Get Your War On
I went to see The Hurt Locker the other day. It is an extremely tense and effective drama and I recommend going to see it. However, I am slightly concerned by the increasing suggestion that by stripping her film of context Kathryn Bigelow has done something new, radical and worthy. This is exemplified by this very odd piece by David Cox.
Before I get into the meat of why the piece is odd, I really must take issue with his ludicrously ahistorical opening line: “Before cinema, war was something most people only heard about.” Really? I’m pretty sure that for most of human history war was something that the majority of people experienced intimately. Even if what he actually means is combat it still de-emphasises the prevalence of warfare. He then goes on to say that “Losers kept silent. Returning heroes boasted of their glorious exploits.” which betrays a startling preference for glib fantasy over the complexities of the real world for a documentary film maker.
Anyway, back to The Hurt Locker. Not only is his reading of history unpersuasive, his reading of the text is equally unlikely:
Director Kathryn Bigelow has resurrected the ideal of the chivalrous warrior and burnished it further. Her choice of bomb-disposal experts as protagonists keeps them well away from cowardice, cruelty or prisoner abuse, and their demeanour suggests that they’d find such things unthinkable. Their interpersonal dynamics (responsible level-head versus dare-devil maverick) hark back to the conventions of mid-century screen heroics. These are unequivocally good, brave and inspiring men.
I would agree that the interpersonal dynamics are deliberately conventional but that is about all I would agree with in this paragraph. It is true that the protagonists roles as specialists insulates them (and us) from the day to day work of the infantry but does not completely insulate them from these realities. In particular, fear and cowardice are one of the key themes of the film, contrasting the fearless recklessness of Staff Sergeant James (the bomb-disposal expert) with the more normal limits of endurance of the other two men in his team. I am at a loss as to how someone could emerge from the cinema believing not just that these are “good, brave and inspiring men” but unequivocably so.
Putting aside whether these characters embody chivalry – and it seems to me there is a much clear line from a film like this to Jarhead than Cox admits – there is still the issue of whether Bigelow has resurrected this ideal. I am not at all convinced that cinema has been lacking in warrior heroes. Nor is it a belief that is lacking in society. It is extremely common for opponents of the war in Iraq (particularly in America) to nonetheless emphasise that they support the troops. Partly this is a self-defence mechanism to protect them from the slurs of the pro-war lobby but partly this is a genuine wish to separate individual actions from wider political and moral context. Bigelow is following this opinion, not creating it.
Here is a portrait of warfare that finds no room for bloodlust, atrocity, token female combatants, survivor guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder or glum philosophising.
Again, what film did he watch? Towards the end of the film James leads his team on a bloodlust-fuelled revenge mission which results in the most junior member of his team being shot. Following his evacuation and the detonation of a suicide bomber, the third member of the team has a complete breakdown. Although it is de-emphasised The Hurt Locker also features its share of atrocity and philosophising. Oh, and “token female combatants“? 220,000 women have served with the US in Iraq.
Bigelow has mythologised the nobility of soldiering even in a dubious cause. Her film will colour efforts to muster support for an adventure in Afghanistan that some consider hardly more justifiable than the war against Saddam. It could help ensure that a future Congo or Rwanda catastrophe attracts the intervention from outside that bitter memories of the Iraq imbroglio might otherwise have denied it.
Cox doubles down with his conclusion whilst still allowing himself some lazy equivocation. The Hurt Locker might bolster support for unpopular existing wars. That would be bad. The Hurt Locker might bolster support for new and not yet unpopular wars. That would be good. Wow! Bigelow is certainly mythologising soldiering but this process has continued throughout the history of cinema and The Hurt Locker is no different from any of the other films Cox mentions in this respect. Even if this mythologising was new, the level of power and influence he ascribes to Bigelow’s film is simply laughable.