In defence of the Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker got criticised on a range of fronts. Critics complain that it doesn’t say enough about the politics of the war, according to Carla Seaquist of Huffington Post fame, or about the Iraqi society and people where the action takes place, or that it unfairly trumped earlier Iraq war films because of its apolitical quality.

This assumes that war films should first and foremost be political films. Not only because war is the most brutal and extreme form of politics. Also because the Iraq war was one of the most divisive and devastating political decisions made by the world’s superpower for some time.

The Hurt Locker, by contrast, looks elsewhere. It is about two things, the intensity and strangeness of the war experience, vividly shown in the portrayal of an EOD team and its eccentric team leader and bomb defuser, William James.

It is also about a classic idea in modern war literature and film – the relationship between military personnel and their parent society.

In this case, the relationship with the homeland ultimately explains Will’s compulsive attraction to war, his ‘addiction.’ This is not something he ever articulates in detail, but it comes out powerfully. Towards the end, when Will has finished his tour, he stands in a supermarket aisle, its vastness and emptiness signalling the soulless material life of the homefront that bores and dispirits him. To this extent, the Iraq setting is merely incidental for the generic experience of armed conflict.

Richard Adams argues that this leaves the film ’empty’, and that its message about the fears and exhilarations of war are familiar ones. They are, and they are classic and worthy ones, and the paradoxical forces that attract and repel its makers will continue to fascinate us. One of the achievements of the film is to show how this ancient reality returns in contemporary form. The intimately human and psychological dimensions of armed conflict are brought out particularly with one of the subtle patterns in the plot – the continued failure of technology. In the time of the robotics revolution and the attempt of modern militaries to distance themselves from the battlespace, it is good to be reminded of this.

Contrary to Carla Seaquist, the film doesn’t necessarily endorse Will’s world view. But it shows it, and suggests that the political context is often not foremost in the minds of professional military people. This rings true from my own experience working at the Defence Academy of the UK, where officers are interested in the politics but also approach war as a calling, vocation and as technocrats who want to do a good job and achieve advancement. They aren’t all ‘addicted’, but there is so much more to the activity than politics.

Besides, precisely because The Hurt Locker doesn’t offer yet another indictment against the Iraq war, or focus on themes of heroism and victimhood, it is so much more interesting than the antiwar films that have emerged over the past seven years. For those who want a critical discussion of the Iraq war as it was conceived and implemented, there is a forest of literature and a mountain of material to choose from. The Hurt Locker offers something else. It treats the war experience beyond foreign policy debates, or at a lower level, the partisan furies of American domestic politics. Which is why it disappoints culture warriors and fascinates a mass audience.

Its worth a look.

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