Duck of Minerva bloggers have already written quite a bit about “The Hurt Locker,” which won the Best Picture prize at this week’s Academy Awards ceremony. I saw the movie on DVD a few weeks ago and have been digesting some of the reactions to the film.
Like many critics of this film, Michael Kamber of the NY Times offers a list of serious errors in “The Hurt Locker.” Viewers see the bomb disposal team leave on missions without much other military support. The team members clear buildings by themselves, become skilled snipers and spotters when they stumble upon some British mercenaries, and operate alone in the desert for no apparent reason. He concludes that these are much more than minor technical mistakes:
The film is a collection of scenes that are completely implausible — wrong in almost every respect…it’s not just minor details that are wrong.
Perhaps most inexplicably and implausibly, Staff Sgt. William James, the lead character portrayed as a reckless showboat, has supposedly managed to disarm hundreds of bombs without killing himself! In one key scene, he runs around Baghdad alone at night without suffering injury. His unbelievable exploits are emphasized and reemphasized throughout the film.
So, why did I like “The Hurt Locker” and find it a viable candidate for the canon of IR-related films?
As I read the film, the story of Sgt. James is a metaphor for the story of post-cold war U.S. military intervention — primarily in Iraq, but elsewhere as well.
For James, the war in Iraq is a narcotic. He thrives on the adrenaline-inducing experience, even though he cannot talk to his wife on the telephone, nor really endure his ordinary post-war experience at home with wife and child. His bomb disposal techniques are so disturbing that his fellow team members talk of killing him. He returns to Iraq because his participation in that war has become an integral part of his identity. Sure, he’s been incredibly lucky in the past, but his personal image is embedded in his wartime experience.
As some critics point out, this film has been lauded because domestic audiences appreciate its apparent wartime “realism,” even though the storyline and characters seem completely unrealistic to experts who give them serious thought.
The U.S. too has a long and mostly successful military record — and it too has been incredibly lucky. Like James, the U.S. returned to Iraq after a successful first effort in 1990-91, though many of its friends decided to sit this war out — and some worked actively to try to stop it. Most IR experts found the rationale for U.S. participation in Iraq fairly implausible back in 2003, though I suppose the mass public supported a certain rationale at the time it was originally offered.
To its critics, the U.S. too is a reckless showboat, willing to take incredible risks with other peoples’ lives, even as it claims to be “saving” them. As Vikash has argued at the Duck, the film makes very little effort to explore the perspective of the Iraqis in the film. “The Hurt Locker” is a narrow portrayal of one small unit’s experiences with death and destruction.
This too could be read as an important element of the film. In political debates, Americans focus on U.S. forces, casualties, and experiences. Foreign policy experts debate the meaning of the Iraq war for preventive war doctrines, counterinsurgency tactics, present and future budgeting, etc. Few consider the implications for Iraqis and the wider Middle East.
At times, their technology and ability make the bomb disposal team members seem like Supermen, saviors of the world. However, the film makes no effort to argue that these super-human efforts are actually doing any greater good — or even improving the security of the United States. The film was set in 2004, which means that the U.S. had not yet officially given up on the search for WMDs, the Downing Street Memos had not been disclosed, the Samarra mosque had not been bombed, etc. “Shock and awe” had not prevailed, however, proving that America’s technological prowess didn’t lead to the type of victory many war proponents predicted in advance of the conflict.
In other words, the bad news was bad…but it got worse.
In sum, while the storyline of “The Hurt Locker” often seems detached from realistic war-time experience, that FUBAR narrative works pretty well to explain the actual U.S. experience in Iraq. The lead character’s addiction to war, recklessness, luck, inexplicable behavior, and need to “save the day” reflect an unsavory, but nonetheless viable, portrayal of American identity.