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John Rambo


John Rambo & the possibility of an heroic Christianity

Jonathan Bowden said that within right-wing movements, and more generally right-wing thought itself, there is a split between those who favor a pagan ethic and those who favor a Christian ethic. In my view, this split is reflective of a deep schism in the Western soul itself, caused by nearly two thousand years of Christianity, which itself has always been split between its Jewish and Indo-European influences. It could also be seen as reflecting the eternal tension between compassion and power. Broadly speaking, those who favor a Christian ethic tend to be more concerned with morality, while pagans tend to emphasize strength. Christians deride the pagan approach as immoral and wicked (“What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul?”), while pagans criticize the Christian approach as inherently weak and ineffective.

In Traditionalist thought (by which I mean the school of thought associated with Rene Guenon, Julius Evola and others) this dynamic is reflected in the relationship between the sacerdotal and warrior castes. The relationship between priests and warriors — particularly in the kali yuga, the time of degeneration in which both castes have fallen away from their higher roles — is an explicit theme of Sylvester Stallone’s 2008 film Rambo, henceforth referred to as John Rambo to avoid confusion with earlier films. (John Rambo was the film’s original title when still in production, and is the title of the director’s cut available on DVD. I will mention a few differences between the two versions.) In this essay, I will explore several Traditionalist themes in the film.

The basic storyline of the film is as follows: Rambo, after the events of the first three films, is living a reclusive life in Thailand in the present day. A group of American Christian missionaries arrives, wishing to rent his boat to go into Burma to deliver food and medical supplies to the Karen tribespeople, a group of fellow Christians who are being persecuted and murdered by the Burmese military dictatorship. When the missionaries first arrive in Thailand, Michael, the ostensible leader of the group, approaches Rambo about renting his boat. He is obviously a self-righteous individual with a grandiose view of the importance of his actions, and his appeal for Rambo’s help is made in two equally insulting and ineffective ways: he extols the alleged virtue of his mission, implying that Rambo would be privileged to assist such a grand undertaking, but also, since he regards Rambo as his inferior, assumes that he will have little understanding of or sympathy with such motives, and so offers him money as compensation.

First, Michael explains that he and his church group want to bring food and medical supplies to the Karen people, and that their actions will “help change peoples’ lives.”

“Are you bringin’ in any weapons?” Rambo asks.

“Of course not,” Michael replies.

“Then you’re not changin’ anything.”

Michael, dismayed, responds that “It’s thinking like that that keeps the world the way it is.”

Rambo’s reply is terse: “Fuck the world.”

At the beginning of the story, Rambo is basically a nihilist and a pessimist, though also a realist, as many such people are. Michael, on the other hand, represents false religion, a kind of spirituality that is neither sacerdotal nor warrior, but mercantile; materialistic. He is a near-perfect illustration of the priestly type that Nietzsche castigates in Genealogy of Morals and The Antichrist. Though espousing ideals of peace, forgiveness and charity, he is quickly revealed as a petty man who looks down on others as being “less good” than himself. In actuality Rambo sees him for what he is: a naive moralizer who knows neither his true self nor what he is getting into by going into the “warzone” that is Burma.

Michael, as the leader of the missionaries, assumes that if he cannot persuade Rambo, no one can, and so suggests that the group move on. But Sarah, Michael’s fiancé, then makes an attempt. She displays feminine gentleness and so is not met with quite the same harshness that Michael was, but is nonetheless refused. But she is persistent. She tries again later, visiting Rambo in his blacksmith shop.

“You shouldn’t be in here,” he says to her. Sarah attempts to appeal to his conscience, but gets nowhere since Rambo is too hardened. “It’s not my business,” he says. It is only when she asks him a philosophical question that she starts to get his attention.

“Do you believe that people are put here to die for no reason? Or believe in giving time to anything other than yourself? I mean, do you believe in anything?” This is of course one of the questions of our time for Western man: Do you believe in anything? Since the collapse of Christianity during the last several hundred years, there hasn’t been anything big enough to fill the spiritual void — those who “believe in Science” show all too clearly what a poor substitute for God that is.

Rambo cannot answer, though the question has touched him. He can only say, “You really ought to go.” He knows that she has seen his weakness, his incompleteness, but there is nothing to be done about it.

Sarah, in contrast to Michael, represents a kind of genuine liberal spirituality; marked by naivete to be sure, but also motivated by real kindness and capable of real sacrifice. Rambo has an instinctive recognition of and respect for it, even though or perhaps because it is so different from his own way, his own path.

Later that night, she tries a third time. The dialogue that ensues is the most important in the film, and lays bare the philosophical issues being addressed. (The full dialogue only appears in the Director’s Cut.)

Rambo: “Why’d you come back?”

Sarah: “Waiting for you.”

“I told you before I can’t help you.”


“I don’t want to. Where are your friends?”

“At the hotel. I can take care of myself.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes. I know you don’t like us.”

“I never said that.”

“Well it looks that way. We need to go and help these people.”

“Who are you helping? Them, or you?”

“Does it matter?”

“Yeah it matters.”

Who are you helping — them, or you? Are you really some kind of altruist, or are you just another one of these puffed-up do-gooders out to inflate your own ego by showing the world, or even just yourself, how “spiritual” and “good” you are? (The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa called this tendency “spiritual materialism.” Curiously, one of the mercenaries in the film has a tattoo of Trungpa on his arm, which is shown briefly in close-up.)

“Them. There’s nothing missing in our lives back home. We’re here to make a difference. We believe all lives are special.”

“Some lives. Some, no.”

“Really? If everyone thought like you nothing would ever change.”

“Nothing does change.”

“Of course it does. Nothing stays the same.”

“Live your life, ‘cause you got a good one.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do.”

“No, you’re trying to change what is.”

“And what is?”

“That we’re like animals. It’s in the blood. It’s natural. Peace, that’s an accident. It’s what is. When you’re pushed, killing’s as easy as breathing. Then the killing stops in one place and starts in another, but that’s okay, ‘cause you’re killing for your country. But it ain’t your country who’s asking, it’s a few men up top who want Old men start it, young men fight it, nobody wins, everybody in the middle dies, and nobody tells the truth. God’s gonna make all that go away? (Pause.) Don’t waste your life. I did. Go home. Really, go home.”

Sarah begins to walk away, but then turns around.

“You care.”


“You care. Because if you didn’t, you would have taken us there, taken the money,

and be done with it. But you didn’t do that. Maybe you’ve lost your faith in people.

But you must still be faithful to something. Believe me, I’m scared. And I love my

life, and I don’t want to lose it. But trying to save a life isn’t wasting your life, is it?

Will you help us?”


Rambo’s feeling that he has wasted his life reflects the alienation of the warrior caste in the modern world, a world in which fighting for a just cause has become a luxury, and a rare one at that. The generation of men who fought in Vietnam are an especially poignant symbol of this alienation, since not only were they the pawns of “a few men up top” who pushed America into the war, but they also were largely denied the gratitude or even approval of their fellow citizens upon their return home.

In his book On Killing, Army psychologist Dave Grossman documents how welcoming parades and other such public ceremonies are crucially important for the psychological health of returning soldiers, since they function as a rite of passage back into civilian life and also provide validation for the morally questionable actions that the soldiers may have performed in the line of duty. Grossman notes that the experiences of returning Vietnam veterans stands in stark contrast to the experiences of those who fought in World War 2, the latter of whom were met by adoring crowds who hailed them as triumphant heroes, while the former were often met by protesters “spitting and calling me ‘baby-killer’ and all that crap,” to use Rambo’s words from First Blood.

Rambo’s worldview at this point is essentially that which is expressed in Longfellow’s excellent poem “The Challenge of Thor.”

Force rules the world still, Has ruled it, shall rule it, Meekness is weakness, Strength is triumphant Over the whole earth

This worldview is inegalitarian and hierarchical, but also nihilistic. It lacks a connection to the transcendent, a sense of the sacred. Sarah does have a sense of the sacred, but it is abstracted, bloodless, blind to the realities of this life. That, in a nutshell, is the degenerated conditions of the warrior and priest castes in the modern world.

Whereas liberalism in its religious and secular manifestations outright denies the animal nature of man, which is a perversion of traditional doctrines of man’s higher nature coexisting with his lower nature, there is a particular strain of atheistic or materialistic right-wing thought which holds that man is an animal and nothing else besides. This view is epitomized by the book Might Is Right, which was first popularized by Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. It seems to be the view espoused by Rambo here. But as we can see, even though this view affords him considerable prestige since he is a killer among killers, the top of the food chain, he is nonetheless spiritually impoverished.

To understand why, we can refer to the Indo-Aryan traditions of the Bhagavad Gita and the life story of Shakyamuni Buddha. Both stories are centered on Aryan warriors — Arjuna in the Gita and Prince Gautama the Buddha.

The Bhagavad Gita begins with Arjuna, the greatest warrior of his people, breaking down in agony at the realization that all of his fighting and killing is ultimately for naught. Indeed, he is about to enter into a battle in which he will have to fight members of his own clan, his own family, even his gurus. (It should be remembered that the traditional teacher-student relationship is considered sacred in a way that most modern people are incapable of understanding.) At this point of crisis, marked by the paralysis of pessimism and the inertia of despair, the god Krishna comes to teach him something of a higher view, a higher plane of being.

In the story of the Buddha, prince Gautama of the Shakya clan, a ksatriya warrior clan, is born into a life of the greatest privilege, not only in terms of material wealth but also physical and genetic endowment. He consistently bests all of his fellows in every competition of talent and strength; he is the quintessential alpha male. And yet the deep realities of life — its fundamental impermanence, its inevitable sickness, old age and death — reveal to him a deep spiritual lack, which none of his worldly victories and comforts can fill. And so he goes off in search of greater wisdom and transcendence, ultimately becoming the Buddha, the “awakened one.”

The character of Rambo has some parallels to both Arjuna and Gautama, not because he will ultimately become a sage but because he is a great warrior in a moment of spiritual crisis. He is a man of great power and could easily become a figure like Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, creating his own little kingdom with servants and slaves somewhere in the jungles of the third world. But he does not desire this; if anything, he seems to desire to do some kind of good in the world — he is repeatedly shown giving alms to monks — but is unable to see clearly what that could be, especially given who and what he is, because Christianity has never really known what to do with men like him.

Where the Christian tradition — to which the character of Rambo is aligned both because of his cultural and historical context and also because of the filmmaker’s religious background — has tended to deviate from the larger Indo-European religious tradition is in its long-standing unease with warrior virtues and ethics. Although at times a kind of reconciliation between the warrior and priest castes seems to have been reached, as with the knightly orders of the Middle Ages, the Christian tradition as a whole is nonetheless marked by a divide between warrior ideals and the ideals of sainthood which is greater than in most traditions. Dante’s Commedia awards places in heaven to some rather brutal Crusader knights, but the Church has always had an uneasy relationship with Dante, just as it has with his contemporary Meister Eckhart, neither of whose views are fully accepted as doctrinal.

Sheep Among Wolves

When the missionaries are being escorted into Burma by Rambo, we see something more of the character of Michael. When Sarah engages Rambo in conversation, Michael obviously feels threatened, and tells her to leave him alone, ostensibly to “give the man his space.” Michael, whose pseudo-spirituality is base and filled with petty resentment, senses at the animal level that Rambo is more virile than he, more powerful, and is doubtless worried about his fiancé talking to him.

Like the priests in Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, Michael uses his morality as a weapon to reproach the stronger man, to attempt to instill in him a sense of guilt and shame. While Rambo and the missionaries are traveling upriver into Burma, they encounter a group of Burmese pirates, who stop them at gunpoint and demand that they hand over Sarah in exchange for safe passage. Rambo assesses the situation in the heat of the moment, and with lightning-fast reflexes shoots and kills the four pirates. Michael, rather than being grateful to him for saving his life and the life of his fiancé, appears indignant and scolds him. “What did you do?! Who are you to decide?”

Rambo grabs him by the throat and throws the question back in his face. “Who are you? They would have raped her fifty times and killed all of you.” The turning back of the question on Michael — “Who are you?” — is significant, for as we see later, he does not know himself. In the final battle of the film, after the missionaries have been rescued and are fleeing from the Burmese military, Michael grabs a rock and uses it to bludgeon a soldier to death. In the expression on his face after the killing, we see his horror at this part of himself which was heretofore denied and repressed.

When they arrive in Burma after the encounter with the pirates, Michael tells Rambo, in his schoolmarmish voice, “I’m going to have to report this,” which in itself is disingenuous since he says “I have to” rather than “I will, I am going to,” as though it is not his choice, when in fact it is. But he is unable or unwilling to take responsibility for his actions, and does not understand a man like Rambo who can make and execute decisions, so he hides behind his moral code. “I know you think what you did was right,” he says, “but taking a life is never right.” Rambo has nothing to say to him.

Sarah then comes to say goodbye. She is confused and does not know what to say. She undoubtedly partly agrees with Michael, since they share the same religion. But she also must feel a sense of gratitude to Rambo, for it is she who would have suffered the worst fate of all of them, and it was she who convinced him to take them in the first place because she alone was able to reach him in some way. She gives him her necklace with a small cross on it, as a token of gratitude and also as a prayer for his troubled soul.

Afterwards, Rambo returns to the scene of the crime and douses the pirates’ ship and the dead bodies with gasoline and burns them. As he does this, scenes of the killings play back in his mind. He is conflicted about what he has done. Perhaps Michael’s reproach did affect him after all. He discards his trademark survival knife on the burning boat, disgusted with himself.

“Become Who You Are”

In a pivotal scene, Rambo dreams a flashback sequence which illustrates his existential dilemma. As scenes from the first three films flash against the backdrop of a thunderstorm, we hear Rambo fighting with himself. “What am I?” Then he yells out, “You made me this way!” Is he reproaching God? Colonel Trautman, his mentor? Himself?

Then we hear the voice of Colonel Trautman saying, “When are you going to come full circle, John? You’re always going to be tearing away at yourself until you come to terms with what you are.” These lines from Trautman are taken from Rambo III, which actually prefigures some of the themes of the fourth.

In the third film, Rambo is also living in Thailand, where he has presumably moved after the events in Vietnam in First Blood Part II. At the beginning of the film, Trautman arrives there to find Rambo engaged in a brutal stick-fighting match. He wins the fight, of course, and Trautman then sees Rambo give the money he has won to the Buddhist monks at a monastery where he is helping them build a stupa. (Likewise, at the beginning of John Rambo, we see his boat crew donating a fish they have caught to a boat of monks passing by.) When Trautman confronts Rambo about what he is doing, Rambo says that he likes this place (the monastery) and he likes these people (the monks) and he likes belonging to something. Trautman replies, “You do belong to something, but it’s not this, even if you wish that it was.”

Here Rambo symbolizes the spiritual turn to the East that many Westerners have made in the last hundred and especially the last fifty years. Buddhism, as a still-living tradition and furthermore as a tradition with Indo-European origins, has a lot of appeal for white people, some of which is unconscious. (Many people think of Buddhism as an Eastern tradition unrelated to themselves, and so their initial attraction is more due to xenophilia. But at a deeper level, I think they recognize something spiritually familiar.) Yet the adoption of Buddhism or other Eastern traditions by Westerners is fraught with problems, because of the state of spiritual, cultural and racial amnesia that many people are in. Like Rambo, they are attempting to “lose themselves” in something which is indeed genuinely beautiful and profound, but which is not theirs, and never will be unless and until they know their true selves. Colonel Trautman’s words should be addressed to Western man in general in the present day and age: You’re always going to be tearing away at yourself — with self-reproach, with guilt and its concomitant false humility — until you come to terms with what you are.

“And what is that?” Rambo asks him.

“A full-blooded combat soldier.” Trautman unhesitatingly replies. He then tells Rambo the story of a sculptor who was praised for his great work, but the sculptor denied that he had done anything; he merely removed the pieces that were covering what was there all along. The implication is that Rambo was born, not made. (Interestingly, this directly contradicts Trautman’s statement in the first film, in which he says, “God didn’t make Rambo — I did.”) He is a warrior because that is his biological and spiritual orientation, his vocation, not his “socially constructed role.” (Jonathan Bowden: “You’re born to be what you are.”)

Rambo’s flashback dream ends with Colonel Trautman calling his name. “John. John Rambo.” But as he awakes, he realizes that it is not Trautman in the dream who is calling his name, but a priest, Arthur Marsh, who has come to see him about the fate of the missionaries.

Colonel Trautman was almost a guru figure for Rambo, the man who initiated him into the ways of the warrior. But now the warrior has reached a later stage in life. Even great warriors like Rambo eventually become old men, and combat will no longer be suitable for them. In the Vedic tradition of ancient India, a man must first fulfill his worldly dharma, or vocation, and should then pursue spiritual practice after he has been successful in the world and has sired a family. This understanding was also present in ancient Japan, where aging samurai would often become Buddhist monks and spend the remainder of their life in meditation. Both Yamamoto Tsunetomo, the author of the Hagakure, and Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s greatest swordsman, followed this path.

Does the transition from the voice of Colonel Trautman to that of a priest signify a similar transition ahead for Rambo? Perhaps, but not yet in the events of this film, for the warrior still has a mission that he must fulfill, just as Arjuna must arise and fight in the Gita. (This essay was first written before the fifth Rambo film; I was disappointed that Stallone opted for “still a tough guy at 70” rather than having him become a Trautman figure for a younger warrior. But maybe there is still time …)

Pastor Marsh informs Rambo that the missionaries have been taken prisoner by the Burmese army, and that because the U.S. government cannot do anything about it, he has hired a group of mercenaries to go in and rescue them. He wants Rambo to take the mercenaries to the place where he dropped off Michael, Sarah and the others.

At this point there are two different scenes, from the theatrical version and the director’s cut. In the theatrical version, the next scene shows Rambo forging a knife for his mission (a contrast to his trademark survival knife from the first three films) while his internal monologue plays overhead. “You know what you are. War is in your blood. When you’re pushed, killing’s as easy as breathing.”

In the director’s cut, the internal monologue is absent, some of its words instead being used in the dialogue between Rambo and Sarah. In its place is a scene in which Rambo asks the priest to say a prayer before he embarks on his mission — “not for me, for them.” The prayer that is chosen is significant; it is the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,

grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;

to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive.

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

As we hear the voice of Pastor Marsh reciting this prayer, we see Rambo forging his weapon and preparing for battle. The juxtaposition of one of the most pacifistic prayers in the world and one of the most violent men in the world is striking, and raises the question, “How can a man of war be an instrument of the Lord’s peace?”

There isn’t a simple or easy answer to that question, at least not within Christianity. What Stallone seems to be reaching for in this film is a kind of Heroic Christianity, which incorporates the warrior ethos into the framework of Christian morality and spirituality, and which gives a more explicit recognition of warrior virtues. This basically boils down to a quadripartite view of humanity: There are the good-and-strong, the good-but-weak, the evil-but-weak, and the evil-and-strong. The evil-but-weak are of little consequence. The good-but-weak are good, and valuable as such, but need defending from the evil-and-strong, and that defense is the role of the good-and-strong. It is essentially the same worldview laid out by one of Grossman’s interviewees in On Killing, which divides men into sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. This was later dramatized to great effect in a scene in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper.

The notion that good and evil are real, objective forces which are in perpetual struggle, and that man’s role is to fight for and with good against evil, is an ancient Indo-European idea. Hans F.K. Gunther writes, “The Indo-Europeans … have to struggle continuously between on the one hand, the divine will, which strives to shape and introduce order into nations for the enhancement of every living thing, and between, on the other hand, a will hostile to God, which brings disintegration and distortion of form and the destruction of all seed on the other. …Mitgard, the universal order of life, preserves and renews itself only through the brave and the constant struggle of men and Gods against the powers hostile to the Divine order, against Utgard. Mitgard is the harmonious ordering of human honour and the divine laws.”

This view is fully present in Persian Zoroastrianism, and has always been a strong undercurrent in Christianity. It is the Christ who said that He came not to bring peace, but a sword; the Christ who returns in Revelations to lead the final battle against the forces of darkness, like the warrior-king Gesar in Tibetan traditions. When Jesus says that a man has no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends, that is a sentiment that most every combat soldier can relate to.

There are no shortage of doctrines and scriptural quotations that can be used to bolster the idea of Heroic Christianity. The problem is that for every one of them, there is another verse that is interpreted to mean the opposite, which the sickly priest always has on hand to shame the warrior for his strength and vocation. Although theologians and philosophers have offered up different interpretations of the famous injunctions to “resist not evil” and “turn the other cheek,” the common understanding of them remains pacifistic and opposed to any active fight against evil. What this has meant in practice, as Nietzsche showed so well, is that it favors a tendency to passively “fight,” to be passive-aggressive and underhanded rather than direct and confrontational — a rather perverted way to be “harmless as doves but wise as serpents.” The character of Michael is truly one of the great portrayals of this type.

According to Rene Guenon and the Traditionalist school, the warrior caste should be subservient to the priestly caste, and this ensures its connection to the divine. But what happens when the priestly caste degenerates and becomes full of weak, delusional men like Michael? This is the question which Nietzsche faced head on.

The Theology of Power

Christianity has long upheld the Good, the True and the Beautiful as attributes of God that are manifest in the world, by which He can be known. But it has had a much more ambivalent view of another of God’s attributes: Power. Whereas striving towards goodness and truth and beauty all have their proper place in the Christian path, striving towards power is usually seen as a satanic pursuit.

But here again, what appears to be a problem within Christianity actually has its roots in the larger Indo-European spiritual tradition. The grouping of the Good, the True and the Beautiful has its origins in ancient Greece, where men extolled the Kalos’kagathos — the beautiful and good. Later the notion of aletheia — truth — was added to this, presumably due to the influence of Platonism and its emphasis on the quest for truth. Gunther writes, “The might or power of which the Indo-Europeans had a presentiment, this unity of the deity was split up by thinkers in the realm of human experience into the trinity of ‘The Good, the True and the Beautiful’, but in such a way that these ideas or words remained close neighbors in Hellas. Here and there with the later Hellenic-Roman thinkers the true could easily be understood as the good and beautiful, aletheia could signify both intellectual truth as well as moral truth, and in the kalok’agathia the ideal of sifting and selection, of eugeneia or human disciplined choice bodily beauty and moral fitness, and virtue (arete) became linked with one another. Since Plato’s Banquet, Indo-European thinkers have recognized truth, beauty and virtue as life values which have pointed beyond the realm of experience to the divine, to the brahman, or the concept of Das Gott (neuter) – to a deity which through truth rendered the thinking man capable of knowledge.”

According to Gunther, then, Power is actually the unity of the Good, the True and the Beautiful in traditional Indo-European thought. Power that is divorced from these is therefore lacking or distorted, just as with any of these ideas or ideals separated from the others. The tripartite unity of Power manifests as Justice. Just or righteous action is good, true and beautiful, which is why we instinctively cheer when the bad guys get what is coming to them, just as we instinctively are repulsed by their brutality and cruelty — it is neither good nor beautiful. The action in John Rambo is a prime illustration of these principles: you need only contrast the feeling you have watching the Burmese soldiers torturing and killing the innocent vs. the feeling you have watching Rambo cut down those same soldiers. They got what was coming to them. It’s violent, and beautiful. Because it’s Good.

To some degree all action movies are based on this dynamic. We love watching the good guys win, and watching the bad guys get vanquished by good men who are stronger. What separates John Rambo is the explicit religious framework in the story. The vision of Heroic Christianity presented in the film is neither comprehensive nor complete — it’s an action film, not a summa theologica, meant to entertain more than to edify. But art often has a way of bypassing the intellect to get to the heart of things, and in its own way, this film presents these core issues of action and contemplation, violence and compassion, warriorship and spirituality.

This is as excerpt from a larger essay to be published in book form.

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