Joshua Bernstein

Lost In The Fog

Toward the end of Terrence Malick’s epic film The Thin Red Line (1998), which is adapted from James Jones’s 1962 novel of the same name, an American soldier, Private Witt, finds himself alone in a darkening wood. Scattered bullets whistle by him. Gradually, through the fog, it’s revealed that his unit is attacking—racing toward a Japanese position, where they will ultimately commit atrocities, such as mutilating corpses and torturing the wounded, most of which is rooted in historical fact. But before the fight scene comes to light, there’s a moment of clarity—or lack of clarity, one should say—where the soldier becomes lost in the fog. The moment is heavily existential, and the rhythmic pulse of the drums, probably meant to mimic a heartbeat, conveys the primal-ness of it. Certainly Conrad comes to mind. As do Dante and Camus.

 

Scene from The Thin Red Line, 20th Century Fox, 1998

Anyone who has soldiered overseas recognizes this moment. I’ve seen the film a dozen times, but on each viewing, I find myself literarily frozen, identifying with it and yet stupefied by Malick’s power. If it’s possible to capture the horror and brutality of armed conflict, Malick has done it in one approximately ninety-second clip. It’s not just the isolation he conveys here—that sense of estrangement from both the enemy and one’s supposed comrades; it’s the sheer terror of realizing that people were put on this planet to kill. Or, at least, that’s been their preoccupation throughout recorded history.

 

Civilians, barring violent criminals and those with unduly traumatized lives, remain largely impervious to this fact. For the most part, they have no idea what it means to wield a gun. That is not to say, of course, that I experienced anything like the carnage that the soldiers in Malick’s film endure, or that which James Jones himself heroically endured while fighting at Guadalcanal. But I did see enough incidents—people wounded and maimed, mainly through no direct fault of their own—that I got a sense of war’s chaos and of its essential, meaningless waste.

 

Last April, and almost ten years to the day I was discharged from the Israeli army, in which, for whatever reason, I had volunteered to serve, I went shooting with a friend at a range near Superior, Wisconsin. He, an avid Texan and hunter, brought an arsenal of weaponry that would have impressed any former infantry marksman, which I technically am. More amazing still is that he was supremely adept with a handgun. At forty yards, he could bullseye targets that I could barely find in my sight, let alone penetrate. I remember above all the way he held his lips together while shooting and exhaled all his air. It was textbook mechanics, and the kind of calmness in shooting that one only finds at a range. During my deployments, I only had to fire my gun twice in engagements, and, in retrospect, neither of those firings was likely warranted. Suffice it to say that both times, I could feel my heart shaking, and I came close to wetting my pants.

 

The only film I’ve ever seen that captures this feeling—part terror, part adrenaline rush—is The Thin Red Line, and specifically in this woods scene, where the soldier becomes lost in the dark. He hears himself panting. Soon, bullets whish past him—directionless, it seems—and the only precedent for this, apart from Dante, astray on his path in the woods, might be Camus’s hapless prisoner in “The Guest,” who finds himself stranded and alone on the Algerian plains. What makes war so frightening isn’t the likeliness of death. It isn’t the suffering. It isn’t the inconsequentiality of humanness. Indeed, these are all apparent to anyone who’s reached middle age. Rather, it’s that sense of being alone. And I would hypothesize that it only comes to light in a warzone. After all, one realizes, especially in moments like this, that those who kill do not have any inherent fixed loyalties. Each human is invariably alone, regardless of the colors they wear.

 

Whether Malick offers any kind of salve for this anguish, one cannot easily say. Near the end of the film, an ambiguous narrator, possibly Sergeant Welsh, the most cynical of the troop’s members, bitterly reflects: “Only one thing a man can do. Find something that’s his. Make an island for himself.”

 

Closing shot from The Thin Red Line, 20th Century Fox, 1998

Indeed, the film ends on that note, with a single palm frond blooming in the surf. Art, it would seem, is the only recourse we have for the oblivion and horrors of life. And who knows? Maybe in connecting with others on this most elemental level—though art, or the medium of film—we can feel in some way, if only for a second, that each of us is that less alone.

 

 

J. A. Bernstein is the author of a forthcoming novel, Rachel’s Tomb (New Issues, 2019), which won the AWP Award Series, Hackney, and Knut House Prizes; a forthcoming story collection, Stick-Light (Eyewear, 2019); and a forthcoming chapbook, Desert Castles (Southern Indiana Review, 2019), which won the Wilhelmus Award. His creative work has appeared in Shenandoah, Boston Review, Kenyon Review Online, and other journals. A Chicago-native, he is an assistant professor in the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi and the fiction editor of Tikkun. His favorite sweet is undoubtedly the coffee-flavored halva served by the Mamman Family in the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem.

 

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