Thomas Wictor

Fear and discipline

Fear and discipline

One of my favorite films is Soldier, starring Kurt Russell. He plays Sergeant Todd, selected soon after birth to become a soldier. Set sometime in the future, the story is about how people can be trained to repress all emotions. Of course the training methods are absolutely brutal. The end result is soldiers who fight magnificently but are virtual robots.

At the age of forty-nine, Sergeant Todd is deemed obsolete, since the second generation of soldiers are genetically engineered. Todd undergoes a physical challenge that seemingly kills him; to cover up the needless waste of a veteran fighting man, his body is dumped on a waste-disposal planet. He isn’t actually dead, however, and the planet’s illegal inhabitants—survivors of a spaceship crash—rescue him and try to integrate him into their society.

The film is flawed: Todd and his men simply march into battle, oblivious of the need to take cover. Their guns are way too long, designed for looks rather than efficiency. And there’s a little emotional manipulation that didn’t have to be there. It wasn’t necessary.

Still, I love this movie. It’s Kurt Russell’s best performance. He has only a handful of lines, acting mostly with his eyes. It’s a spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime effort. He conveys nothing but pain and sadness held in check.

Todd doesn’t know anything about being a human. At a Christmas party, he can’t bear the happiness and excitement, so he flees into the ceiling to watch from afar. He’s constantly screwing up and misinterpreting due to his inability to understand or even feel emotions.

The great art in the film is that Russell somehow conveys deep yearning to be a part of something out of reach. I completely understand being in that position, since my early training taught me that emotions were weak, unclean, and dangerous. As an adult I was generally an onlooker, not a participant, because I didn’t know how to participate.

Of course I wasn’t trained the way Todd was; I wasn’t forced to watch animals being killed, and I wasn’t forced to kill other children. My training didn’t have a point. There was no goal in mind. It was simply the passing down of learned behavior. Traditions. As my father was fond of saying, “Because that’s the way it is.”

Since my parents died, I’ve read many of their private papers and discovered much about them that I didn’t know. They too were trained, and their parents were trained, and their parents’ parents were trained. It goes back centuries if not millennia. For the most part, there was no point to it. The training wasn’t intended to make us better anythings.

The training my mother received in the Catholic boarding school was supposed to make her a good girl who didn’t make trouble and did what she was told. The law of unintended consequences came into play eighty years later, and that early training compelled her to kill herself, even though she didn’t want to die.

My father’s training made him into someone who could not bear to even feel emotions. He spent most of his life with a blood alcohol content of 0.15, I estimate. When asked how he felt about things, he simply got up and left the room. Though he once told me that all his children were “afraid of life,” and that he himself had “put on his big ol’ stompin’ boots and went trampin’ through the forest,” the reality was that fear governed him to an extent I never knew while he was alive.

I learned that both my parents ignored life-threatening conditions for years. That information caused them fear, and fear was an emotion that couldn’t be felt.

In Soldier, Sandra (Connie Nielsen) asks Todd what he feels when he fights. At first he doesn’t answer. As she turns away, he blurts, “Fear.”

She looks back at him.

“Fear and discipline,” he says.

“Now?” she asks.


When she hugs him in commiseration for the terrible life he’s had, he begins trembling.

One of the greatest lines in cinema: “Fear and discipline.” I never knew how disciplined I was until I compared myself to so many others who share my history. My own discipline—and Tim’s discipline—took the form of continuing to live, convinced that there was something better. We had no idea what it could be, but we stopped the self-destructive behavior and stuck it out, despite the billions of temptations and opportunities to backslide.

That took discipline. But for me the fear didn’t go away until October 7, 2011, when I was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease.

I still have the discipline. Fearlessness and discipline are an amazingly productive combination. I won’t ever be like most people. There’s a scene at the end of Soldier that shows how impaired Todd is. He can come close, but he’ll never be normal.

Another reason I like the film is that it’s an unambiguous declaration that evil can only be defeated with superior force. When the refugee-city is under attack, Sandra asks Todd what he’s going to do.

“I’m going to kill them all, sir,” he says matter-of-factly. The emphasis on kill is pure genius. You have to hear Russell’s delivery to understand what I mean.

Ultimately Soldier is a deeply optimistic film, on both the micro and macro level. It celebrates the human spirit. The message is that as damaged as one is, some form of happiness can be achieved if you apply discipline to conquer your worst fears.

My own postscript is that it’s all right to feel fear. It’s all right to feel everything. Those chemicals in our brains were put there for a reason.

I recently gave an acquaintance a copy of Ghosts and Ballyhoo. After he read it, he said, “How can you live, knowing that you’re not with the person you were supposed to be with? Doesn’t that hurt?”

Yes. But we had our time together, and then it ended. Of course it hurts. I don’t mind. The pain reminds me of how important she was. If I no longer felt pain, it would mean she no longer meant anything to me.

“If I were you, I’d go to where she lives and get her,” he said.

Like she’s all packaged up, waiting for me? She isn’t waiting for me. That’s our reality. She has her own life. Our life together ended twenty years ago. It’s perfectly fine for me to feel sad about that. Feelings aren’t weak, unclean, or dangerous.

Not feeling is unnatural. It’ll kill us all, sir.

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