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Theory Nature Doesn’t Give A Damn:Depiction of Authority in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket(1987)



May 24, 2022

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Nature Doesn’t Give A Damn​

Authority in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket​

Kevin Chen

Kevin Chen
10 min read
Nov 14, 2015


Warning: This essay contains spoilers of Full Metal Jacket.

Authority (noun): the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience
Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is masterful in its exploration of authority. The first half of the film depicts the ruthless Gunnery Sergeant Hartman berating his soon-to-be soldiers. The second half climaxes as the a combat unit called the Lusthogs are met with sniper fire from a group of large concrete buildings. The Lusthogs is a combat unit comprised soldiers, two of whom trained together in the first half of the film, Joker and Private Cowboy, the latter of which is the leader. Both leaders, Hartman and Cowboy, exhibit the power and limitations of human authority. Let’s meet them now, shall we?


Hartman is one mean, authoritarian motherfucker. He doesn’t care about you, he doesn’t care about your feelings, he doesn’t care about your past. All he cares about is that you go out and fight for Uncle Sam and win the Vietnam War. His methodology involves belittling with his words and rigid obedience to his ways. Indeed, the former leads to the latter. In the five minute sequence where the unit is introduced to Hartman, he unleashes a colorful flurry of profanity that establishes his dominance over his unit. Later he has a call-and-response song that his unit sings, with equally colorful lyrics. Finally, after finding a donut in Private Pyle’s suitcase, Hartman imputes punishment onto the entire unit for every mistake Pyle makes. As a result of Hartman’s command, the unit of creepy bald Americans (who look like skinheads) beats Pyle in the night in this dark and haunting scene.


No more donuts for you!
Hartman carries ruthless authority, but at the end of the first half, we come to realize that although he commands obedience from his unit, his human authority is limited. At the end of their training, Pyle cracks in the middle of the night, waking up Hartman and his unit. Hartman enters and unsuccessfully employs his authoritarian tone and confidence, never once breaking frame in the face of death. Nevertheless, Pyle shoots Hartman right in the chest and then kills himself.


Private Pyle has gone insane
Why did Hartman’s authority fail him in that moment? It had served him well during the length of the bootcamp, the soldiers obeying his every single command. Hartman’s soldiers fall rank and file, singing his silly songs, and even are moved to the point of beating up Private Pyle. What, therefore, allowed Pyle to totally disregard Hartman’s cease and desist?

I believe that Hartman could be disobeyed because he has limited human authority. With human authority, there is a degree of separation between command and obedience. Hartman must first speak, his unit must then obey. And his men obeyed because they had no better choice. They were at war. It was either serve in the Marine Corp or face charges of draft evasion, and for men like Pyle, Cowboy, and Joker, the preference was to serve in the Marine Corp.

But Pyle’s priorities changed near the end of the camp. After being beat by his comrades, something inside Pyle snaps and he no longer cares about serving in the army. Whether it was his own self-hatred, hatred for Hartman, or feelings of betrayal that led him to take his life, I don’t know. But what is clear is that Pyle no longer had the same values of fear of social exclusion, nationalism, or honor that kept him going in the Marine Corp. Pyle disobeying Hartman therefore stems from a shift in Pyle’s values, which causes him to ignore the authority vested to Hartman from the Marine Corp.

If we jump forward to the last act of Full Metal Jacket, we see another instance where authority is not obeyed, this time more obviously. In Vietnam, Private Cowboy is promoted to lead the Lusthogs because all the other superiors were killed. Having gone the wrong way, he sends one of his soldiers to scout the territory between them and their destination. The soldier gets shot by a sniper, and the team opens up fire to the surrounding buildings, hoping to kill the sniper.


Spray and Pray (more on this shot later)
Under pressure to save the wounded lone soldier, Cowboy loses the ability to control his men. Multiple times Cowboy tells his unit to cease fire, but despite Cowboy’s authority as leader, the soldiers open fire onto the surrounding buildings. Each time they hear the sniper shots and cries of their fellow soldier, they forget Cowboy’s command and begin shooting. They even go so far as firing bazooka and grenade rounds at the building, even though they “haven’t seen the sniper”. Another soldier runs in to try to save his wounded comrade, but he too is shot, causing the unit to send another barrage of bullets at the impenetrable concrete.

No one know’s where the sniper is and they don’t have unlimited ammunition, so Cowboy’s command to cease fire makes logical sense. But Cowboy’s commands are increasingly riddled with “goddammits” as he loses command. The turning point is when one of the soldiers with whom Cowboy is arguing with, Animal Mother, completely defies Cowboy’s orders. He doesn’t wait to strategize or wait for tank support; instead, he runs in with a flurry of bullets in a fury to save his fellow soldiers. At this point, Cowboy ignores his own commands and succumbs to firing the concrete.


“We’re not leaving them out there!” — Animal Mother
Why does no one, including himself, listen to Cowboy in this scene? When the soldiers’ experience at the bootcamp is compared to their experience on the Vietnam warfront, it’s obvious that the uncontrolled environment they’re in causes their primal instincts to bubble up. No longer are human virtues like social exclusion, nationalism, and honor able to hold back the soldier’s primal instinct to save kin and kill enemies. At this point social hierarchies break down. The leader, Private Cowboy, tries to be logical and strategic, but Mother is raw and brute-like. Indeed, it’s even represented in his name and how he dresses. He has the biggest gun, most muscular arms, and most ammunition. His name suggests the primal desire of a mother to save her kin. What results is that Animal Mother, not Cowboy, is able to win the consensus of the unit.

Private Pyle’s and Animal Mother’s respective defiance of Hartman and Cowboy showcase the limits of human authority. The discipline that Hartman tries to instill in his unit and the reason that Cowboy tries to instill in his is ultimately not enough to keep their people in line. Their authority goes up to a point, and past that point things start falling apart.

I want to revisit the shots of the soldiers shooting the concrete buildings. The absurdity of this shot, with all its inaccurate shooting and wasted ammunition, alludes to the man-of-war in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech — and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives — he called them enemies! — hidden out of sight somewhere. (pg. 8)

One of my favorite books
I want to draw attention to how futile the man-of-war seems compared to the “continent”. “Pop”, the man-of-war goes. The shots are “small”, “little”, “tiny”, “feeble”. Compare this with the single word “continent”. Where Conrad could have used land, country, hill, or jungle, he uses “continent”, making the land incomprehensibly large. What Conrad is showing us here is that even the most powerful weapons we think we have appear minuscule compared to the land. It’s a comparison of man and nature. Man tries to assert his authority over nature, but Conrad knows that this is “insane”. Why would someone try to use such tiny shells to bomb a enormous piece of land? Why would the soldiers in Full Metal Jacket so mindlessly waste ammunition on those concrete monoliths?

Because we think we have to. Without authority, we would not be able to comprehend the stream of events that we experience every day. We need authority over our mind, so that we can process events. We need authority over our peers, so that we can work as a team. And we need authority over nature, to manipulate it for architecture and technology.

Full Metal Jacket and Heart of Darkness turns our need for authority on its head. When our human authority is faced with nature’s authority, our power falls apart. Hartman’s ability to make his soldiers fall rank-and-file is not enough keep Pyle from psychologically snapping and killing Hartman. Cowboy’s leadership is not enough to keep Animal Mother from succumbing to his primal instinct to kill his enemy and save his fellow soldier. Finally, the British’s ability to manipulate metal and iron into a man-of-war is not enough to even make a dent in the continent of Africa.

It’s through these works that I have gotten an increased respect and reverence for nature. I watched my fair share of Man vs. Wild and Survivorman. The thing I learned from these films is that no matter if you’re Bear Grylls, Les Stroud, or Joe Shmoe, nature is the highest authority. But when we look at the world around us, the primary authority we experience day to day is man-made. Stop signs, caution tape, and locked gates are all Hartman-ian signals, in that they tell us explicitly what we can and cannot do, and we obey them. (Thankfully they don’t threaten to skullfuck us if we do trespass.) But if we think about it, what is actually stopping us from doing exactly opposite of what we’re told? It’s not that we can’t actually run the stop sign, trespass the caution tape, or hop the locked gate. It’s that we respect whoever put the rules there in the first place, just as Hartman’s military unit respects the authority of its sergeant.


When we’re met with a force that simply does not care about respect or other social virtues, the authority over us isn’t human, but natural. Imagine being stranded outdoors, somewhere in the Canadian backwoods. You’re forced to find water, get food, and create shelter for yourself, or you die. Nature doesn’t give a damn. You cannot persuade nature into giving you food, like you can an authority figure to let you go scott free if you made a minor infringement. Even Hartman goes easy on Private Pyle at some points, letting him skip obstacles he can’t overcome. In today’s race relations, an obvious example is how African Americans get higher prison sentence rates than Caucasian Americans. Officers have certain prejudices for each race. We all do. But nature doesn’t.

Nature, is in one sense, a perfect arbiter of power and justice. While humans have a degree of separation between command and obedience, nature closes that gap perfectly. For example, she doesn’t require you to comply with gravity, she just executes and your body obeys. In addition to her power, she also swiftly brings judgment on every mistake. Make a wrong step? Oops you’re going to fall down that cliff. This is, however, not due to any motivations. She just doesn’t give a damn. Going back to the racism example, you can be a minority handicapped baby with no legs and arms and nature will still demand you get your shit together. We can no more avoid a Canadian backwood’s frigidity and darkness than we can avoid Newton’s Laws. We either have to use another physical law, such as fire, to triumph over the other, or we perish.

This is all to say that nature’s authority is completely unbreakable and completely consistent, unlike the authority of man. The jungle of the African Congo and the concrete monoliths of Vietnam both are unequivocal about your ammunition. On the other hand, Pyle was able to “persuade” Hartman to shut up by shooting and killing him and Animal Mother was able to get his way by ignoring Cowboy. It’s obvious that one does not simply approach nature the same way. She will absorb your “tiny projectiles”.

If we can’t overcome it, then what can we do? My thoughts are we need the humility to submit to nature and then the desire to understand her. Humans and nature both have the ability to teach us things about the world and about ourselves. What nature offers that humans cannot, however, is an unrelenting demand for your own thoughts and actions. With other humans, they can offer hints and help, but nature doesn’t, forcing you to problem solve. She demands a self-reliance and initiative that human authority cannot exert in all cases. We all have probably complained at one point or another to a superior and seen their mercy, but nature won’t show any mercy. Maybe then we will learn that once we stop decrying our inability to stop the cold then can we actually start building a fire.
No damn for your face
Also brutal noreply pill
This is pretty good, i must say.

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