We Are Not Here On Rehearsal

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Growing up, I was often the lead in musicals and always drawn to the spotlight. But - until that night in February , I was always holding back. Never good enough.

With one foot out, I was in a kind of perpetual dress rehearsal. There was a false sense of comfort and safety in knowing that, if I was still in dress rehearsal mode, I could avoid the pain of really failing. If this is your story, then you know how exhausting it feels to operate this way.


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Life Is Not a Rehearsal

Pyle is bullied by the sadistic drill instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman R. Lee Ermy.

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Pyle is also bullied by the rest of his squad who beat him for letting them down. Joker participates in these beatings but also takes his time to help Pyle get better at fulfilling his duties in order to pass the tough tests.

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Once training is complete they are assigned their war roles: Pyle is to join the Infantry while Joker is to be a military journalist. But Pyle has given himself up so completely to his military existence, has learned to identify with its aims with such totality, that he cannot cope emotionally and undergoes a profound mental breakdown. In a state of psychosis he shoots the drill instructor and then himself.

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By contrast, Joker passes through his training at an ironic distance, keeping back an important part of his sense of self. He performs his military obligation without fully identifying with it. Although working as a journalist a role at one remove from combat, in which he has to convert his experience into written representation Joker finds himself caught in a hellish battle in Hue City, during the Tet Offensive — a key turning point in American attitudes to the war.

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But Joker finds he is able to kill a North Vietnamese sniper in cold blood. The message of Full Metal Jacket is chilling in its subversion of received ideas about how an effective soldier is produced. The effective soldier is not the one who gives his all, who gives his very soul to the army. Rather, it is the one who is able to separate himself from his circumstance so he can function without letting the reality of it pierce him.

It is the one who carries out his duty as if it is not really he who is doing it. It is not the one who has his resistance or cowardice broken down: it is the one who finds a space to hide those feelings and find a persona, an image of himself, that can do what is demanded of him. He can act in war as if he was still in training, still in the world of artifice and representation. As Immanuel Kant suggested, the brave soldier is simply the one whose sense of safety lasts longer than those around him. In other words his fantasy life is structurally integral to his success.

And this undermines all the commonplace notions of military duty, clear-headed soldiering and military professionalism. That is an honourable way for filmmakers to approach the subject and there are many examples. The systemic psychological dysfunctions of warfare begin in the rehearsal. Full Metal Jacket is set in Eve Arnold travelled to North Carolina to document one of the three fake North Vietnamese villages constructed by the American military for training.

Here’s what I now know to be true

Recruits would be sent to one of these camps for assimilation before being shipped out to the war zone. In the fake hospital one young man smears his face with white cream and ties a pillowcase around his head. In the bushes outside, another young man puts leaves in his hair and rubs grass into his cheeks. Adopting their guises, they pose for Arnold and her camera.

On the following pages the photographs are just as upfront about the layers of artifice. Soldiers clutch their guns while coloured smoke billows around them. But the soldiers are clearly also going through the motions for Eve Arnold too. Elsewhere we see a fake chaplain and even a fake Buddhist temple, all shot like production stills for a stage show, or maybe a documentary-cum-fashion editorial. In its opening image a soldier is throwing a grenade. In another, a soldier lays dead in the mud with his possessions spilling out McCullin arranged the possessions.

These are among the most reproduced images of that war. Two photographers; two visual strategies; and two incongruent but equally valid ways to represent the Vietnam War early in How smart of the editor. And how respectful of the intelligence of the reader who is invited to move between the two and negotiate their own precarious critical distance.

Why should this be?