Military

Three Kings (David O. Russell dir., 1999)

Hollywood films are replete with moralization. At best, even when a script points in precisely the right moral direction, these heavy-handed messages come off as tedious and clumsy—with Brad Pitt’s lecture in 12 Years a Slave, for example.

On the other hand, it’s rare to find a film take up a nuanced understanding of what I call “ethics” — not a declaration of shoulds and values, mind you, but rather an attunement to necessity, or what’s called-for and what’s most fitting in any particular circumstance. David O. Russell’s Three Kings is one such rarity.

We tend to think of “necessity” as a synonym for “fate” or “determinism” or simply those things that our bodies require to survive.

But Major Archie Gates had a somewhat different vision. “What’s the most important thing in life?,” asks Archie to his fellow soldiers. No, not respect, not love, not God’s will. “What is it, then?,” inquires Troy. “Necessity,” replies Archie. “As in?” “As in people do what is most necessary to them at any given moment.”

I don’t take this as a simple descriptive statement about human behavior or motivation (i.e., “people tend to act in accordance with what they perceive to be necessary”) or a prescriptive statement about how humans should act (i.e., “people ought to do what is most necessary to them at any given moment”). Instead, I take it to be more about the visceral, affective, existential compulsion to do a particular thing—and, crucially, having the self-awareness, the composure, and the guts to modify our otherwise-unthought impulses to attend to the circumstances that confront us.

For the Three Kings — a trio of American soldiers on a quest for riches in the Iraqi desert after the end of Desert Storm — necessity manifested as the compulsion to finish what had been started. This was a necessity that was not necessary to anyone. It just was, impersonally. It just was necessary for the Three Kings to usher the Iraqi refugees across the border into Iran—and, crucially, they were receptive to this necessity.

Receptiveness to the necessity that confronts us does not entail the acceptance of one-size-fits all norms of fairness, the maximization of collective pleasure, or divine edict—even if those norms go under the titles of “respect,” “love,” or “God’s will.” Indeed, it requires the rejection of such categories, at least insofar as they purport to serve as fundamental ordering principles for the world and for our conduct.

Why would we expect what’s called-for to remain constant across ever-fluid circumstances? Why would we expect ethics to be universal? Who sold us the lie that what’s required in one circumstance can be imported to any other circumstance, let alone to every circumstance? Indeed, when circumstances changed, it was incumbent upon the Three Kings to recognize it and adjust their practices accordingly:

— Whatever happened to necessity?
— It just changed!

To appropriately face the world—that is, to face it in a way that is adequate to confront it—we require nimbleness of thought more than rigor. We require an appreciation for the contingency on which necessity is grounded. And, above all, we require an openness to the difficult work of self-transformation.

What’s the most important thing in life? Necessity—the necessity that slaps us across the back of the head when we’re in stasis, and the necessity of responding in a manner befitting the circumstan.

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