Friday, 12 March 2010

The Hurt Locker

Everyone told me how good The Hurt Locker was. And they were right. It is a very good, gripping, moving, harrowing war saga. I was totally swept up by the characters and – a sign of a successful bit of story telling – in my head I remained in the reality of the film when I came out. All the way home, I was still on alert, just like the main characters, taking note of parked cars and open windows and watching passers-by for any sign they might attack.
But, as well as being an entertaining war movie, The Hurt Locker is also insidious trash. This is because its intention is not primarily to entertain us. While Katheryn Bigelow, like all good propagandists, is prepared to be entertaining in order to suck her audience in, what she is really after is getting across a message. What she wants to do more than anything is shove an argument down our throats.
The argument she is so keen to press on us is one of the central ideas in a book called ‘War is a force that gives us meaning’, by New York Times journalist, Chris Hedges. The book, which deals almost exclusively with the Balkan wars, argues that ‘war is a drug’. It is that phrase - war is a drug – that appears on the screen right at the beginning of the Hurt Locker. Not until we’ve had a chance to read it are we allowed to meet the characters, not until we’ve had a chance to absorb the phrase’s message is the action of the film allowed to begin.
This opening alone is proof enough of the film’s failure. It is, in essence, an admission by the movie maker that the film is not articulate enough to get across what she wants to say without having it spelled out at the start. Don’t tell me, show me, is all I can say – I don’t want my story framed by the moral I must draw from it. What is more, I don’t come to the movies to read, thanks; I can do that at home.
And, as it happens, I have read Hedges’ book – which, bizarrely, begins with a quotation from Wilfred Owen’s Pro Patria Mori; surely no poet was ever less addicted to war than Owen - and I think its arguments are muddled and unconvincing.
In the book, Hedges rails against war in lush, seductive language, presenting a kind of romanticised version of battle, which, he says, ‘provides excitement, exoticism, power … and a bizarre and fantastic universe’. Surprisingly, he says the book ‘is not a call for inaction. It is a call for repentance’. He insists that war has ‘an enduring attraction.’ He claims that ‘Even with its destruction and carnage, it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living ... a grotesque and dark beauty.’ Speak for yourself, ducky - who exactly is this 'we'? The bulk of the population in countries in the West are pretty content to lounge on the sofa watching telly and eating chips, in my experience.
In the film, the character who expresses Hedges’ view is Staff Sergeant William James, a bomb disposal expert. He is fearless and brave, he keeps the fuses of the hundreds of bombs he’s dismantled in a box under his bed, he takes no notice of army discipline, he puts his team mates in danger – and when he leaves the war zone and goes home he rapidly tires of clearing leaves from his gutters and making decisions about breakfast cereal and goes right back to get another fix of the one thing he really loves – good old war.
There are so many things to say about this character (the puke-worthy way a completely pointless plot line about a small boy he grows attached to is inserted to demonstrate that there are chinks in this warrior’s emotional armour springs to mind – and the whole sequence where he runs unprotected through Iraqi streets defies belief) but first and foremost is the profound unlikeliness that such a person would be tolerated in a professional army. A very senior officer is shown going out of his way to meet him and congratulate him for being ‘a wild man’, when any decent soldier would be clapping him in irons for completely unnecessarily endangering his fellow men.
Those who do have to go to war – and most, as I understand it, join up not because they are looking for kicks but because they need to support themselves and their families – are changed forever. That is unavoidable and true. They are required to endure terrible situations and do appalling things. While in conflict zones, they live with the knowledge that death and pain are constant possibilities. They experience the most intense exhiliration when they survive against the odds. When they come home, they are usually struck by the narrowness of the horizons of those who have stayed behind. They find themselves isolated by their extreme experiences and scarred by what they have witnessed and what they have had to do. They no longer belong among the innocents who have not been where they have been.
These things are true – but if, unable to fit back into their old lives, they return to the battle, it is not because they are addicts; it is because the world they come from has not understood or cared for them enough to make a place for them. The argument that war is a drug is glib and insulting. If anything, it is precisely because of this kind of view - and the resulting lack of any real recognition of the worth of their activities - that many soldiers return to the world of army and war. Uneasy with the knowledge of what they have done and seen, they are rarely made to feel that their contribution is appreciated in the outside world; in fact, they are often criticised outright for going at all. I suspect this is the reason that so many Vietnam Veterans appear to have had such complex problems since the end of that conflict
War is a horrible human enterprise in which, often, important things – above all, freedom - are being fought for. Nowadays in the West there is a tendency not to take sides, to suggest that violence of any kind is reprehensible and the ‘war is a drug’ argument is terrific in that regard. There is no longer any need to examine the issues behind a conflict if ‘war is a drug’. And, of course, once we’ve accepted that ‘war is a drug’, we no longer have to honour or worry about those who go to fight wars for us. After all they are all just hopeless addicts.
And it is this that seems to be the most reprehensible aspect of The Hurt Locker and of Hedges’ argument: if those who take on the task of fighting our wars are mere addicts, we can dismiss their achievements. We can turn our backs on them instead of having to admire their heroism. For there are no heroes now – that’s the most important thing to grasp. There are only these weak, undisciplined, pitiable creatures we once so foolishly imagined as heroes, these people who can’t control themselves, who are actually only happy when shooting up on war.


  1. Great review (I haven't seen the film, though). So war as pathology by other means? Hollywood types seem to love making everything pathological - I'm sure, for the reasons you so persuasively spear.

  2. Without its parenthesis from Hedges the film would be a pretty good war movie - although there is a scene where someone is shipped back wounded to the US in terrible pain, which, from what I've been told about the amazing advances in field hospital medicine, is pretty inaccurate. With that opening statement though it becomes a slap in the face to all those who are being astonishingly brave in Afghanistan in particular - the film is set in Iraq, but the 'war is a drug' view covers all wars. Bravery, within that framework, is just a manifestation of addiction.