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War and Religion in Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying

Having won the 2015 Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture and Best Director with his film Boyhood, Richard Linklater directed another excellent film in 2017, Last Flag Flying (now available on Amazon Prime). Like many of the director’s works, it provides much for us to think about. The film’s three main characters—bar-owner and retired Marine sergeant Sal (Bryan Cranston), stocking clerk Doc (Steve Carell), and Reverend Mueller (Laurence Fishburne)—exchange important ideas primarily about military service, war, and religion.

Last Flag Flying

The three middle-aged men all served together in Vietnam; and Doc’s son, Larry, served and died in 2003 in the Iraq War. Sal is the most talkative of the older men, and in humorous manner often relates his feelings about serving in the Marines and what he thinks of U.S. wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

When Corporal Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), a young Marine friend of Larry’s who witnessed his killing by an Iraqi, says “Rather be fighting them over there than in our own backyard,” Sal responds sarcastically, “See, we fought the commies in 'Nam so we wouldn't have to fight them on the beaches of Malibu. . . . Yep—that's always been the mission, and it's a bunch of crap.” Mueller adds, “There needs to be a reason. This time [regarding the Iraq War] we were told there was an imminent danger. Arsenals of horrible weapons . . . a possible mushroom cloud.” To which Sal responds, “Lies. It's always the same ol' shit: stay the course, if we pull out now, our heroes will have died in vain. . . . When you catch your government lying to you, everything changes.” (All film quotes are from the film script.)

Discussions also reveal some of the motivations for military enlisting. Cpl. Washington says he joined the Marines because he wanted to strengthen his character. “It was that way with Larry too. We wanted to test ourselves, to forge ourselves into the men we wanted to become.” Sal responds, “That's what we used to think. Every generation has their war. Men make wars, and wars make men . . . Never gonna end.” Mueller adds, “Maybe we need to try something else.”

Washington’s words call to mind Philip Caputo’s explanation in Rumor of War as to why in 1960 he enrolled in a Marine officer training program: “The heroic experience I sought was war; war, the ultimate adventure; war, the ordinary man's most convenient means of escaping from the ordinary. . . . I needed to prove something—my courage, my toughness, my manhood.” And Mueller’s response reminds us that more than a century ago philosopher William James called for the creation of a “moral equivalent of war,” for opportunities for people to perform more of the heroic type of actions of war without all the accompanying tragedies of it.

Armies around the world indoctrinate young recruits into a subculture that, like all cultures and subcultures, have profound effects on beliefs.

In addition to Caputo’s explanation for why young men are willing to go to war, another author, Gwynne Dyer, states that “the most important single factor that makes it possible for civilized men to fight the wars of civilization is that all armies everywhere have exploited and manipulated the ingrained warrior ethic that is the heritage of every young human male.” And Dyer indicates how an emphasis on toughness, compliance with orders, peer pressure, and concern for one’s fellow soldiers [which Cpl. Washington attests to in Last Flag Flying], can turn a young man into someone who will kill when told to do so. As one U. S. Marine drill instructor stated about a typical recruit, “I can train that guy; I can get him to do anything I want him to.”

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Armies around the world indoctrinate young recruits into a subculture that, like all cultures and subcultures, have profound effects on beliefs. In a discussion with Mueller, Sal tells him about the Marines, “It's really the only culture I ever . . . really thought made sense.” (Part of Marine culture is also described by Sal as he tells young Washington about taking Doc to a Vietnamese whorehouse, where he lost his virginity.)

Killing is also made easier if soldiers can regard the enemy as less than fully human. Such dehumanization is helped along by applying various non-human terms to them. As I mentioned in an earlier work, words such as swine, rats, lice, yellow monkeys, and gooks have been among those soldiers have applied contemptuously to those they killed. In Last Flag Flying, Sal refers to the enemy Vietnamese as gooks, and Washington to enemy Iraqis as ragheads.

Besides military service and wars, religion is an important topic of discussion, especially between Reverend Mueller (a Protestant minister) and the nonbelieving Sal, who at times sounds like the atheist Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Like Ivan, who rejected any God who could allow the suffering of innocent little children, Sal says he would never explain himself to God, but rather “gonna make Him explain Himself to me!” Sal would ask Him, “Hey, where were You when they were rapin' children or with the genocide and all that? Where were You when they flew airplanes [on 9/11] into buildings, killin' thousands of folks just goin' to work, and the murderers shouting Your name, or You by some other name. Same difference. Where were You when Doc's kid was buyin' Cokes and some raghead blew his face off?”

Mueller responds, “I'm going to pray for your soul.” And most of his other responses to Sal are
in line with traditional religious comebacks to such doubting individuals. Viewers of Linklater’s film are offered no new insights into such timeless debates, but the question of God’s existence or non-existence, nevertheless, remains an important one, as does “What are the implications of believing or not?”

The goodness of Pope Francis, for example, seems motivated by his religion. But how about the 81 percent of white U.S. evangelicals who voted for President Trump? What goodness has their vote delivered? What evils? We already know some answers, and as a result of the investigations of a different Mueller (Special Counsel Robert) we are likely to know more answers in the days ahead.

Last Flag Flying

In Last Flag Flying, Linklater suggests that it is not always the religious believer who acts more nobly. Despite all his profanity and sinful behavior (from a traditional religious viewpoint), Sal is the more willing to accompany Doc on his trip to recover his son’s body and oversee his burial. Rev. Mueller is unwilling to do so until his wife convinces him it is his religious duty, and he later looks for an excuse to leave Doc before the body is buried.

Besides the ample and thoughtful discussions, Linklater’s latest film has much more to offer, especially plenty of humor and good acting—and not only by the three main actors. For us old folks, seeing Cicely Tyson again, now in her early nineties and an earlier star in so many good films like Sounder (1972), is a special treat.

walter moss

Walter Moss