Hollywood has finally found its voice on the Iraq war by nominating
The Hurt Locker for nine Academy awards. This is an important step
for understanding the human cost of this conflict and healing the
wounds of this tragic war.
The Hurt Locker's producer-director, Kathryn Bigelow, said recently
that she "makes movies, not speeches." This is a wise approach in the
Iraq war case, since the battle lines about the need to go to war were
drawn long ago. She does not attempt to re-fight that battle, but
rather speaks to the broader audience about the experience of war and
its incredible human costs. In one sense, the movie can be seen as a
parable about American experiences in Iraq.
The movie takes the audience through one month in the life of an
explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team in the early stages of the
occupation of Iraq. An EOD team is a fitting symbol of the Iraq war
because of the extreme risks involved in both. , When we invaded
Iraq we unleashed forces we did not understand -- forces that the EOD
team members have to face and U.S. soldiers are grappling for the
right course of action.
The team's experience in the film is a microcosm of the American
experience in Iraq. They made up of warriors with varying degrees of
experience, but they are by no means typically heroic. They instead
represent all that is us...proud, competent, driven, and patriotic, yet
sometimes naïve, impetuous and reckless. In one scene, the main
character, Sergeant First Class James, solves one intense situation
only to find that he is facing a much deeper and more complex
threat--an apt metaphor for America's early experience in Iraq. There
is something to admire in Sergeant James, but the cigarette constantly
dangling from his mouth, the inability to relate to anything in his
life but conflict, and his rashness are all signs that he is a war
Indeed, the Hurt Locker does have a message of the impact on the
individuals involved. The movie opens with the quote "war is a drug"
from Chris Hedges book War is a Force That Gives US Meaning. Hedges
suggests that war seduces societies, a concept echoed in the writings
of retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich, who fears that America has
fallen in love with militarism. And certainly, some members of the
team are seduced by war, but the canvas of this film is much broader.
The film depicts the human cost of this conflict. We see the physical
cost on the team members, and we see the toll on their families. While
Iraq has largely fallen of the front page, the conflict continues and
100,000 US servicemembers remain in country. Because of the nature of
our all-volunteer military, most Americans are immune to the war's
real impact. In the Vietnam conflict, a whole generation of American
males were subject to the draft and more than 8 million men and women
served during the Vietnam Era. It was this commonality of experience
that made the opposition to the war so powerful.
Of course, now we have a professional fight force and embedded
journalists, so we turn away from what the war is doing to us as
individuals. While we honor our servicemembers, we rarely have to
look at the brutality of multiple deployments, of broken bodies and
spirits and families pushed to brink. The Hurt Locker believes it is
its mission to take you there. We see something of the Iraqi populace
too, and their portrayal is nuanced, for while there are insurgents,
the more common sense is that they are victims of the circumstances of
We like our heroes to be two-dimensional, and our military members
have in recent years been given the same treatment. We salute their
service, have a parade and close the door to the details. For five
years, news about Iraq occupied our national conscious. But it has
faded into the background, prematurely I think. The Hurt Locker
returns us to the point where we need to be -- examining the impact upon
those we ask to serve.
Paul Clarke is a retired Air Force officer, who worked as on the White
House staffs of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. In
2006, he deployed to support air operations over Iraq and Afghanistan.
He is a Senior Fellow with the Truman National Security Project. The
views expressed are his own.