The Oscar for Best Picture this year went to Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, and rightfully so. It was a great movie with a powerful message. But what was the message? Was it a pro-war one, as some critics claim, or an anti-war one as others declare? Neither. Regardless of its political slant, one thing remains clear: The Hurt Locker is about war — and war is awful.
The Hurt Locker follows a unit of Army specialists whose daily, often deadly mission is to defuse and dispose of "IEDs" (improvised explosive devices) placed by insurgents along roads, in cars, and inside the bodies of murdered children — and pretty much anywhere else imaginable. The group of specialists is led by Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner, also nominated for best actor). James' somewhat reckless, cowboy attitude is unnerving to his fellow soldiers, whose main concern is simply surviving each mission. Without getting into too many of the gory details (and scenes that will disturb and stay with the viewer), The Hurt Locker is a story about American soldiers who, in dealing with inhumanity every day, become satisfied with just making it through another one.
The characters in this film do not talk about "victory" or "winning" or the politics of the situation in which they find themselves. Indeed, given the everyday situations these soldiers experience, notions of victory seem almost laughable. The closest thing to political commentary occurs when an Iraqi taxi driver is manhandled by American soldiers; Renner's character remarks, "If he wasn't an insurgent, he sure the hell is now."
Former CIA terrorism expert Michael Scheuer recently criticized "Obama's brass" for "continuing to reassuringly chant the Bush-Clinton-Bush lie to Americans that Islamists attack us because of our way of life, not because of our interventionism." Though still hard for some Americans to comprehend, Scheuer's observation that U.S. foreign military intervention breeds Islamic terrorists would not be considered controversial, but fairly obvious, to the soldiers in this film.
The film's intention is to make us think about the Iraq war in realistic terms, and it accomplishes this as much as any Hollywood production possibly could. Writing for the Japan Times, film critic Giovanni Fazio explains the hopelessness of The Hurt Locker: "The whole question of 'why we should/shouldn't be in Iraq' is practically a moot point. American soldiers walk down devastated streets ... count the days until their tour is up, and view every Iraqi they see as a potential threat. Iraqis, glimpsed in windows and doorways, are just as wary of the Americans, viewing them with fear, curiosity, or hostile intent. The gulf between them is immense. All that neocon talk about 'flowers in the streets' and 'an Iraqi Marshall Plan' now seems like so much la-la faerie-land head-tripping. The only goal left seems to be — survive."
Indeed. It is not the soldier's job to ask questions. Soldiers simply do their duty, and hopefully, survive. Asking questions is our job. When leaving the theater after seeing this movie in July, my first question was "Was Iraq worth all that?"
Virtually everything we were told about our reasons for invading Iraq — Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11, Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to the US — turned out to be untrue. Though there is plenty of evidence to suggest the Bush administration had been less than forthright from the beginning, let's just say, for argument's sake, that the intelligence leading up to the Iraq war had been a succession of honest mistakes. Why do so many continue to still say the Iraq war was worth it? If this is true, then any war our government can possibly conceive of could be considered "worth it."
Americans too often tend to justify war for its own sake. As citizens we neglect our important role of questioning our government, and that neglect has translated into too many de facto endorsements of the reckless use of our military. It seems we would rather eternally send more soldiers into even more "hurt lockers" than confront and deal with gross government incompetence on foreign policy. If we cannot admit Iraq is a mistake, it's hard to imagine Americans admitting any war is a mistake.
Typically couched in a vague context of yellow ribbons, waving flags, and political rhetoric, questions of war become questions of patriotism in the most wrong-headed ways imaginable. If our government pushes for government healthcare or stimulus spending, there is no end to the questioning. But if our government decides to go to war, too many Americans assume that it is their patriotic "duty" to support those wars without question. This is obscene, as the only thing standing between a soldier and a bad government decision is the American public. With the invasion of Iraq, Americans did not "support the troops" — we needlessly abused them. The Hurt Locker is a movie about that abuse.
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