Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is oft referred to as an anti-war, anti-military propaganda, but I believe the film isn’t “anti” anything – it just is. Full Metal Jacket takes us through the process of war – how one becomes a soldier, the mindsets they most adopt (or drop) to survive, the merciless battlefield and the dissolution of identity in war. We’re shown these aspects of war without too much bias on the auteur’s part, and the audience self-reflects and projects its own fears and desires onto the film.
When the recruits arrive at Parris Island, South Carolina, they’re immediately subjected to the seemingly abusive Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. His tactics are harsh and repressive, as they should be, given that his goal is to completely break down the recruits’ societal conditioning and rebuild them as killing machines. In that context, is it right to consider Hartman an antagonist? Like the rest of the soldiers, he too has (most likely) endured the same training, melting away his civilian psyche and rebuilding him to serve a singular purpose – turn soft recruits into hardened killing machines. This is shown during Hartman’s first conversation with the recruits when he tells them: “If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon… Because I am hard, you will not like me. But the more you hate me, the more you will learn. I am hard but I am fair. There is no racial bigotry here… Here you are all equally worthless. And my orders are to weed out all non-hackers who do not pack the gear to serve in my beloved Corps. Do you maggots understand that?”
Looking at Hartman as an inherently evil character shows bias not on Kubrick’s part, but rather the audience. He can’t really help what he is now, he’s a part of the war machine and the argument shouldn’t be whether he’s evil, it’s whether war itself is evil.
Private Pyle’s descent into madness illustrates how the dissolution of one’s identity can backfire. He became exactly what Hartman wanted – a merciless war machine. Pyle saw Hartman as his enemy and abuser and exacted revenge upon him. The breakdown in his identity occurred after the “blanket party” scene, particularly when the one friend he had, Joker, participated in the hazing ritual. In war, you’re taught only to win and survive, a vast difference from the ideals and morals of civilian life. The blanket party is the epitome of the opposite – the unit no longer stands together against their “aggressor,” Hartman. Instead, they attack the weakest link, which society usually protects. This torture completely removes Pyle’s remaining links to society, and he reacts violently.
The second half of the film takes on a completely different tone as we’re shown life on the battlefield in excruciating detail, from the newly minted marines’ private lives to their deaths. The sniper scene is particularly poignant once the sniper begins killing off the marines. They begin to ignore their training and revert to their society conditioned mentalities, rushing out to save their fallen comrades, only to fall by the bullet.
The reveal of the sniper’s gender becomes a conversation spoken in code. Their reluctance to kill her reveals their own attitudes on killing women. However, they don’t seem to realize that she underwent the same process they did, and she too is a killing machine. The message here seems to be “war doesn’t discriminate.” Anyone can have his or her identities broken down and rebuilt as something new. Their mercy killing is the “moral” thing to do, considering the sniper was begging them to kill her. Their marching to the tune of Mickey Mouse shows that they have no regrets, and in that aspect, evolved into soldiers.
From there, it’s the audience’s job to now self-reflect and judge what they’ve seen. We are to evaluate our own identities and realize how they’ve been shaped and just how easy they can be broken down.