by Bruce Robbins
Even if they haven’t seen the movie, people above a certain age will remember Jack Nicholson’s final speech in A Few Good Men: “You don’t want the truth, because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.” Nicholson, a colonel in the Marines, is confessing to his guilt for having had one of his men beaten to death. He confesses because he believes he was right, and he believes that, deep down in places they don’t talk about at parties, his fellow Americans know he was right. Sometimes defending the nation will require breaking the rules. It will require getting your hands dirty.
In the midst of America’s many high-energy debates about immigration and the building and manning of walls, there is a simple moral truth that has been overlooked. It’s that truth, I think, that has made this maiden effort by Aaron Sorkin one of the most quoted speeches in Hollywood history. It’s the same truth that gives such emotional sizzle to the formula “thank you for your service,” and does so even when those words sound, as they often do, and not just to veterans, shallow, ignorant, and insufficient. The truth is that we depend on people far away over the horizon, doing and suffering unspeakable things so that we can live our more or less ordinary, more or less comfortable lives. We are the beneficiaries of their labors. And we know it.
This is clear enough where the subject is the uniformed men and women who are placed, as the saying goes, “in harm’s way.” As an Air Force pilot told journalist David Wood in 2014, “There are two kinds of people: those who serve, and those who expect to be served.” The thing is, this division of humanity doesn’t only apply to civilians thinking about what is done and suffered by soldiers. As the pilot’s words involuntarily suggest, it also applies to patrons being served in a restaurant–very likely by people who have also come from somewhere beyond the horizon. It applies to anyone who has a cup of coffee or checks her iPhone. We are also the beneficiaries of the people who cultivated the coffee beans and put the chips in the iPhone. Many of whom have to deal with as much harm and unpleasantness as the soldiers who serve the country overseas.
They too get their hands dirty. Perhaps dirtier. And again, we know it. The rash of suicides at Foxconn, where many of the chips are manufactured, became common knowledge in 2010, as did the installing of suicide nets to stop more workers from throwing themselves off the roof and further threats of mass suicide in 2016. Brazil, the world’s largest coffee producer, has been accused of exploiting its workers under conditions “analogous to slavery.” When we pronounce the innocent-sounding words “global economic inequality,” what we’re talking about is violence on the other side of the wall.
In spite of this knowledge, little is being done about global economic inequality. Why not? It’s not enough to say that poor foreigners don’t vote in American elections. They don’t but neither do many poor Americans. Where Americans feel responsible, they are often willing to take some sort of action. The problem is that most people don’t feel responsible–don’t feel personally responsible–for global economic inequality. And as Yascha Mounk argued in The Age of Responsibility: Luck, Choice and the Welfare State, published by Harvard last year, we have been told again and again that the only real responsibility is personal responsibility.
That’s why it’s good to remember “thank you for your service.”
Anyone who pronounces those words of heartfelt gratitude or resonates to them when they are pronounced by others is offering evidence that they do, after all, believe in collective responsibility. Collective responsibility: our responsibility as beneficiaries of the system to feel the weight of what is done on our behalf beyond the horizon and to make sure that those who do it are justly rewarded for it. If we are capable of feeling collectively responsible for the actions of the military, then we should be able to expand the geographical and social scale of our gratitude. Why should it not extend from those who serve not with arms, but by their work? Why should it not pass from Americans on the wall (whom you may still want to reserve the right to judge) to non-Americans in the fields, on the assembly lines, and sometimes trying to escape violence by passing over to our side of the wall? Deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you know you owe them, too, a debt.
Bruce Robbins is the author of The Beneficiary, which came out from Duke University Press in December 2017.