Paths of Glory (1957), directed by Stanley Kubrick

paths of glory posterAs a school principal for many years, I have often tried to mediate between the needs of teachers in the classroom with the needs of regional educational administrators. There is a clear difference between the perspectives of teachers who want the freedom to teach what they want and administrators who promote adherence to a specific literary curriculum. The latter group is often preoccupied with students attaining high scores on examinations, which implicitly give their districts better reputations in the family of academic institutions.

This difference in perspectives between those on the ground and those in the strategic planning rooms is evident in Paths of Glory, a classic war film that depicts that different ways soldiers and commanders view the same situation.

It is World War I and the French and Germans are engaged in fierce battle. General Broulard informs General Mireau, his subordinate, that a major offensive is planned and that Mireau’s division is to seize a very well-defended German position known as the “anthill.” The likelihood of success is very small, but Mireau agrees to the assault when Broulard hints at a possible promotion for him if he accepts the mission. It is clear that Mireau values his own future more than that of his troops.

Insensitive to the genuine emotions of the soldiers in the theatre of war, Mireau inspects his troops and scolds them whenever they reveal any hesitation about combat. Instead of inspiring and encouraging them, he verbally abuses them when they show any fear at all.

In contrast to Mireau is Colonel Dax, the commander of the 701st Regiment, who will lead the men into battle. When informed about the planned attack on the anthill, Dax is unenthusiastic, knowing it is a fool’s errand. When Mireau threatens to relieve him of his command, Dax reluctantly agrees to go forward with the mission, not wanting to abandon his soldiers at a critical time.

Predictably, the attack is a disaster and many French soldiers fall. When Mireau learns that some of the soldiers are still in the trenches, he orders his own artillery to fire upon them to get them to move from protected spaces.

The next day, Mireau accuses his own men of cowardice and, together with other officers, recommends executing three random men before a firing squad as an example. Dax vociferously objects and, because of his civilian expertise as a lawyer, offers to serve as the attorney for the accused men, whose lives hang in the balance.

In stark contrast to Mireau is the Biblical image of military leadership. In the Bible, the general, the one in charge, is seen as role model for all, who both protects and inspires his men. Abraham does not delegate the battle to others; he wages war himself when necessary. So too does King David. The general does not place his soldiers at unnecessary risk, certainly not to advance his own reputation at the expense of endangering his own men.

As I write this review, Israel is engaged in a war in Gaza. A neighbor of mine recently traveled south to visit the troops and to give them moral support. He told me that while there he saw a general giving encouragement to his soldiers, relating to them as a father to a son, full of compassion and concern for his children. I thought of this symbiotic relationship between commander and soldier as I watched Paths of Glory. It is a model of good relationships between officers and soldiers, of leaders who do not promote themselves to the detriment of those they lead.

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