germans. They’re not happy about this, because it means at least some of them may get killed in the process. They’re much fonder of the idea of American artillery simply blowing up the asylum, or perhaps our air force flattening it with bombs. But it appears there are public relations issues about murdering insane civilians, so in they go.
They have help from a beautiful female insider, who slits a German throat or two. The whole movie has a thing for knives. Marvin himself, playing a sergeant, carries three knives that I counted – a bayonet, a hunting knife, and a World War I trench knife, which includes brass knuckles on the handle.
Anyway, the operation soon proceeds to the noisy phase. In the refectory, the Germans and Americans battle it out over the heads of inmates who are trying to eat lunch. Finally an insane person picks up a discarded Schmeisser and starts spraying the room with 9 mm bullets, saying, in the throes of his epiphany, “I am one of you! I am sane! I am sane!”
After a while Marvin shoots him. Un-aimed fire tends to annoy sergeants.
Sam Fuller, the director, is making a point here, as only he can. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I think it has something to do with war being crazy.
However, as I was watching the movie recently, I found myself thinking about suggestible individuals and the shootings in Tucson earlier this year. At the time, there was a lot of talk about how nobody told the shooter in Tucson to shoot anyone. And I’m fine with that. But our entire culture has been suffused with violence for a long time, and in recent years our political rhetoric has been accelerating rapidly to keep pace. I’m thinking this may have something to do with the rapid decline in the number of politicians who have actually fought in a war. John McCain, God bless him, is becoming something of a relic in this regard.
There’s an old line that goes back to a senior church official in the Albigensian Crusade, which took place in southern France during the Middle Ages. He was reportedly asked what the troops should do with prisoners from a town that was about to be conquered, and according to a contemporary writer the churchman said, “Kill them all. God will know his own.”
As the 2012 presidential campaign gets under way, I have some advice for our current leaders: Be careful what you say. People may take you literally. They have done so in the past.
(With apologies to those who hate footnotes, I need to add one. Whether the church leader, Arnau Amalric, actually said what Caesarius of Heisterbach says he said is much in dispute. However, the massacre at the town of Béziers, in July 1209, is not in doubt. You can look it up. Arnau Amalric happily wrote to the pope that 20,000 people were killed. But it seems unlikely that there were that many people living in the town at that time. Welcome to the study of medieval history, where indisputable facts can be hard to come by.)