Drive-In Part VII: In the Trenches

“What would your, er, newspapers and your politicians do with that?”

  • Colonel Dax to a member of the General Staff referring to the order by one of his generals to fire on his own men in Paths of Glory [1]
  • Now that I have only two Kubrick films that I like and haven’t discussed yet, I thought I’d try to pair this movie, partly based on the actions of one French historical figure [2], with Zizek’s essay named after another [3]. Although there are no other similarities between the two figures, there are some interesting ways to connect the film and article, starting with opening credits – The music to “La Marseillaise” plays, recalling the French Revolution. Zizek starts his essay by pointing out how the world’s attitude toward this Revolution has changed greatly, even for those on the left, after the demise of Communism in 1989:

    In our post-modern era of “emerging properties,” chaotic interaction of multiple subjectivities, of free interaction instead of centralized hierarchy, of a multitude of opinions instead of one Truth, the Jacobin dictatorship is fundamentally “not for our taste…” [4]

    A narrator gives us the background on the conflict between Germany and France in the First World War, ending by saying that “after two grisly years of trench warfare … [s]uccessful attacks were measured in hundreds of yards and paid for in lives by hundreds of thousands.” These few words on the German army’s attack — and its aftermath — make a good introduction to the Zizek essay’s first point about Lacanian ethics,

    an ethics that goes beyond the dimension of what Nietzsche called “human, all too human,” and confronts the inhuman core of humanity. This does not mean only an ethics which no longer denies, but fearlessly takes into account, the latent monstrosity of being-human, the diabolic dimension which exploded in phenomena usually covered by the concept-name “Auschwitz” – an ethics that would be still possible after Auschwitz, to paraphrase Adorno. This inhuman dimension is for Lacan at the same time the ultimate support of ethics. [5]

    General George Broulard visits General Paul Mireau at the opulent Chateau de L’aigle to request that he take “The Ant Hill,” a well-fortified German position. Mireau says that this request is impossible, given that his division was “cut to pieces.” After Broulard coyly mentions that there has been talk of a possible promotion, however, Mireau decides that nothing is beyond his men “once their fighting spirit is aroused.” The next scene shows Mireau walking through the trenches to see the division’s commander, Colonel Dax, a take which allows us to see the wretched condition of the men who are supposed to accomplish this feat. On the way, he talks to various soldiers, one of whom is shell-shocked. When asked about his wife, this soldier says that he doesn’t expect to see her again, a claim that Mireau interprets as “cowardly.” When the soldier agrees that he is a coward, Mireau strikes him and orders him transferred out of his regiment. He then visits Dax, who fails to show enthusiasm for the mission, especially after Mireau tells him that about half of his men will likely be killed. But Mireau subtly threatens to take him away from his regiment, saying that he needs a rest. Dax capitulates.

    Before the reconnaissance mission, Lieutenant Roget, the officer in charge, gets drunk and carps sarcastically at his two subordinates. In the middle of no man’s land he sends one, Private Lejeune, ahead, then, after a short wait during which a flare goes off showing some dead bodies, he throws a grenade towards where he had sent the soldier and runs back to his quarters. He later blackmails the other, Corporal Paris, who confronts him about Lejeune’s death.

    The tyranny and corruption depicted in these scenes can remind us of the Robespierre quote in Zizek’s essay, “The rigor of tyrants has only rigor for a principle; the rigor of [a Truly] republican government comes from charity.” [6] This second form of rigor is what Zizek seems to mean by “Terror,” which he defines, also citing Robespierre, as “prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue. It is less a special principle than a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most pressing needs.”

    The night before the attack, two soldiers discuss the meaning of the fear of death. One of them, Private Arnaud, makes a case that most of the soldiers are actually only afraid of getting hurt. He asks the other,

    A: Aside from the bayonet, what are you most afraid of?

    O: High explosives.

    A: Exactly. It’s the same with me. Because I know that it can chew you up worse than anything else. Look, it’s like I’m trying to tell you. If you’re really afraid of dying you’d be living in a funk all the rest of your life because you know you’ve got to go someday, any day. If death is what you really fear, why should you care about what kills you? [7]

    We’ll use this discussion to bookmark Zizek’s claim that Robespierre’s power in the new republic came from his lack of fear of death, an “‘inhuman’ dimension of the couple Virtue-Terror promoted by Robespierre.”

    [W]hat if, fully recognizing this dependence [of the transcendental ego on the empirical ego] as a fact (and nothing more than this – a stupid fact of being), one nonetheless insists on the truth of its negation, the truth of the assertion of the independence of the subject with regard to the empirical individuals qua living being? Is this independence not demonstrated in the ultimate gesture of risking one’s life, on being ready to forsake one’s being? [8]

    The next day, we see Col. Dax walking through trenches lined with soldiers who huddle against the sides as the air is filled with explosions and gunfire. Then he leads the charge. Kubrick Corner has an excellent description of this famous battle scene; I’ll copy a bit of it here:

    Only once during the actual assault does the film create a moment of perceptual subjectivity…, using an eye-line-match, to Dax’s view of the Ant Hill. It’s a rather terrifying view. We first see only the Ant Hill, its distance exaggerated by the wide angle lens. But then, as the camera slowly zooms out, we are forced to watch four of “our” men killed by a single mortar explosion directly in front of us. Again, instead of lingering momentarily on the casualties, the film cuts quickly away to more violence. By the end of the nearly ten-minute scene, after witnessing the disastrously failed assault, the meaninglessness of the death has become a grotesque spectacle.[9]

    Mireau, seeing that one company isn’t leaving the trenches, orders the battery commander, Captain Rousseau, to fire on them. Rousseau replies that he needs a written order to fire on his own men. Col. Dax goes back to the trench to try to get the men to charge, but is knocked back by a retreating soldier’s falling body when he tries to lead them out. Lieutenant Roget tells Dax that his men had tried to charge three times but were pinned down by overwhelming fire, telling him to look at all the casualties. The attack fails. We cut to the gorgeous chateau where Mireau demands a court martial trying a hundred men under the death penalty for cowardice. When Dax argues, Mireau threatens to place him under arrest, but Broulard intervenes. When Mireau continues to bluster about Dax’s “insubordination,” Broulard eyes him sternly, saying, “I am merely offering an opinion, General. Please do not feel constrained to accept it.” Mireau immediately backs down. This exchange is an example of “habit” that is overridden by what Zizek calls, “divine madness.”

    … many political situations in which a choice is given on condition that we make the right choice: we are solemnly reminded that we can say no – but we are expected to reject this offer and enthusiastically say yes.[10]

    Mireau, however, maintains that it was the soldiers’ duty to obey the order to attack, declares that “We can’t leave it up to the men to decide whether an order is possible” and calls the whole regiment “a pack of sneaking, whining, tail-dragging curs.” Dax asks, “Why not shoot the entire regiment?” When Broulard says that all that is needed is to set an example, Dax offers to let them shoot him – an offer that we can use to elaborate on the idea of “divine madness.” Such madness

    presupposes a pure transcendental subject non-affected by [any earthly] catastrophe – a subject which, although non-existing in reality, IS operative as a virtual point of reference. Every authentic revolutionary has to assume this attitude of thoroughly abstracting from, despising even, the imbecilic particularity of one’s immediate existence, or, as Saint-Just formulated in an unsurpassable way this indifference towards what Benjamin called “bare life…”[11]

    Looking meaningfully at Mireau, Dax states that, “The logical choice is the officer most responsible for the attack.” Broulard snaps, “This is not a question of officers,” then tells Mireau that they shouldn’t “overdo this thing.” Mireau concedes that he “was a bit too anxious to see proper justice meted out — I’ve spent my entire life in the army. I’ve always tried to be true to my principles.” He says that he will settle for trying three men – one from each company in the first wave. Dax requests to be appointed counsel for the accused, which Broulard grants, to Mireau’s discomfort.

    The men are chosen – one, Ferol, is seen as a “social undesirable” by his superior, the second, Arnaud, loses when his company draws lots, and the third, Paris, is chosen because he had confronted Lieutenant Roget with killing the soldier during the reconnaissance mission. The men are tried for “showing cowardice in the face of the enemy” and the head judge says that the court will “dispense with unnecessary formalities.” When Dax requests the men be read the specific charges against them, the head judge refuses. The rest of the court martial follows this pattern, with the head judge often “informally” taking on the role of another prosecutor. The contrast between Dax’s concern that his subordinates be properly represented with Mireau’s and the court’s desire to dispense with the formalities of such representation can help us remember the Lacanian

    opposition between the “subject of enunciation” and the “subject of the enunciated (content)”: while Democracy admits antagonistic struggle as its goal (in Lacanese: as its enunciated, its content), its procedure is regulated-systemic; Fascism, on the contrary, tries to impose the goal of hierarchically structured harmony through the means of an unbridled antagonism.[12]

    The prosecutor calls the attack “a stain on the flag of France,” and calls for the death penalty. Dax points out that since he was not allowed to present any evidence, the prosecution presented no witnesses, there was no written indictment of the charges, and no stenographic records were kept of the proceedings, that it is the court martial that is such a stain. The men are nevertheless found guilty. This finding exemplifies the idea that

    The Ethics of Psychoanalysis… refers to as the “perspective of the Last Judgment,” a perspective even … discernible in one of the key terms of the Stalinist discourse, that of “objective guilt” and “objective meaning” of your acts: while you can be an honest individual who acted with most sincere intentions, you are nonetheless “objectively guilty,” if your acts serve reactionary forces – and it is, of course, the Party which has the direct access to what your acts “objectively mean.”[13]

    A priest, Father Dupree, delivers the bad news to the men and offers to help them prepare for death. Private Ferol immediately breaks down, sobbing uncontrollably. Paris tells the priest that he would feel hypocritical turning to God now, but decides to confess when Dupree claims that God is always ready to listen to his prayers. Arnaud mocks them, praying to the wine bottle from which he has been drinking, and asks Dupree to get out of there with his “sanctimonious, pat answers,” laughing angrily at Dupree’s claim of God’s power.

    We can see now why Lacan’s motto il n’y a pas de grand Autre /there is no big Other/” brings us to the very core of the ethical problematic: what it excludes is precisely this “perspective of the Last Judgment,” the idea that somewhere – even if as a thoroughly virtual point of reference, even if we concede that we cannot ever occupy its place and pass the actual judgment – there must be a standard which allows us to take measure of our acts and pronounce their “true meaning,” their true ethical status.[14]

    Infuriated with Dupree’s offer to “save” him, Arnaud punches him. Paris pushes Arnaud away, and when he comes back, Paris strikes him, causing Arnaud to hit his head against a stone wall, fracturing his skull. The doctor advises, per the general’s insistence on Arnaud’s execution, that he be tied to a stretcher “so he won’t slip when you tilt it. …[P]inch his cheeks a couple times…The general wants him to be conscious.” Meanwhile, Dax calls Lieutenant Roget to his quarters. He asks how Roget happened to pick Corporal Paris, and pretends to accept Roget’s claim that he had no personal motive. Then he puts him in charge of the firing squad, over Roget’s objections. The battery commander enters as Roget leaves to tell Dax something “that may have a bearing on the court martial.”

    Dax interrupts General Broulard at a ball to convince him to stop the executions. Broulard admits that, judging from the casualties, the efforts of his regiment must have been considerable. However, he claims that “the general staff is subject to unfair pressures from newspapers and politicians” and that the execution will be good for the troops’ morale. He compares troops to children, who crave discipline. “One way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then.” We can compare such logic to today’s predominant post-political politics – a “politics of fear”

    politics which renounces the very constitutive dimension of the political, since it resorts to fear as its ultimate mobilizing principle: fear of immigrants, fear of crime, fear of godless sexual depravity, fear of the excessive State itself (with too high taxation), fear of ecological catastrophes – such a (post)politics always amounts to a frightening rallying of frightened men. [15]

    Dax tells Broulard what the battery commander had told him – that Mireau had ordered Rousseau to fire on his own positions. He gives him copies of sworn statements from all the principals involved and asks the question quoted at the top of this entry. Broulard excuses himself and leaves. The next scene begins as the soldiers come to take the three men to the firing squad. Paris falls to his knees, crying to Sergeant Boulanger, the head of the squad, to save him. Boulanger tells him that no one can save him, but that there “will be a lot of dignitaries, newspapermen out there. How do you want to be remembered?” He reminds him that “This is the last decision you’ll have a chance to make on earth. You can act like a man, or we’ll have to drag you out of here.” Paris stands up, regaining his composure. He later refuses the blindfold that Lieutenant Roget offers him and nods noncommittally at Roget’s apology. The three men in their last hours can symbolize what Zizek calls the “part of no part … the excluded, those with no fixed place within the social edifice.” Zizek defines democracy:

    A phenomenon which, for the first time, appeared in Ancient Greece when the members of demos (those with no firmly determined place in the hierarchical social edifice) not only demanded that their voice be heard against those in power. They not only protested the wrong they suffered and wanted their voice be recognized and included in the public sphere, on an equal footing with the ruling oligarchy and aristocracy; even more, they, the excluded, those with no fixed place within the social edifice, presented themselves as the embodiment of the Whole of Society, of the true Universality: “we – the ‘nothing’, not counted in the order – are the people, we are All against others who stand only for their particular privileged interest.” The political conflict proper designates the tension between the structured social body in which each part has its place, and “the part with no-part” which unsettles this order on account of the empty principle of universality, of what Etienne Balibar calls égaliberté, the principled equality of all men qua speaking beings – up to the liumang, “hoodlums,” in today’s China, those who are displaced and freely float, lacking their work-and-residence, but also cultural or sexual, identity and registration.[16]

    Ferol continues to cry until the end – Father Dupree’s prayers and attempts to comfort him and to get him to brace himself are powerless. This proof of Arnaud’s claim that the priest (spokesman for the “Big Other” in the world of the film) has no power brings us to another point of the essay; that Democracy is:

    the master-signifier which says that there is no master-signifier, at least not a master-signifier which would stand alone, that every master-signifier has to insert itself wisely among others. Lacan’s big S of the barred A, which says: I am the signifier of the fact that Other has a hole, or that it doesn’t exist.[17]

    Later, Mireau, dining with Broulard, gushes about how well the men died. “There’s always that chance that one will do something that will leave everyone with a bad taste. This time, you couldn’t ask for better.” Dax enters, at Broulard’s request, and Broulard tells Mireau what Dax had told him, saying that there will have to be a public inquiry to clear Mireau’s name. Mireau protests that he is being scapegoated – “The only completely innocent man in this whole affair!” After he leaves, Broulard offers Dax Mireau’s job, perhaps demonstrating that,

    the basic aim of antidemocratic politics always and by definition is and was depoliticization, the demand that “things should return to normal,” with each individual sticking to his or her particular job. And this brings us to the inevitable paradoxical conclusion: “dictatorship of the proletariat” is another name for the violence of the democratic explosion itself. “Dictatorship of the proletariat” is thus the zero-level at which the difference between legitimate and illegitimate state power is suspended, i.e., at which the state power As Such is illegitimate.[18]

    Dax, disgusted at Broulard’s claim that his actions were motivated by the desire for a promotion, refuses it. A surprised Broulard calls Dax an idealist, and says that he pities him as he “would the village idiot.” These words could have been written for the essay:

    Happy us who live under cynical public-opinion manipulators, not under the sincere Muslim fundamentalists ready to fully engage themselves in their projects… what better proof of the ethico-political misery of our epoch whose ultimate mobilizing motif is the mistrust of virtue! Should we not affirm against such opportunist realism the simple faith in the eternal Idea of freedom which persists through all defeats, without which, as it was clear to Robespierre, a revolution “is just a noisy crime that destroys another crime…”[19]

    Dax returns to his quarters and hears a commotion at a café across the road. The owner announces the “latest acquisition from the enemy” and brings out a young woman to caterwauls and whistles from the French soldiers. Saying lewdly that she has only “natural talent” and praising her golden throat, he asks her to sing. The men drown her out with their catcalls initially, but gradually fall silent, their faces expressing deep longing, and soon start to hum along with her, some with tears in their eyes. We could mediate on the next point during this scene:

    The point is thus not the shift in relations of power and domination between actual socio-political agents, the redistribution of social control, etc., but the very fact of transcending – or, rather, momentarily canceling – this very domain, of the emergence of a totally different domain of “collective will” as a pure Sense-Event in which all differences are obliterated, rendered irrelevant. Such an event is not only new with regard to what was going on before, it is new “in itself” and thus forever remains new. [20]

    Sergeant Boulanger tells Dax that they have orders to move back to the front immediately, to which Dax replies, “Give them a few minutes more.” The movie ends with Dax walking away to the music, leaving us with the question of

    how to regulate/institutionalize the very violent egalitarian democratic impulse, how to prevent it from being drowned in democracy in the second sense of the term “regulated procedure”? If there is no way to do it, then “authentic” democracy remains a momentary utopian outburst which, the proverbial morning after, has to be normalized. [21]

    I don’t want to try to offer any “sanctimonious, pat answers,” so I’ll end my part here by saying that the Zizek article handles this question in some interesting ways (inserting another link at this point [22] for convenience) and by pointing out that, although important to everyone, there are some right now for whom answers to these questions seem especially urgent [23].

    1. Stanley Kubrick and Jim Thompson. Paths of Glory (1957.) in: Script-o-Rama.

    2. “Géraud Réveilhac.” in: Wikipedia. March 1, 2013.

    3-6. Slavoj Zizek. “Robespierre or the “Divine Violence” of Terror.” in: Ab. 2006(?).

    7. Kubrick & Thompson. Paths of Glory in: Script-o-Rama.

    8. Zizek. “Robespierre…”.

    9. Alex Jack. “PART 4: Paths of Glory“. in: Kubrick Corner. Undated.

    10-22. Zizek. “Robespierre…”

    23. Phyllis Bennis. “Celebrations and Dangers for Egypt’s Revolutions” in: Common Dreams. July 5, 2013.


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