As an increasing number of roadside bombs, suicidal jihadists and cars packed with high explosives kill and maim in Afghanistan and Iraq, it seemed like a good time to take in a feature film that pays well-deserved tribute to the American servicemen in the frontlines of countering such horrors. The Hurt Locker is an unflinching and powerful testimonial to those George Orwell thanked with his timeless quote: “Men sleep peacefully in their beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
The movie follows the daily fare of one of the most dangerous specialties in the U.S. military — a bomb disposal unit — as its deployment in Iraq winds down. The main story line is the tension-filled interactions between the squad’s three members as they contend with a series of crises that were all-too-common in Baghdad and other parts of the Iraqi theater in 2004, and that may be in the process of becoming so again.
The film struck me as a terrifically honest portrayal of the carnage of war from the perspective of ordinary soldiers called upon, day after day, to do extraordinary things. While it is a highly sympathetic treatment of the heroism of those who serve, their flaws are on display as well as their courage. The three central characters are all struggling with various personal issues, most notably, the central protagonist’s reckless disregard for personal safety — and that of others.
True to its grunt’s-eye vantage point, the story is a series of suspenseful vignettes disconnected from, and largely indifferent to, the larger conflict. There are only two cameo appearances by senior officers — colonels, no generals — who are shown the respect required by military discipline, but are portrayed as basically out-of-touch with what their subordinates are experiencing.
The locals who are shown as, at best, indifferent and, at worst, cunningly murderous. The images of Baghdad are of a city that is trashed and broken, a place where death lurks around every corner. This reality imparts to the audience a sense of the agonizing slowness of the countdown to the unit’s redeployment to a tranquil and safe home Stateside.
The Hurt Locker touches as well, albeit fleetingly, on the sacrifice being made by the loved ones of those who serve. The families left behind confront not only the protracted absences — especially on the part of those repeatedly sent into harm’s way. They share with their warfighters the challenge of the readjustment to civilian life faced by those who have experienced the stress and trauma of violent conflict.
Taken together, the message is unmistakable: War is hell, particularly — although not exclusively — on those called to wage it.
For too many Americans, though, the nation’s wars have become somebody else’s problem. Few have any direct, personal connection to the military. The success of the all-volunteer force in replacing the draft with a superb fighting force has transformed the armed services into a cohort of highly skilled warriors about whom the general population knows little, and to whom it is not as tied as has historically been the case.
This problem is compounded by the contraction of the domestic military base infrastructure as the services have tried to cut costs by reducing overhead. Ditto, the closure across the country of industrial plants that have produced planes, ships, tanks and other weaponry for the armed forces. The less Americans are living in base communities and involved in manufacturing for the military, the smaller the number who have any sense of what is involved in keeping the nation secure.
Scarcely less worrying is the prospect that those who fight on our behalf may feel increasingly disconnected from the society they are serving so admirably. We owe it to them to ensure that their sacrifice is appreciated — and warranted. The new GI bill that will, starting this week, provide Iraq and Afghan war veterans tuition support at American universities will go some way towards rectifying both these problems, by ensuring that vets are represented in larger numbers in our academic institutions and by covering much of the costs of a college education.
Still, there is an important role to be filled by Hollywood in communicating to the American people a sense of the quality of those who are putting their lives on the line for the rest of us. This will be especially needed as the going predictably gets rougher in Afghanistan and Iraq, and perhaps elsewhere. The director of The Hurt Locker , Kathryn Bigelow, and her cast deserve our thanks for the contribution they have made in this regard. May its success at the box office encourage others to make such films — and encourage our countrymen to support those in uniform by ensuring their sacrifice is neither in vain nor unacknowledged.