I saw Stop-Loss last weekend, an intense movie about soldiers returning to Texas from Iraq. A few of them are stop-lossed, meaning that although their service is supposed to be over, they are being redeployed. The movie revolves around the struggle of one soldier, played by Ryan Phillippe, of not wanting to return to Iraq and trying to get the unjust decision to stop-loss him reversed.
While watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of Lacan, especially in regards to identification (as discussed by Marshall Alcorn in Changing the Subject in English Class) and in regards to the Symbolic Order and the Real.
The latter first. There is a scene in the movie in which Phillippe’s character is accepting the Purple Heart at a rally in his hometown. He is asked to give a speech, and he is surprised and doesn’t know what to talk about. There he is, stumbling, and he begins to talk, inarticulately, about the smells he encountered upon returning to Texas. It’s awkward, he’s obviously talking about what he’s not supposed to talk about. The crowd is silent and confused. He can’t find the right words. There isn’t language, it seems, to describe the feeling of returning home from another place and time for which there aren’t words to describe either: war. Another soldier steps in and tows the party line and riles the crowd up with war rhetoric. Was Phillippe close to the Real: the area of life that can’t be known, that can’t be put into the Symbolic Order? And as he approaches the Real, as he has smelled it and tries (and fails) to relay this Real to the crowd, the Big Other steps in, the narrative is re-stitched and the Symbolic Order again rules.
The former, identification. As Alcorn writes, if I remember correctly, to change one’s mind is akin to an act of suicide. We identify so much with our beliefs that often we’d rather commit suicide or die than change our minds. To change one’s mind is not simply a logical matter, but a matter of attachment: we must dis-attach from our beliefs, an emotional and often traumatic move. To dis-identify with the military, we find in this film, is to dis-identify with so much more: the family, the community, friends, comrades, the state. It would be a radical rift with the self, made apparent by the actions of so many soldiers who have gotten new identities and moved to Canada to live as different people, never able to return to the States and see their families again. A lawyer is consulting Phillippe’s character about making this move, and tells him he’ll never see his family again, never be able to return to his hometown for a funeral, for anything. Phillippe’s decision (which I won’t reveal) is obviously not just a decision of what is right, but of attachment and identity: can he break with his old self, can he (metaphorically) kill his self? And as we see with another character, the metaphorical killing of the self can actually be intricately linked with actual suicide.
This is the first movie I’ve seen in theatres in months and months (since September probably). It was the most intense movie I’ve seen in the theatres in years. I couldn’t do anything afterward but think.