The Limitations Of The Killing Machine: A Review Of The Full Metal Jacket


In this paper, I question the morality and justification behind the system of war that firsts of all strips a person of his/her humanity and morality and then lays the responsibility for ethical and moral action on the same person even when he or she is behaving in the way that they were trained and conditioned to do: kill indiscriminately. I argue that for a soldier to act with any form of sensitivity is actually a a misnomer and a failure of the training that the soldiers have received which has the focus of creating ‘killing machines’ or ‘instruments for killing’ as Walzer calls it and while I don’t accept that the training is justified in anyway, I posit that the Realist expectation for the soldier to be as cruel and treacherous as possible is best served with the training. I concede that the realist perception of ‘everything is permissible’ in war is fairer to soldiers that have been conditioned, dehumanised and formed into a ‘killing machine’. I look at the soldier as a victim of war and introduce the importance of the training received to the behaviour of the soldier and his ability to meet the expectations place on him/her for independent and ethical action that is expected in the conduct of war from the point of view of Walzer and also from the point of view of realist War theory.

The soldier as a Victim of War

The soldier is a victim in different respects: the soldier has no choice in the matter of going to war or not; soldiers are the main combatants and casualties of war, they are dispensable and their lives can be wasted because they are available and their lives have been nationalised; even when fighting in defence of a common good, soldiers are forced to loose restraint and become just as cruel or even more than the aggressor. While I completely agree with these views, the movie, ‘The Full Metal Jacket’ introduces us to another dimension which none of the theorists have mentioned and which makes makes the soldier a victim of war through a training process that systematically, mentally and physically subjected to conditions that have the goal of making the soldier less human and more of a killing machine that is able to kill ruthlessly, while being subjected to moral expectations that are invalidated by the same training.

The Expectation of the Soldier in War

Michael Walzer identifies a just war as a war that is fought in response to aggression or a threat of aggression. He notes that it is always a crime to initiate a war. He distinguishes between the rules guiding the cause of war (Jus ad Bellum) and the rules guiding the conduct of law (Jus in Bello) (Walzer, 1977). This distinction is important because it highlights the soldiers’ importance becomes as the one who implements war. Even when a war is unjust, it can be conducted according to the rules of war and remain ethical. Walzer talks about the independence of the soldier in the conduct of war, although he recognises that the space for independent thinking is narrow because the soldier is under duress and must obey orders. He places responsibility on the soldier to act ‘responsibly’ and remain ‘sensitive’ to his/her own ethical standards. Realists, such as Clausewitz, on the other hand, argue that all is possible in war and there can be nothing too ruthless, treacherous or cruel in war, (Inter arma silent leges) which means that there is therefore no expectation on the soldier to exercise any form of morality in war. The soldier is in the war to kill anyone in any manner possible.

On the one hand, Walzer argues that a soldier or stateman who is unable to feel any agony is ‘morally ignorant and insensitive’ and therefore ‘has no business fighting or leading others in battle’ on the other hand, he does not recognise the effects on the military training portrayed in the movie “The full Metal Jacket” on the ability of soldiers for feel agony and be adequately morally sensitive to be able to engage in the kind of war that is expected of them. The military training portrayed in the movie appears designed purposely for creating ‘machines’ that can design and execute the kind of ruthless actions that realists expect from a soldier engaged in war. Such a mentality of cruelty and insensitivity is one that is generally acceptable because it is not normal to the larger part of society and people must be trained, conditioned and coerced into that state. Since the goal in this kind of war is to kill indiscriminately, Realists might therefore justify this kind of training as necessary to develop the necessary callousness required for the soldiers’ task. While I do not agree that war of any kind is justification enough for the systematic dismantling of the human mind, the careful erosion of humanity and moral conditioning that is carried out during the training, it is apparent that should a soldier be taken through such a training as this, there should be no further expectation of moral knowledge or sensitivity, nor should there be any responsibility laid on them for any acts of cruelty carried out in war. Indeed, a soldier who behaves ethically is a failure of the training and should be viewed as an exception.

The case of ‘United States v. Keenan’

The US military law agrees with Walzer in stating that soldiers should not obey unlawful orders. The penalties for obeying unlawful orders include criminal prosecution and stiff jail terms. Military courts believe also that soldiers are accountable for their actions whether they are obeying orders or not. 

A unique example is the case of ‘United States v. Keenan’, in which the “accused (Keenan) was found guilty of murder after he obeyed an order to shoot and kill an elderly Vietnamese citizen. The Court of Military Appeals held that 'the justification for acts done pursuant to orders does not exist if the order was of such a nature that a man of ordinary sense and understanding would know it to be illegal.' (Interestingly, the soldier who gave Keenan the order, Corporal Luczko, was acquitted by reason of insanity).” 

In my opinion, both men were guiltless (and insane) because they have been through the same trainings and war experiences and were both incapable of moral sensitivity and judgement and no longer had any ‘business fighting or leading others in battle’.


It is thus a contradiction to breed a killing machine and then expect it to be human. The system of dehumanising people and stripping them of any form of morality and consideration through a training is unjustified in anyway but the expectation that holds soldiers responsible to acting morally and ethically in the conduct of war is an added injustice on the soldier. The training will have to be different to justify placing responsibility for ethical behaviour on soldiers in the conduct of war.


  • Green, T. H. (1895). Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
  • Powers, R. (2019, September 30). What to Know About Obeying an Unlawful Military Order. Retrieved from The Balance Careers:
  • Walzer, M. (1977). Just and Unjust Wars. New York: Basic Books.   
16 December 2021
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