Monday, March 01, 2010

War Is A Drug

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."


Chet said...

You seem to think that we need to somehow be prepared for those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and in a certain sense, our ignorance is a liability. Yet I think that in fact the acknowledgement of that ignorance is actually especially valuable, as those returning will primarily need, I suspect, people to listen. Perhaps, precisely because of our dearth of analogous experiences we will be in a unique position to learn as other generations were not.

Lorenzo said...

This film seems to be inspiring fine and thoughtful posts: another one is here.

DOCTOR J said...

@Chet: I agree with you... as long as we acknowledge that our ignorance is, in fact, ignorance. What I worry is that we will keep trying to feign understanding using some older model of some other war. Then, we'll end up dosing-out the wrong medicine to people whose sicknesses we've fundamentally misunderstood. Sometimes the wrong diagnosis can be more dangerous than the disease.

Lieutenant Ambiguous said...

A greater worry, at least for me, is a professorate who allow their attitudes and prejudices to be shaped by this movie.

I hope your colleagues are open to the possibility that the movie, while perhaps accurately capturing the setting, fails at capturing the personality of the average soldier. I have never encountered a character like Renner, nor have any of those who are actually in EOD units who have voiced their own criticism of the movie.

Right now, as I sit in the MWR facility at Ali Al-Salem in Kuwait (the hub of all flights to and from Iraq and Afghanistan) waiting for a flight to Baghram Airbase in Afghanistan, I am surrounded by hundreds of other soldiers either coming from or returning to one of those two places, I see that SSG William James is nowhere to be found. There is a Marine at the table next to me, returning to Afgh., playing chess on his laptop. Others are reading. One is doing a crossword puzzle in today's Stars and Stripes, a publication which just last week ran an article about the movie with the same criticisms I make of it. Here it is: Multiple dozens are chuckling quietly to the movie playing right now on the big screen, Burn After Reading.

I am aware that anecdote is not singular for data. But because of the nature of my particular MOS, I travel extensively throughout the entire theater and have the chance to meet people from all varieties of jobs and backgrounds. If he were more than a small minority, somewhere along the way I would have encountered SSG William James, but I have not.

Surely he may be out there. My limited survey has done nothing to disprove that hypothesis. But judging by the people I have met who are mature, professional, grounded individuals, I would say that you and your colleagues have nothing to worry about from the vast majority of us who return seeking to continue - or begin - our education. I just hope you don't hold that fictional portrayal against us.

And though I haven't said it yet after four or so comments, thank you for the blog, I enjoy reading it.

DOCTOR J said...

@Lieutenant: Thanks for your comment. For what it's worth, I *don't* think that SSG James represents all American servicemen and women... and even if he did, I wouldn't necessarily hold that against anyone. That said, I also don't think that the portrayal (of either characters or events) in this film can be simply dismissed, and it ought to serve as just one of many conflicting perspectives on what this war is, what it's about, and what it means.

If I haven't said so before, I appreciate your reading and offering your insights here. I do worry a bit that you have your own prejudices about "the professorate" that are not entirely accurate... but that's what dialogue is for!