The first time I saw Full Metal Jacket I loved it. How much did I love it? That’s hard to say. Words don’t do it justice. But let me try. I really, really, really loved that movie, at least the first half. Watching Private First Class Joker’s chronicle of his Marine Corps training camp experience at Paris Island, South Carolina in the late 1960s was hilarious. After the new recruits have their heads shaved and the rest of the first day rituals of Marine training, they are thrown at the mercy of their drill instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman excellently played by R. Lee Ermey. I’ve never been to boot camp, but I can easily imagine Mr. Ermey’s performance being the epitome of a seriously hard nosed drill sergeant.
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman is brutal. He is doing everything he can to break these young men down and rebuild them into thoughtless tools for the military. The more someone resist, the harder the sergeant becomes. At least that was his standard procedure until he met one of Pfc. Joker’s fellow recruits, 280 lb. Leonard Lawrence, well played by Vincent D’Onofrio, who Hartman appropriately nicknamed Pyle after Gomer Pyle, by any and every measure the epitome of incompetence in a military recruit, played by Jim Nabors.
Pyle becomes the subject of Hartman’s cruelty because the recruit is a slow-witted, overfed, farm boy with little intelligence or understanding of his predicament or what is being demanded of him. The overweight Pyle was borderline mentally retarded with little self control or discipline. When Hartman finds a jelly donut in Pyle’s foot locker during an inspection, Hartman changes tactics and punishes everyone in the barracks while he let Pyle eat his donut. Hartman’s strategy pushes the recruits to gang up and punish Pyle. Everyone put a bar of soap in a lose towel and took turns whacking the mentally impaired recruit. But none of the blows hurt more than the one from Joker, who Pyle thought he could trust.
Shortly thereafter Pyle straightens up. He becomes the quickest rifleman of the entire platoon. But there were signs that Pyle was losing what remained of his hold on reality. He was having conversations with his rifle and was withdrawn from everyone else. On the platoons last night at the boot camp, Joker has night watch. He finds Pyle in the latrine with his rifle. He looks demented. He is loading live rounds, full metal jackets, into his rifle.
With the rifle loaded, Pyle stands up and starts to shout out and perform drill commands, the noise wakes up the entire platoon and Hartman walks in to the head with nothing on but his drill sergeant hat and his underwear. Without fully assessing the situation Hartman walks right up to Joker and asks what the hell’s going on. Joker explains that Pyle has live rounds in his rifle. Hartman turns to Pyle and orders him to put his rifle down. Pyle instead points it at Hartman. Automatically, like a pit bull born to do what pit bulls do, Hartman lets lose a string of profanities at Pyle that stops only when Pyle squeezes the trigger and shoots Hartman squarely in his chest. Pyle then puts the business end of his rifle in his own mouth and blows the back of his head and his brains on the latrine walls. Joker stands there shocked by what he had just seen.
Leonard Lawrence was a gentle soul. The big, dim witted lummox was harmless and wouldn’t hurt anything larger than a jelly donut. But it takes the training of the United States military, along with its cold blooded efficiency for getting the job done to break people down in order to reprogram them in the military’s image and to turn him into a heartless killer.
I felt bad for the Leonard Lawrence character. And he was the first person I thought of when I heard the reports of the soldier firing on his fellow troops at a counseling center at Camp Liberty outside Baghdad, Iraq. Five people were killed. A lot of military officials are expressing regret, sadness, shock, grief, whatever.
But I’m sure, just like there were obvious signs in the movie that Pyle was going over the edge, there were signs that this guy was about to go off the deep end as well. Not to mention all the other recruits suffering from stress so much that they are driven to suicide. These people are trained to kill and are dealing with daily stress levels never meant to become a way of life. It is surprising that we’ve gone this long without such an event already happening. All of those killers over there walking around on military bases with their rifle at the ready living with sky high stress levels. The fact that it has taken this long is very surprising indeed.