I Was A Swiss Navy Man

swiss army man

For the two years I was the sole American Naval officer at the Japanese Naval Academy in Eta Jima, Japan. I often likened my experience to movies. Even though, at the time, I was reading one to two books a week, movies were the first thing that came to mind. “Castaway” was the most obvious reference: one man, one island, one volleyball. No volleyball for me, though. Facebook was my mirror. Another? “The Martian.” The movie wasn’t released until after I left, but I really connected to Matt Damon’s time on Mars, no comment on the kinship to potatoes fertilized with human poo. And at a matinee at Namba Parks Cinema in Osaka, I teared up at the end of “Captain Phillips,” after Tom Hanks is rescued, but those weren’t as much physical displays of sadness as they were droplets of patriotism.

The most recent film that I thought would account for my time on Eta Jima is the movie “Swiss Army Man,” which I saw last Sunday night at the Arclight cinema in Bethesda, with a handful of other patrons who were game for a movie about Hank (Paul Dano), seemingly marooned on an island, and hopeless, until he meets the farting corpse of Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), who, through the course of the movie, begins to reanimate at the same rate that Hank finds the means and the inspiration to get himself home again. They save each other, though the reality of their rescue—and of anything in the movie, really, is in question throughout.


After my time in Japan, and after watching the trailer, I walked into the movie thinking it would be about one thing—before seeing it, I had written, in my head, part of a review I would write for movie. By the end of the movie, walking out of the theater, I didn’t know what to think. The movie is even weirder than I thought it would be, and if it does apply to my life, it doesn’t do so in the ways that I thought it would.

During my time in Eta Jima, I taught the class “Intro to the U.S. Navy” about fifty times. Up to ten sections at a time, up to three times a year. The syllabus I taught was the accumulated pass down from the Liaison officers before me. My efforts to overhaul the entire syllabus was subverted by lack of resources: no budget for books, no internet on campus, and my limited Japanese proficiency combined with the limited English proficiency of my Japanese students. I couldn’t connect to my students. I couldn’t connect to my co-workers. I began to feel a palpable sense of alienation.

My solution? Among other things, DVD’s. I burned Youtube videos onto rewritable discs and used the petty cash allocated for the English Conversation club to buy American movies with Japanese subtitles. We watched the American movies in English conversation club, and I showed the dozens of Youtube videos that I had burned to my students—submarines, planes, Navy SEALS, bombs and bombs. The videos helped to bridge the communication and cultural gap that existed between the Japanese and myself, which I realized, over time, would never go away.

I also showed the Midshipmen a Naval Academy promotional video called “To Lead and to Serve,” which was made in the mid-90’s and has been used ever since to convince impressionable youth to trade the comforts of a traditional college campus for the structure of the Naval Academy yard, which they will do, according to the video, through physical and academic rigor, building camaraderie, and at one point, while on summer training… launching a missile? Seriously. It happens.

Prior to going to Eta Jima, I was already sick of it—I had seen it upwards of a dozen times. I couldn’t stomach seeing it another fifty. When I did show it to my students, I would hit play, leave the classroom for the duration of the video, and return for the credits. The other reason I didn’t like the video was how false it rang, as a graduate, and with the knowledge that reality is not only more complex, but ultimately more fulfilling, than an eleven minute video can product, no matter how well done the editing, acting, and background synthesizer music. I wasn’t exactly a fan of the other videos I was showing my students, either, but they helped to break the monotony and helped to make the time go by.

to lead and to serve
90’s era Midshipmen and technology at work in “To Lead and to Serve”


The emotional plot, rather than the narrative one, is the most important arc of “Swiss Army Man.” By the end of the movie, it is not entirely clear whether Hank was actually marooned on an island, if he actually returned home, or if Manny, his corpse friend, actually came back to life. It “actually” doesn’t matter. Due to insecurity and self-loathing, Hank had, before coming to the “island” isolated himself from the people in his life. The most pressing relationship to him was the woman who rode the same bus as him, whom he idolized, but had never even talked to, a very one-sided, and rather creepy relationship that is ultimately addressed.


Whether Manny is “real,” or merely an extension of Hank’s subconscious, the relationship allows him to experience joy and a sense of self that he previously had not. And it allows him to confront the broken relationships in his life. At the end, his relationship to the woman on the bus is seen for what it is by other characters, and Hank achieves a moment of understanding with his father. Whether or not these realizations, and the entire movie, are a hallucination, a construct of Hank’s subconscious, or some kind of commentary on the nature of fictional narrative, are unclear (perhaps all three), and, ultimately, not important. The fact that Hank had these realizations, and the journey that he took to get there, are what made the movie.


So, will “Swiss Army Man” be added to the canon of pop culture that represents my time on Eta Jima? Probably not. Highly specific narratives have universal aspects an audience can relate to, so, too, can I to “Swiss Army Man.” I used movies, also a construct, to entertain and inform me while I was in Japan, just as Hank uses a constructs to inform himself. But, while I, like many, can relate to aspects of his alienation, I certainly can’t speak to the extent of that feeling specific to Hank.


While on Eta Jima, I was struggling to relate to the people I worked with, due to the language and cultural barriers specific to Japan. I spent a lot of time and energy thinking about the people I could relate to more, the people off the island, in Hiroshima, or in the United States, for example, who were, at that time, estranged from me. So it’s not accurate to say that there was nowhere I could go to find these people, but that there was one place I could go: home. America. And while it’s true that, upon returning to America, I was able to freely talk to people in English, and was closer to both my friends and family, I still had to operate in world of human interactions and the complexities inherent to them. I prefer it this way, it’s just tricky sometimes. That’s life.

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So while I certainly don’t like watching “To Lead and to Serve,” it’s also important to remember that the video is just that—a video. It represents what I thought of the Naval Academy before entering a Midshipmen, but certainly does not reflect my experience as a student or as a graduate. And watching the video doesn’t undermine my experience, even if I liked it, though I have seen it about thirty too many times. What’s important, and what was important to Hank, is the story we tell ourselves. As a writer, this is my job. As people, this is our responsibility. Life is not just an accumulation of facts, but a narrative that we construct and tell ourselves. It’s not just the people and places you interact with, but the thoughts and the stories that come from these interactions, which are as much a part of our reality as anything else, so it’s important to get them right.


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