What The Hurt Locker Means for the Rest of Us

I tried to take off my DC defense wonk hat when I saw The Hurt Locker. I sat down in front of the TV determined to just enjoy the story about an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team at work in Iraq.

But I couldn't.

I know that this movie has been criticized by those who have served in the military. But beyond tactical accuracy and beyond its pure entertainment value, this film is significant. Its popularity is important. It is a story of change -- and its policy implications might determine our national security strategy for a generation. IEDs are our future, along with other forms of broadly distributed access to violence. Smart personnel working together are the solution. The question for the rest of us is whether or not our elected leaders will confront these sorts of threats with new ideas, new policies, and new spending priorities.

I once heard a lecture where a warrior was described as someone who goes away from the tribe, has a dramatic experience -- and then comes back to tell a story of change.

Thousands of Americans have been deployed to fight America's battles over the past twenty years. The end of the Cold War in 1991 was a seminal moment that went strangely unremarked in American domestic politics and policymaking. Indeed, we still fund a national security strategy that is better prepared to take on Napoleon than Bin Laden. Yet our military -- and our non-uniformed public servants -- have been out there in the world rehearsing lessons for the rest of the us this entire time.

How will we hear their story? This question is vital. Our president continually puts forward a soaring vision -- where the US has a new and different presence in the world. It should follow that today's security policies must move beyond the belief in threat containment and toward actions that bring us credible influence. Many who serve can corroborate this vision with their own personal experiences. Check out any number of military blogs. Our uniformed personnel are helping organize entire communities around peaceful activities. They know that, in today's battles, the more people you kill, the faster you lose. Today power is less about dominance and more about the ability to influence change.

How do we translate this into a new national security strategy? Our Marines are building resilient communities -- this is the same principle needed for all kinds of modern threats, from Afghanistan to climate change to economic calamity: at the end of the day, these problems can't be solved by people in uniform. And our priorities are insane. We still spend upwards of $20 billion a year maintaining a nuclear weapons complex. Nuclear weapons were built for an era when we were all planning to die together. It was a doctrine called Mutual Assured Destruction. Now that even the military agrees that we're all planning to live together, shouldn't we change our priorities?

Last fall, I attended the Army's big annual Expo. It was a beauty pageant for the defense industry. I walked the aisles looking for items that related to today's people-centered security needs. Amidst the tonnage of weapons systems, laser beam demos and dancing ladies in dirndls bearing pretzels (Oktoberfest), I found one vendor in a far-away corner selling IED detection devices. And it was a non-American company.

While I watched The Hurt Locker, I kept thinking of that Expo hall. The 2011 defense budget is now above 700 billion dollars. While I support a strong military, I have a nagging feeling that this onslaught of dollars just puts off our day of reckoning. We're still not making the hard choices that will shift our strategy away from coercion and toward persuasion, away from punishment and toward participation, away from containment and toward credibility. Putting the vast majority of the nation's discretionary dollars in the defense budget is not going to get us there. That's for sure.

Like in the movie, ideologically crazed or murderously pissed off people use whatever they can to wreak vengeance: car radios, cell phones, children. They will also put explosives in their pants on a flight to Detroit. These kinds of threats, ultimately, can't be contained by military might or machines. Like our protagonists James, Sanborn, and Eldridge, threats must be defeated by individuals relying on lessons learned, on patience and creative problem solving. How does this translate to a national strategy? Well, for starters we'll require far more subtle and persuasive ways to engage, prevent and build community. These are the stories our warriors can tell us. Hundreds and thousands of them.