The Duck of Minerva

“Men” at “War”: Reflections on “The Hurt Locker”

12 September 2009

Tantalized by Eric Randolph’s glowing review, I watched The Hurt Locker this past week. I can see what Eric means by the film being almost in its own genre – a film about the everyday work of soldiering during an occupation, with no grand narrative about the rightness or wrongness of the war. But in my view, that is it’s own grand narrative: a study in what soldiering is becoming, and the implications for soldiers and for society.

So I viewed this film as an artifact of an emerging era in civil-military relations, an indicator of the kind of war stories we are currently telling ourselves as a society. How divergent is this film from earlier constructions? I noticed two things that were very interesting.

The first was a near-absolute absence of women in the film, other than the typical waiting-wife. Yet a significant number of those serving in Iraq are women. The NYTimes reported recently that this critical mass of female fighters “has changed the way the US military goes to war… reshaped life on bases across Iraq and Afghanistan… cultivated a new generation of women with a warrior’s ethos – and combat experience… and have done so without the disruption of unit coehsion that some feared would unfold.” Given those real-life changes, it’s interesting that this “new kind of war movie” would rely on such an age-old script about war being essentially men’s work, the role of women in a wartime economy to wait at home raising babies in frustration alone.

But with all the manly bodies dominating the screen, the second thing I noticed was the raw emotionality of the film. This was not a film about militarized maculinity per se but about individual men struggling with and against such an archetype and leaning on one another emotionally – to the point of a touch-feeliness we usually see reserved for chick flicks in the US. Is this frame is meant to invoke recent changes in military policy (for example, struggling with morale problems, suicides, domestic violence and divorce, the US Army is now requiring every soldier to take intensive training in emotional resiliency)? Or is it simply part of the director’s effort to recast military life and the coping skills required to survive it?

Either way, of the two trends – the integration of women into combat roles and the integration of attributes associated with the feminine into our concepts of warriorhood – I think the latter is much more significant in societal terms, and I was glad to see it reflected in the portrayals here.