Nothing yet has made so crystal clear to me exactly how much I do NOT understand about what is going on in Iraq than this year's Oscar-nominated film The Hurt Locker. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who has been endlessly (and a little annoyingly) praised for her skill at capturing the hyper-masculine emotional intensity and complexity of American soldiers in Iraq, The Hurt Locker follows a three-man U.S. Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team for about 40 days in the early post-invasion period of 2004. The film opens with a quote from New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges' 2002 book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, in which Hedges writes:
The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.
What we come to see is that the drug of war, like all drugs, seduces some more than others, pleasures and sustains some more than others, but ultimately lays its claim to the destroyed lives of all with equal viciousness. The leader of the film's EOD team William James (played by Jeremy Renner) is a true junkie, reckless and brash, who appears unable to approach life in any way other than the way he approaches explosive devices. Where no immanent explosion is present, he manufactures danger. Where danger is already, he intensifies it. And so, the mise en scène of the film is one of constant and relentlessly ominous anticipation, much like walking through a minefield. Or rather, in this case, exactly like walking through a minefield.
Not all of the hidden mines are mechanical, though. Some are political (as the soldiers constantly try to negotiate the seemingly indistinguishable categories of "friend" and "enemy" with their Iraqi hosts), some are personal (as they work to establish and maintain meaningful relationships with each other over and against the Army's hyper-masculine, aggressive, antagonistic environment), some are psychological or emotional (as they are forced to age beyond their years, to reconcile the death and chaos they are cultivating with the order they are charged with creating), but all of the hidden explosions are similarly unmarked, anticipatable but unanticipated, devastating. Unlike the cinematic renderings of either WWI or WWII, we don't see the indiscriminate, desultory, gory violence that was so sweeping that it paralyzed soldiers with shell-shock. And unlike the renderings of Vietnam and Korea, we aren't permitted to filter the madness of war through a soldier's haze of drugs and disillusionment, such that it already possesses a metaphorical, meta-critical sense. Rather, the war in Iraq is figured as a new war, a war-that's-not-a-war. It's technologically advanced and precise, allowing soldiers a robot's-length measure of remove from direct contact, while at the same time being random and improvised and always-much-closer to danger than can be measured. (At one point in the film, one of the soldiers almost longingly remarks: "It's a good thing the Army has all of these tanks parked on the side of the road, just in case the Russians show up and we have to engage in a good old-fashioned tank war.") And the combatants, on "our" side at least, are familiarly jaded and disillusioned, but they're professionals, who still believe in their job, their calling and their cause, even if they also think that the men making decisions back home have no idea what they're doing.
I've mentioned before on this blog my worry about how unprepared we in the professorate are for the return of young Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers to our classrooms. My generation knows nothing, first-hand, of war, situated in age as we are between the debacle of Vietnam and the current War on Terrorism. We have, of course, been engaged in the policy critiques, the political analysis, the assessment of strategic and tactical ambiguities and aporias-- but very little of that addresses (or, importantly, condemns) the soldiers on the ground who have been executing these wars. The professorial generation ahead of me knows nothing of this war, either, I fear. Neither of the World Wars, nor Korea, nor Vietnam are adequate analogues. The Hurt Locker is a glimpse into a world entirely foreign to me and of which I find it almost impossible to make sense. Yet, the time is coming, sooner than we imagine, to make some sense of it, and I worry that we will find the pre-fab frameworks we have at our disposal wanting.
This war, like all wars, is also a drug... and it will send back addicts who need our compassion and care, who will need to be weaned from both its seductive and its deleterious effects. Yet, we should be prepared to reckon with the reality that non-addicts do not understand the rip-tide pull of real addiction, because they have never surrendered to its grip. What The Hurt Locker demonstrates so provocatively is the manner in which the drug of this particular war has re-structured the soldiers' pleasure systems and interfered with their ability to percieve pain, a re-structuring and interference process that affects the minds of all addicts and for which there is no single, simple antidote. There's an old Italian proverb that says: when the game is over, the king and the pawn go in the same box. But everything about the soldier's life, and everything we celebrate and admire about soldiers, goes against that. The challenge will be figuring out how to diminish the value of the soldier's death, without diminishing the value of "the soldier's life."