Discover more from Marysville Sun
Friday, August 26, 2022 - Vol. 01 No. 14
Good afternoon, Marysville. Here’s a kickstart to your last weekend in August.
Our city’s newest Councilman, Peter Condyles, tweeted a few days ago about the need for Marysville citizens to show up when summoned for jury duty.
As many reasons as we have to be thankful for our Mayor, our City Council, and our Police Department, a great city with a great culture must have great citizens. Great citizens must learn and fulfill their responsibilities.
☀️A Review of The Terminal List
[Editor’s note: The Sun welcomes a new contributor. Mr. Mark Callender is a Marysville resident, a father of eight, and the Fellow of Literature and History at Comeford College where he teaches students to analyze the theology, philosophy, and history of influential writers. Today he shares wisdom for thinking through a popular TV show.]
by Mark Callender
I suppose it would be in bad form if I did not begin this review with the typical “spoiler alert” warning—so there it is.
The Terminal List, Amazon Prime’s new hit show and all the rage for conservative audiences, stars Chris Pratt being awesome—a role becoming familiar to him. Pratt plays the character of John Reece, a Navy SEAL commander sent on a mission in which his team is ambushed and killed—leaving John and one other team member as the only survivors. John is angry. John wants answers. Complicating his dealing with the trauma of combat and the injuries he sustained in battle are gaps in his memory, his superiors seeming to want to move on, the apparent suicide of the only other surviving teammate (PO1 “Boozer”), and the fragile relationship he has with his wife and daughter regarding his extended deployments.
Just when John seems to be ready to turn the page and get the medical help he needs to deal with this trauma, he is attacked and his wife and daughter are cruelly murdered. The table is set for John to spend the remainder of the series sorting out who is to blame for his team’s ambush, who killed Boozer, who murdered his wife and daughter, and exact his revenge on all—oh yes, and possibly learn why all these terrible events occurred—but really that is almost secondary to just listing the names of those responsible and scratching them off one-by-one.
Perhaps I’ve seen too many of these stories before, but they seem to lack any real depth or nuance. The characters and setting are absurd caricatures of what media elites believe of our society. Soldiers speak in stupid acronyms, marriages are rocky or romantic, families are small, all important decisions require alcohol consumption. OK, that last bit might be somewhat true. But really—everything is so cartoonish.
Imagine an action/adventure story where the soldiers communicate in complete sentences, have mature wives who provide support and strength, and dad goes home to a family with four, five, six kids. A story where important decisions are sealed with an “amen” and missions begin with the soldiers kneeling in prayer.
The setting is predictable. What about mystery and suspense? There’s none here, for it really becomes easy to organize the characters into their preset types. The corporate CEO—obviously, the career politician—should have just started the revenge tour there, the military command structure—those guys kill lots of men, and the trusted friend of a lifetime—what are friends for if not setting you up for betrayal? Conversely, the heroes are just as reliably predictable. The independent journalist—on a crusade of truth/fame, the once needy comrade who is now needed, and the pursuing FBI guy torn between getting his man and getting it right. How did we get to this level of absurdity in our storytelling?
I’m not certain, but somewhere in the last thirty or forty years this story of the elite-ly trained, highly motivated, nothing to lose, bust through all, over the top alpha male/female special operator myth developed. Perhaps it has been fueled by the “war on terror” post 9/11 world in which that combat arm has been heavily leaned upon to gather intelligence and produce kills. Or maybe it goes back to those sad post-Vietnam days in which we needed heroes like John Rambo and Chuck Norris. Or maybe the myth finds its origin by narrowing the collective elite unit myths like the Devil’s Brigade or the Dirty Dozen- again, I’m not certain, but it is all rather juvenile.
We know the reality that super elite super soldiers are really rather frail - physically and emotionally. They die all the time on the battlefield—and often to under-equipped, unskilled soldiers who simply catch them unawares, get lucky, or don’t just scream and charge madly while shooting from the hip with their AK. Our modern story myths do acknowledge the super soldier dying from time-to-time, but this acknowledgment is offset by increasing the volume of unskilled average fighters thrown at them—of course they died! It was three against three hundred after all, but we know the reality. It is true, soldiers often greatly exaggerate the number of combatants they encounter. I read one narrative regarding Operation Red Wings in which the lone surviving seal estimated the number of combatants to be between 80-200. The actual numbers will never be known, but official estimates on the low side are 8-10 combatants and on the high side 20—giving the American special operators at least parity of force.
This type of exaggeration within biography, in the narrative of real events, or even in official after action reports is not new. I recall as a very young man a Ranger telling the story of his combat experience in Vietnam. This Ranger, with tears in his eyes, explained how when he surveyed the battlefield after its conclusion, he saw his brothers lying dead all around him, littered on top of each other in every direction—they numbered so many he could not count them. Later they gathered them into a pile and stacked them like cordwood. I remember this particular expression very vividly having done a fair bit of firewood stacking in my youth. It shocked my mind. I later did a bit of personal research on this particular battle and learned that the actual number of dead Americans was less than a dozen. At the time I was puzzled by such an absurd exaggeration.
This type of exaggeration is not the exclusive habit of elite soldiers, it is rather common for all combat arms in every era I suppose.
The battle of Omaha beach, many historians have learned, was made so bloody and so difficult largely due to a single MG42 gunner in a concealed bunker with enfilade fire down the beach—not the Hunnish hordes firing down upon the brave but burdened GIs. This sole gunner held up the American advance for hours and was only stopped by the fact that he ran out of ammunition and so retreated—giving the Americans room to maneuver up the beach exits.
And one could go further back, like way back. Ramesses II had his exaggerations of the battle of Kadesh carved in stone. Saul killed his thousands and David his ten thousands. Achilles choked a river with all the Trojans he killed and on and on it goes.
To be clear, my purpose is most certainly not to diminish the bravery or the hard work of training that goes into being a soldier. It is not to steal their honor or glory by finding fault in their memories or lived experiences. I get it…the mind exaggerates and misremembers. There is no valor to steal or malice to attribute—they are men recounting events and they got the facts wrong - ok.
But when we move from the memory of real events to storytelling and myth- our fantasies in film…what then? Why the exaggeration? Why the caricatures? So you see my aim is to understand why we need these exaggerations personally and collectively, what benefit we derive from them or is it just to enhance the drama? Well…if it is the latter we don’t treat it as such. We seem to be seeking some sort of validation in the myths. Some form of justification or even identity.
Perhaps one should ask: what is the purpose of such exaggerations in our myths? In the pre-Christian world honor and glory was a tangible thing. It was something you could put on a scale and weigh out. Ancient man—like the gods, even Jehovah God—was a headhunter. A soldier, a king, a god, all had their worth measured in physical, tangible, things: land, number of kills, concubines, servants, gold, silver, etc. The substance pointed to the symbol, i.e. honor and glory. Christianity turns this on its head. Christianity claims that the symbol points to the substantive—and further that God alone is capable of setting to order this complex exchange between symbol and substance.
Consider these words by Augustine of Hippo regarding God’s ability to order substance and symbol in His activity in our world.
“You are most high, excellent, most powerful, omnipotent, supremely merciful and supremely just, most hidden, yet intimately present, infinitely beautiful and infinitely strong, steadfast yet elusive, unchanging yourself though you control the change in all things, never new, never old, renewing all things yet wearing down the proud though they know it not; ever active, ever at rest, gathering while knowing no need, supporting and filling and guarding, creating and nurturing and perfecting, seeking although you lack nothing. You love without frenzy, you are jealous yet secure, you regret without sadness, you grow angry yet remain tranquil, you alter your works but never your plan; you take back what you find although you never lost it; you are never in need yet you rejoice in your gains, never avaricious yet you demand profits. You allow us to pay you more than you demand, and so you become our debtor, yet which of us possesses anything that does not already belong to you? You owe us nothing, yet you pay your debts; you write off our debts to you, yet you lose nothing thereby.” (—Augustine, Confessions)
The New Testament revelation accomplishes a couple of things. First, it greatly broadens the substantive acts that can merit honor and glory within the human experience. Second, it reveals Christ to be the substantive holder of all these earthly things and the complex exchange that takes place in the human experience…and forever. So what happens when we frame John Reece within this Christian paradigm?
What is the purpose of John Reece’s mythic honor and glory? When you stack the bodies up, what exchange occurs? What does he gain and, perhaps most importantly to a myth, what do we the audience gain?
John Reece is on a quest for revenge, which leaves him no time for reflection regarding the morality of his quest. Oh, don’t get me wrong—there is plenty of reflection by way of moments of sentiment for his wife and daughter. John remembers or imagines watching his daughter draw or listening to her read. He recalls loving conversations with his wife or the painful words he spoke to her before deployment. He watches and observes these scenes with eyes full of regret and a longing to be with them again only to be shaken out of his memories by the violence done to them and a return to his quest for revenge.
How about a moment’s reflection, John, regarding your decision to deploy against the wishes of your wife? What about your daughter’s clear need for a father who loves and guides her? She is going to grow up and run to the wrong kind of man, John. Ought we be setting off explosives on public roadways, John?
Why are you sparing the lives of FBI agents who fall into your hands, but the private security guards, you just execute them? I know they work for a private corporation but really. Never mind the fact that a lot of them are probably former vets who are looking to transition their military training into the private sector. I wonder if that private security guard that surrendered to you, that you then just killed in cold blood, I wonder if he had a wife and daughter? Maybe he was a returned Afghan vet and saw this firm hiring and figured it was a nice easy stateside job to pay the bills? Or what about those guys you just sniped from a few hundred yards away? Maybe one of them was running a YouTube channel on self-defense or tactical room sweeps—you know, on the side? Or your friend? That guy who was pouring his heart out to you regarding the choices he made and why he betrayed you, and how much regret and guilt he was carrying around? Yeah…that guy. Oh, wait you just killed him too without a word? Ah well…no time for reflection.
This kind of reflection—that is John reflecting only upon his pain and loss in the recent past—may produce motive in our hero, and it may even arouse empathy in the audience, but really it is the worst kind of reflection regardless of what it produces. Man is a rational being. Reflection is a habit we cannot shake. Particularly as one gets older and has more to reflect upon. Don’t get me wrong, the world is bursting with men who do not reflect upon their actions, past, present, and future. They live moment to moment, seeking whatever their passions require, swiftly running after all kinds of vanity. But such men are not heroes. They are contemptible. And so is John Reece.
Incidentally, given that this is season one, it is possible that the writers are next level. They could for example be establishing John Reece as an Achilles type character and this first season is really only taking us up to the point where Achilles cannot stop dragging Hector’s corpse around the city of Troy with his chariot. Recall that Achilles lost his honor and glory, then lost Patroclus, and so became this inhuman (by not reflecting) murder machine until he came to terms with his loss, reflected on the condition of man, and re-entered society… and then he died. So, it is possible that these writers will go there…odds? I mean…they have the setup. They could do it.
One brief final observation might be worth our time here. Notice a difference regarding John Reece to the ancient heroes, the medieval heroes, the pre-American Davy Crocket kind of hero. Their skill and success in battle came from without, not from within. The older elite soldier was dependent on the favor of the gods, or gifted by them in some manner, or lent an object that granted them ability or power beyond their training, skill or strength. This kind of myth is more keeping with reality. This kind of fantasy, I dare say, can inspire one to do what is dutiful, expected, common—believing that a power beyond one’s control will order the right.
“But a certain man drew his bow at random and struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate.”
I asked earlier what do we gain as the audience participating in this mythical revenge tour with John Reece. Maybe what we gain, and maybe this is what we need, is to see on film the bad guys—and anyone working for them whether they know they're on team “bad guy” or not!—getting violently destroyed without pity, without pause.
Perhaps this is not so bad after all. When you live in a world where the agents charged with instituting justice are so corrupt and rarely fulfill their office—having a fantasy world where one can see justice delivered may provide a placebo effect. It may be rather juvenile storytelling, and it may be a cartoonish representation of reality—but I suppose it may also be the kind of storytelling we need right now.
What it feels like at the end of a long week:
Thanks for reading the Marysville Sun. A list of previous issues can be found here.