Two movies over two days with one theme.
Cross of Iron, Sam Peckinpah’s depiction of a WWII novel on the Germany army’s retreat from Soviet territory focused upon the tensions between a combat hardened platoon sergeant, Steiner, and a Prussian aristocrat, Captain Stransky. Stransky has enjoyed the plush benefits of a privileged officer his entire career and drops into the front with the sole intention of leading a company only long enough to receive a combat decoration, the coveted Iron Cross. Steiner, along with most of the war weary battalion, has seen through the illusion of the glory of battle. Having received several Iron Crosses for valor, as well as bearing witness to foolish command decisions, he sees decorations, uniforms, hierarchy and bureaucracy as the mechanisms of wasting the lives of men in failed foreign policy.
Stransky epitomizes the worst of this system as he willingly gambles the lives of his men, favoring form over function in pursuit of the Iron Cross, so as to satisfy his aristocratic family’s expectations. When Steiner fails to support Stransky’s account of his leadership actions during a defensive battle, thus dashing his application for a combat decoration, the Captain’s retaliation includes denying Steiner’s reconnaissance platoon crucial information and the assignment of near suicide missions.
Stransky’s resentment of Steiner culminates with an order to fire on his platoon returning from patrol in the “fog of war”. Surviving the gunfire and returning to his base, Steiner kills the sycophantic lieutenant the carried out Stransky’s order to fire. Holding Stransky at gunpoint, Steiner then leads the Captain out into the battle to “earn” his Iron Cross. The movie ends with Stransky asking for advice on how to reload his weapon as the base is falling to Soviet attack. Steiner’s laughing at the absurdity of it all leads to the ambiguous conclusion. Peckinpah’s meditation on violence highlights how personalities impact the conduct of war. It also shows how individual priorities affect operations as unity of command is undermined by personal agendas.
This same trend was also evident in “13 Days” as Kevin Costner’s depiction of policy level actions during the Cuban missile crisis revealed how the “whole of government” did not act in concert to advance American defense interests. Jaundiced by the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion, the military Joint Chiefs took provocative actions that steered closer to war with the Soviet Union in spite of President Kennedy’s goal to diffuse the situation without violence. Cabinet level officials felt the need to circumvent the military chain of command and speak directly with military pilots to downplay hostilities. The service chiefs were looking for opportunities to escalate the situation, showing disdain for the policy direction offered by the commander in chief. State Department officials were similarly advancing their views at the ignorance of entire avenues of diplomatic solution. Some officials were marginalized and written off in favor of others that were more in line with the entrenched bureaucratic faction.
Without rendering judgement of right or wrong in these situations, it remains informative to see how personalities shape foreign policy. No matter how unified a government may appear in pronouncements, the execution of those policies remains subject to the myriad factors of people working in relationship to others. Agency, department and service parochialism, grudges and personal ambitions prove that government is not a monolith. Those that claim to speak on behalf of an entire nation are engaging in fiction. No one person can speak for an entire organization, let alone an entire geographic political unit. People that obtain government positions do not surrender their humanity, and very much retain their own scales of value. They only wield the authority entrusted to them by their fellow citizens while subject to their individual preferences. Their position affords them the opportunity to better advance their own interests while giving the appearance of public service.
This is the praxeological message of government policy in action: the people in government are individuals subject to human fallibility. The people that hire these individuals to protect the collective interests of a nation-state should bear this in mind when providing resources and delegating authority to this end.