Back in the early days of the US occupation of Iraq, I recall a leftie friend blazing away with extreme anti-American rhetoric: “It’s the Yanks who are the terrorists…Bush is the dictator, not Saddam…blah blah…”
Well, although I agreed to an extent, the extremity of statements like these, the sheer lack of balance in lashing one side while ignoring the dark deeds of the other, irks me. Raves like this tap into what I hate about politics, and in particular, political idealism: otherwise tolerant and rational people become raging bigots, hypocrites, selective misanthropes, and worst of all, utterly righteous in their views and dismissive – personally damning, even – of those whose perspectives may differ from theirs. There is no hope of meaningful discourse with such people, no potential for learning.
As Madame Leftie raved on, I maintained a bland facade, containing the head of steam that was beginning to build – that is, until her declaration that “these American soldiers are nothing less than murderers and war criminals.”
Not long into the American occupation of Iraq, around the time it became clear that the battle might have been won but that the war was far from over, and that it would be a dirty, prolonged guerrilla war, I found my imaginative focus settling on the Allied soldiers. I felt as much sympathy for them as for the Iraqi civilians, and thus was outraged by my leftie friend’s blanket indictment. I let fly. Expurgated (mostly) of expletives and reduced to a summarised form more eloquent than the original, the gist of my outburst was as follows…
Who are these guys, these ‘murderers and war criminals’? Mostly just kids, young Americans from poor backgrounds, many black, who enlisted not out of patriotic zeal or some psychopathic urge to shoot up Iraqis, but in the hope of bettering themselves, of gaining access to education, skills and qualifications financed by the military that they would otherwise have been denied. How many expected to find themselves dumped into the middle of yet another American fuckup on foreign soil, fighting not just an underground resistance movement comprising multiple disparate terrorist groups, but the unrelenting gut-wrenching anxiety of living in hellish heat and physical discomfort under imminent threat of annihilation from a sniper’s bullet, a concealed bomb, a suicide attack?
I mean, FUCK – here was this leftie who prides herself on sticking up for the workers of the world, who identifies as anti-capitalist, humanist, etc etc, and she’s labelling poor working folk who have taken an opportunity to climb a few rungs up the ladder, and hopefully out of their rut of impoverishment, “murderers and war criminals”?!
Yes, it was personal for me. I was offended. Curious. I wonder if I might have been a soldier in an earlier life cut short on the battlefield. I had recurrent war nightmares as a kid in detail inexplicably graphic. Still do occasionally. I fancy I carry within me some remnant of recognition of what it is to be at war. I know on intimate terms some terror that visits me in these nightmares, and that draws me with a morbid fascination to the plights of soldiers in real-world conflicts. But do I really have a clue about the experience of the soldier? Do I have any inkling of what it is like for the troops in Iraq?
Almost certainly not. Yet, my imagined terror is real enough to me – more real than that most war movies are able to conjure up. But The Hurt Locker? Christ, this is something else – like being parachuted into the midst of the Iraq madness. Is it an authentic depiction of the experience of the American soldier in Iraq? Well, how can anyone who has not been there answer that? I can only report that the sense of being there is unsettlingly real.
The Hurt Locker concerns itself not at all with questions about the morality of the American occupation – and neither should it. Life for the soldier at war is an ongoing struggle for survival, outside politics, and located in a grey zone of warped morality that most of us, thankfully, will never experience or properly understand. Perhaps the closest we can get is through realist art, and as far as I’m concerned, this movie is realist art of the highest order.
Regular readers will be aware that I shy away from presenting synopses of the movies I review, and I feel less inclined than ever to bother about it here because the story is almost incidental. The main game is to stick our noses in the experience of the American soldier in Iraq, specifically the bomb disposal specialists, and hold us there in the stench and the dust and the horror so that we might glimpse an understanding of the paranoia, the fear, the paradoxical adrenalin-fuelled exhilaration and triumph, the camaraderie and the frustration of intimate co-existence with people you would not choose to be with in civilian life, the precious little moments when delicate shoots of humanity peep through the rubble and the heart-breaking obliteration of hope when those shoots are smudged by acts of wanton torture and brutality, the isolation from home and loved ones, the disappointment and unbearable blandness of life back home at the end of the countdown of days that accompanies every soldier’s tour of duty…and the awakening of the perverse sense of vitality that comes like a heroin rush to the adrenalin-addicted bomb defuser on return to the war zone.
The cinematography is brilliant, acting performances are faultless (Jeremy Renner is a standout), and the direction by Kathryn Bigelow is inspired. It is stunning to me that a female director should turn out a war movie of this calibre – it is, after all, a male world in extremis that she is dealing with. (There’s a good interview with Bigelow here.)
Look, I don’t see much point in seeking to analyse further why The Hurt Locker succeeds as it does. I think it is an important film, I think it’s important that you see it, and that’s what I want to say in this post. If a vicarious experience of the Iraq occupation as profound as this doesn’t infuse a bit of humanity into ranters in the throes of political polarisation disease, nothing will.
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