Stop-Loss is Hollywood's latest attempt to define the Iraq War and the American troops who have fought in it. And is it the latest to fail.
I'm not a film critic, so I'll skip over the weak script, melodramatic music, and atrocious "southern" accents. But I feel an obligation as a veteran, and especially as the head of the largest Iraq and Afghanistan veterans group in America, to comment on films that attempt to define our experiences. Iraq and Afghanistan vets must serve as pop culture watchdogs, and help the American public understand what is an accurate portrayal of the Iraq experience... and what is not.
First of all, the movie contains some inaccuracies any vet could have spotted. For instance, in one scene, a wounded enlisted soldier repeatedly calls his enlisted squad leader (a Staff Sergeant) "sir." "Sir" is a title for officers. Calling a two-tour staff sergeant "sir" would probably bring on a response familiar to anyone who has served in the Army: "Don't call me Sir. I work for a living." It may seem like a minor critique, but it is one of the many little things that erode Stop-Loss's authenticity.
But what really bothers me about Stop-Loss is the stereotyping of combat veterans. When they aren't pro-war, beer-swigging, handgun-toting, Toby Keith-singing super-patriots with flags tattooed on their arms, troops in Stop-Loss are driving drunk, getting in fistfights and hitting their wives. This "Rambo" stereotype is sure to scare the hell out of most Americans -- and definitely my neighbors. Many veterans already feel isolated when they come home from combat. Films like Stop-Loss will only ostracize them further.
Some may argue that on balance, the film is good because it shows that America is in a war that impacts real men and women. Psychological injuries and stop-loss are very real issues. At least one in three Iraq veterans, or about half a million people, will face a serious mental health injury, and over 70,000 service members have been affected by a shortsighted and unfair "stop-loss" policy that keeps troops in the military after their contracts are up. But Hollywood and the media must find a balanced way to address these issues with sensitivity and understanding, not cheap generalizations and made-for-TV sensationalism. And if it takes Stop-Loss to open your eyes to the effects of the war, then you have been sleeping for way too long, and should go back to watching My Super Sweet 16 on MTV.
Maybe HBO's Generation Kill or Matt Damon's The Green Zone will be the first feature film to hit the mark. We'll have to wait and see. In the meantime, if you want to understand the struggle of combat veterans, I suggest you check out a great documentary: The War Tapes. It's the true story of a National Guard unit serving in Iraq, filmed by the troops themselves. These troops tell their own stories, and it makes for compelling watching. But when it comes to Hollywood, Iraq veterans are still waiting to have their stories properly told.