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What We’re All Missing in the “Zero Dark Thirty” Debate

January 23, 2013

This is a guest post by Peter S. Henne. Peter is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University. He formerly worked as a national security consultant. His research focuses on terrorism and religious conflict; he has also written on the role of faith in US foreign policy. During 2012-2013 he is a fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia

I appreciated Jeffrey Stacey’s recent post on the debate over “Zero Dark Thirty.” It’s useful to point out what is being obscured by the criticism of the movie’s depiction of torture. But I think his piece missed a broader aspect of the movie, as well as director Katherine Bigelow’s other war, “The Hurt Locker” (which focuses on an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team in Iraq): what it reveals about the civilian-military divide in the United States.

Many critics have praised Bigelow’s work for its artistic value, and its significance for understanding the post-9/11 era. Much of this has to do with her filmmaking skills. But a good amount of praise focused on her ability to faithfully tell the story of contemporary military activities. In The Washington Post, Ann Hornaday exclaims that Bigelow demonstrates early in the film that “she will not turn away from the most unsavory aspects of the history she’s chronicling.” The New York TimesManohla Dargis discusses the movie as “a seamless weave of truth and drama.” Similarly, many praised “The Hurt Locker” for its “authenticity.”

At the same time, many critiques of these movies focus on their lack of authenticity. By now, we are all familiar with the attacks on “Zero Dark Thirty” for misrepresenting the role torture played in the hunt for bin Ladin. But similar attacks arose after “The Hurt Locker” came out. The film was full of inaccuracies in its depiction of EOD teams, resulting in the head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America calling it “disrespectful.”

Now, I realize the obvious response is: “it’s a movie.” That’s correct, but if the biggest selling point of a movie—or two—is their faithfulness to reality, and they get that wrong, then we’re all missing something, right? No one worries about inaccuracies in “Apocalypse Now” because of, well, Marlon Brando. But we should worry about inaccuracies in Bigelow’s war movies.

Why should we worry? The divided response to these movies reflects the broader civilian-military divide in the United States. But this isn’t a case of civilians attacking the military and the military—and its supporters—getting upset. This is a case of civilians claiming to understand the military, and the military getting upset because they don’t. (I realize the controversy in “Zero Dark Thirty” revolves around the CIA, but I think it represents the broader attempt to understand US warfighting)

Over a decade of global counter-terrorism activities has given foreign policy commentators an incentive to understand—or pretend to understand—the military and the broader defense community. This includes a welcome attention to the conditions of active-duty troops and returning veterans. But it doesn’t mask the very real divide between civilians and military in the United States; it can also result in substance-less flag-waving rather than respectful-and-informed debate about US national security. In a way, pretending to understand the military—through either grittily “realistic” films or dropping military lingo into our DC-area conversations—is worse than acknowledging the divide.

I say this as someone with a family member currently serving in the Army. Having a close family member in the military makes me appreciate what the men and women in the military sacrifice in their service, but also makes me realize how little I can understand about what they go through. I like to think that this allows me to comment on US military actions with a dose of healthy respect.

My concern about films like “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker” is that they might set back civilian-military relations by giving people a false understanding of the struggles of US troops and the mechanics of US national security. This can lead to over-assuredness among civilian commentators and critics of US national security policy, and frustration on the part of the military and military families.

That being said, I’m totally fine with stylized representations of war on film; I’m a fan of both “Apocalypse Now” and “The Longest Day.” So maybe the solution is just to let Bigelow’s films be films.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.