Entry from July 25, 2013

This summer I presented on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of six films on the general theme of Why We Fight: War Movies and War, Then and Now. The films were shown at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. The series concluded on Wednesday, July 25th with a screening of The Hurt Locker (2009) by Kathryn Bigelow, starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse and Evangeline Lilly. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about it as follows.

Those of you who were here last week may remember the line I picked out of Black Hawk Down as the expression of that movie’s ethos — which was also the answer to the question behind this whole series of war movies, namely Why We Fight. Eric Bana’s “Hoot” answers the question by saying that “it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.” This is another way of saying that “it” is “about” honor, which is the word people once used to describe what nowadays they usually prefer to call by some other, more technical-sounding name, such as “unit cohesion.” But just before this, “Hoot” had said, or implied, what “it” wasn’t “about.” When the people back at home wondered why he fought, they asked: “What are you? Some kind of war junkie?” We may speculate as to how many of the people back at home, actually did or do think this about those who do go to war and even seek out the experience. My guess is not many. But Mark Boal, the screen-writer, and Kathryn Bigelow, the director of tonight’s movie, The Hurt Locker, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2009, appear to be among those who do.

Nobody can say that The Hurt Locker doesn’t advertise its main idea — its only idea, really — up front. Movie epigraphs are just a tiny bit pretentious, I think, but The Hurt Locker, like Black Hawk Down, has one. It’s not by Plato or even pseudo-Plato (as Kelly Jane Torrance helpfully informed us last week’s was) but by Chris Hedges, a left-wing journalist and the author of a book called War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction,” writes Mr Hedges, “for war is a drug.” This is in the context of confessing, rather proudly, that he himself has been among the addicted. Interestingly, enough, the epigraph to the Introduction to Mr Hedges’s book, in which that quotation appears, is that same pseudo-Platonic bit of wisdom used by Black Hawk Down, to the effect that “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” But Mr Hedges uses it ironically, as the book is a pacifist tract through and through, and Chris Hedges himself later criticized The Hurt Locker — on al-Jazeera, no less — as Hollywood’s contribution to America’s deplorable “War Machine.”

Of course, he is not responsible for the use that was made of his words, but if The Hurt Locker is meant to be an example or an illustration of his proposition it’s hard to see quite how, since he believes that whole societies, whole countries, get high on the drug of war, yet it is only a very few who can even conceivably get high the way the hero of The Hurt Locker, Sgt William James (Jeremy Renner) does — that is by constantly and unnecessarily risking his life as the leader of an EOD, or Explosives Ordinance Disposal team in Iraq. But let us give the film its donnée and say war is a drug, whether for an individual or a country. The point is similar to the one made in Full Metal Jacket, which we saw here two weeks ago. There the lust to kill was portrayed as having a drug-like effect on people. The implication that the answer to the question of Why We Fight is psychological or physiological rather than moral is therefore common to both films.

Both also have in common an assumption of the irrelevance of the paramount consideration in most traditional answers to the question of Why We Fight, which is resentment of what an enemy has done or fear of what he might do to us. To the psychoanalysts among war theorists, the enemy is an irrelevance and a fabrication, a mere pretext for animal needs that lie far deeper in our unconscious. Without denying that such needs may indeed exist, however, we should still be mindful that more obvious causes of conflict are not thereby ruled out. When Calvin Coolidge was asked about a proposal for the forgiveness of British war debts after the First World War, he replied with typical economy of expression, “They hired the money” — to which Winston Churchill replied: “True, but not exhaustive.”To Mr Hedges’s apothegm we also must reply, True, but not exhaustive.

The trouble with the psycho-sexual approach to war of Full Metal Jacket or The Hurt Locker is that it only works as an account of war and warriors if you leave out of account the fact that wars are fought not just by individuals juiced up on hormones, whether testosterone or adrenalin — though they may have their place in it too — but by those specialized sorts of communities that we call armies, and that these armies require some means of moral cohesiveness that are not obviously chemical or biological in order to function properly. Traditionally, that function belonged to honor, and it was honor, as I have said, that was the subject of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. There was a lot of emotion in that movie, but we could also see at work in it the honorable impulse to suppress emotion that was particularly noticeable in In Which We Serve and They Were Expendable. Emotion individuates, and honor by its very nature stands against the expression of individual feeling in the interest of the collective, the honor group which must function as a unit and not a random collection of individuals.

I think that the point of focusing, as The Hurt Locker does, on a bomb disposal unit is that it allows you to make a war movie with basically only three characters — in this case, in addition to Sergeant James, his two colleagues Sergeant J.T. Sanborn, played by Anthony Mackie, and Owen Eldridge, played by Brian Geraghty. Every other part in the movie, including those played by such “name” actors as Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes and David Morse, is essentially a cameo. The movie really belongs to Mr Renner, which is why he was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor despite being almost unknown at the time — though he did star as the cannibal serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in the little seen and now forgotten Dahmer of 2002. That’s what brought him to the attention of Miss Bigelow. Narrowing the focus to this degree is a necessary preliminary to making the movie into an emotional and psychological rather than a military history. The title might seem to be a gesture in the direction of the traditional view, that men at war had to act like men, as that expression was traditionally understood, in suppressing their emotions, and especially those elicited by pain and death. But compared to those in In Which We Serve or They Were Expendable, the characters in The Hurt Locker do a pretty poor job of locking up their hurt.

On the plus side, we have here the psychology and depth of character that some people complained were lacking in our earlier movies. Sergeant James’s emotions and, to a lesser extent, those of Sanborn and Eldridge in reaction to them, are the movie’s real subject, and the filming is accordingly done with lots of closeups, screen-filling shots of men in a state of high tension and higher feeling. That, of course, is what the movies do best. They portray emotions expressed and explored in depth, because that’s what makes for the best pictures, the most compelling images at several times life size. Or that and explosions, of which The Hurt Locker also has plenty. It could therefore be said to go with the grain of the medium while movies like In Which We Serve or They Were Expendable, which are about the suppression of emotion in the service of what were once supposed to be higher principles such as patriotism or duty or honor go against it. Its movieish qualities helped The Hurt Locker to garner six Academy Awards — three times as many as the other five movies put together.

Though it was not hugely successful at the box office, it did better than any of the other movies set in or around the Iraq War — mainly, I think, because it was not, like them, overtly anti-war or anti-American. But in a way all movies are anti-war movies just because it is so much easier to show in pictures the bad and horrific effects of war than the good ones, assuming that there are any — as you will also see if you go to the exhibition called “War/Photography” now on at the Corcoran Gallery a few blocks from here. Indeed, for those whose knowledge of war comes mostly from pictures, and that must surely be most of us these days, there may be more than a doubt that war can ever have any good effects, which is one reason why there is a demand for psycho-sexual theorizing about why people nevertheless continue to engage in what is regarded as purely destructive behavior that can never lead to anything but the gratuitous sufferings of its victims.

Perhaps to limit its own demands on the audience for sympathy with suffering, The Hurt Locker is a war movie without any war. Or hardly any. Some snipers in the desert pick off three contractors and are picked off in their turn by our heroes. It’s more like a gunfight than a firefight. Then, one of the three is kidnaped by a couple of bad guys, and the other two engage in a brief pursuit. Otherwise, the bombs that they defuse or disarm appear as if from nowhere, rather like the ones in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. There, at least, the audience had an intimate acquaintance with the guy who is supposed to have planted the bombs, even if we had no idea how or why he did it — apparently on his own and without help and for no other reason than that he wanted to watch the world burn. In The Hurt Locker the bad guy or guys, whoever they may be, must be the same kind of evil genius, as we see in the climactic scene where an unwilling suicide bomber appears as if from nowhere with his suicide vest locked in place by a steel cage festooned with padlocks. It’s the sort of thing that might have appealed to the Joker.

All we know about this fiend is that, like comic book supervillains, he appears to delight in doing evil for its own sake. That may indeed be the way American soldiers in Iraq, living in fear of Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs, often saw the enemy, but in a war movie, as opposed to a superhero movie, we need a little more sense of who the enemy is and why he does what he does. In In Which We Serve and They Were Expendable the enemy was also almost entirely out of sight, but there the film-makers could take it for granted that both the characters in the movie and the audience knew who he was, what he was doing and why he was doing it. Here that’s not the case. To the psychological view of war and war-making, such things don’t matter anyway. Though the victims of Iraqi IEDs may have felt they were fighting shadowy characters with no other purpose than wreaking pointless destruction, the movie risks not being taken seriously if it simply takes the same view and so gives no attention to the reasons these men are in Iraq in the first place. That question is apparently as irrelevant to the characters as it is meant to be to us.

Brian Turner, the Iraq veteran who wrote the poem from which the title of The Hurt Locker was taken, later wrote about the movie that

there was something in the soundtrack. . . near the very end of the film, that evoked the Western. And when our main character. . . walks back into Iraq, back into the hurt locker of the war, away from the camera and toward the vanishing point on the horizon, I perceived echoes of Shane, the gunslinger hero who rides into the sunset, solo, wounded, into a place beyond the audience, beyond comprehension. The gunslinger and the horizon. Part of me thinks it reinforces the romantic ideal of the hero that’s been handed down to us in the storytelling vein for centuries now. It’s connected to the idea that there is glory in war, which I find more than troubling. On the other hand, if we see in that final scene a soldier walking back toward the bomb, to confront the addiction to adrenaline, or the fear, or the confusing and charged emotions that overtake humans in war — well, that’s intriguing.

In a way this is a shrewd insight, I think, but it doesn’t take account of the extent to which Shane, of 1953, like so many other pictures from the great days of the movie Western, is partly an elegy for what was regarded as a vanishing way of life on the frontier — and a way of life inseparable from its individualism. Shane himself, as portrayed by Alan Ladd, was a self-hating gunfighter who looked forward to the extinction of his kind with the coming of civilization to the West — though he is also fully alive to the pathos of being one of the last of that kind. By contrast, Sergeant James walking away from us down a lonely Iraqi road in his moon suit looks more like the warrior of the future than one of those now-vanished paladins of the old West.

All he shares with them is his solitariness. The Hurt Locker, like Black Hawk Down, alludes with some irony to the Army’s recruitment slogan of the 1990s, “Be all you can be,” but it doesn’t mention the slogan which succeeded it in 2001 and was therefore in use at the time this movie was set, which is 2004. You may remember it. “An Army of One.” That ludicrous oxymoron was discontinued after only five years, whereas “Be All You Can Be” had lasted for more than twenty. (The slogan now, by the way, is the comparatively understated “Army Strong.”) But the idea of an “Army of One” could hardly have been supposed by those who came up with it to have been of much use in inducing young fellows to join up without the background of the comic book superheroes whom so many of them had been raised on and who, in turn, owed something to the individualism of Shane and other movie gunfighters of the Old West. Debarred from tragedy by their immortality, these heroes all had to make do with the pathos of their loneliness.

That, I think, is what the film-makers are trying to get at with the key scene, near the end of the movie, where Sergeant James, briefly returned home to wife and child but feeling lonely there for the excitement of war, speaks ostensibly to his son — who isn’t old enough to understand a word he says — about a favorite toy:

You love playing with that. You love playing with all your stuffed animals. You love your Mommy, your Daddy. You love your pajamas. You love everything, don’t you? Yeah. But you know what, buddy? As you get older… some of the things you love might not seem so special anymore. Like your Jack-in-the-Box. Maybe you’ll realize it’s just a piece of tin and a stuffed animal. And the older you get, the fewer things you really love. And by the time you get to my age, maybe it’s only one or two things. With me, I think it’s one.

I don’t think any soldier ever said that, or anything like it, to his son, whether or not the latter was in any condition to understand what he said. But Mr Boal and Ms Bigelow have a thesis which they are by-God determined to demonstrate, namely that contention of Chris Hedges that “war is a drug.”

But is it, really? Immediately after that assertion in the Introduction to War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Mr Hedges continues by writing that the “drug” was

one I ingested for many years. It is peddled by mythmakers — historians, war-correspondents, filmmakers, novelists, and the state — all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty. It dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language, and infects everything around it, even humor, which becomes preoccupied with the grim perversities of smut and death. Fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our place on the planet are laid bare when we watch those around us sink to the lowest depths. War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the surface within all of us.

Once again, this is all true but not exhaustive. For war also exposes the capacity for good in us which, along with the excitement, exoticism and the rest is a quality it also often does possess. Why, then, the pejorative language? Why the “peddled” and the “corrupts” and the “mythmakers”? Does Mr Hedges perchance imagine that he is not in the myth-making business himself? Like Brian Turner, whom I mentioned a moment ago, he finds “the idea that there is glory in war” to be “more than troubling.” But if there were no glory in war the mythmakers would have nothing to work with (or against) and there would be no occasion either for his own polemic against them or for a movie like The Hurt Locker which purports to strip away the mythmakers’ illusion of honor and glory, only to end up perpetuating it.

To some extent, I think this is true of all six of the movies in this series and perhaps of every war movie ever made. It’s almost as if an attitude of hard-bitten, unflinching realism about war and warriors were itself an inescapable illusion of those who undertake to write about these things, or to make movies about them. Honor and glory, like nature, can be driven out with a pitchfork but will always come back. As in the case of The Hurt Locker, it tends to be the honor of those with a claim to be war’s victims, rather than its victors, which is why, as we have noticed from the beginning, the best war movies tend to be about defeats. But the inevitability of honor, and of honor in which the audience can share by belonging, however peripherally, to the same honor group as the heroes, must be why war movies continue to be made and watched, even when their makers imagine that they hate and deplore war. Hating war, like taking someone else’s side against your own country, may turn out to be not so easy as it sounds.

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