Rummaging in “The Hurt Locker” for the Truth of Men at War
I’ve been trying to see Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, “The Hurt Locker,” since it came out last month and the estimable A. O. Scott, among others, gave it a great review. Which is to say I’ve been trying to talk somebody—anybody—to go see it with me. But no, even though it’s August, everybody’s too busy.
I know, this should tell me something about my ranking on the list of people to see and things to do, but I have consoled myself by citing the icky “war movie” factor and the loopy, repulsive earnestness of Bigelow’s fascination with things phallic, metallic, athletic, and masculine (“Blue Steel,” “Point Break”). Who wants to see blood and guts spilled by guns, and manhood in extremis? That would be me, home alone.
So I went to see it tonight, all by myself, in the six-story Cineplex at 42nd Street off 8th Avenue, with no parking lot but the same spatial logic you’ll find in the suburbs—go where’s there’s room to grow, in this case way up, no wonder it takes you 20 minutes on the escalator to get to the theater showing your movie.
There is a hidden agenda here that I will freely divulge, and gladly illustrate, but of course by indirection. My son Vincent, a US Marine, served seven months in Iraq, September 2008 through March 2009, so I have wanted to bear oblique witness to his experience, if only because he has been unable or unwilling to tell me about it. I went to see “Battle Rattle,” the documentary about military training for Iraq, last summer, just as Vincent left for the place featured in the film, thinking that I would understand something of what he would go through on his way to hell. On a layover in Dubai on July 17th, when it was 105 degrees, I stayed outside for as long as I could stand it, thinking that I would come away with some sense of what it was like to breath the air in Iraq, and identify with my son’s physical presence in the insane climate of one Middle Eastern theater of war.
I reported on the documentary here last August. I lasted five minutes outside the Millennium Hotel in Dubai. The heat was unbearable, but the breathing was impossible. The air was saturated with water, it shimmered, so sucking it down made me feel like I was drowning, but the same air was also shiny, and almost solid, with sand particles floating like elements of a cloud at ground level. They scraped my throat, made me cough and duck for cover. I was standing there in shorts and a t-shirt, not a uniform and a flak jacket, a helmet, a rifle, and sixty pounds of gear. I was on my way to Beirut, not Baghdad.
Even so, everything I’d read about “The Hurt Locker” prepared me to love this film, to feel the fog of war as a guilty pleasure—an adrenaline occasion, an athletic contest, an action movie. I hated it. It made me feel stupid enough to think that the late Andrea Dworkin must be right about men and their violent needs. It made me feel sick to my stomach. I almost walked out.
The overheated epigraph from Chris Hedges—“war is a drug”—didn’t help, but I was willing to suspend disbelief, and was rewarded with the jittery, jangled camera angles and lengths a stranger’s city at war deserves. The movie opens from an ordnance robot’s point of view, bumping along next to a railroad track in Baghdad, on its way to the IED that will kill Thompson, the bomb tech who, when he realizes the machine can’t get the job done, walks down that same road to defuse the thing. Welcome to the war on terror, John Henry, hope you brought your tools.
The camera never stomps jumping except outside the city, in the desert, where long, still shots of distant assailants corroborate the perspective of Will James, the new tech, the man who spots the targets through his telescope—and in the “operating rooms” where this same new tech plies his delicate, surgical, dexterous trade with his gloved hands (there is one late scene in which Will must remove a bomb from the guts of a young man, and here the surgical metaphor becomes material and manifest, and gruesomely beautiful). And that’s OK, in fact that’s what we need to feel the fear, the speed, the sound, the color, and the thrill of the moment when your life itself is at stake.
But the moral voiceover finally becomes unbearable—and I do mean voiceover, the moral of the story is imposed from outside the cinematic frame of the staccato camera movement, from outside the pure experience of war, in the repose of the Humvee’s interior, when Sanford, “Blaster Mike,” the first mate, the bomb technician’s backup, and he’s the black guy, tells us that “they all look alike, anyway,” or that he wants a son like Will’s to verify his precarious, maybe even meaningless existence—or in the door of the evac helicopter, when the specialist with the shattered femur tells Will that he can go fuck himself for putting everyone in harm’s way because he needed another adrenaline rush—or in the baby’s room, back in the world, where Will tells his wordless son that as you get older you care about fewer and fewer things, so that in the end there’s just one thing, and then he’s reupped again, he’s once more in hand-to-hand combat with IEDs.
Narrative retrospect on the world of pure experience is the only truth we have, according to William James the philosopher, the pragmatist, so these periodic removals from the scene of the camera’s low angle on the profuse details of life—life now brightened and magnified by the constant threat of death—bring a necessary, useful lull to the rush of otherwise deadly events. But is this particular retrospect adequate to the details on view? Is it so profound to suggest that fatherhood is harder than doing your more limited duty in a theater of war? Is it so amazing to discover that moral clarity is elusive in a war zone, when collaboration with the enemy may well mean more than social death?
Is it so remarkable to claim that heroism is anachronistic in the modern theater of war—that taking war personally, in the studied manner of Achilles, say, or George Patton, is dangerous to everyone around you? And then to validate the claim?
Sanford finally identifies with Will James when he says he, too, wants a son, a personal testament to the worth of his own life, but there is a perfect moment played out earlier, in the barracks, after a long, harrowing episode with a car bomb outside the UN compound (when Will of course sheds the heavy, impersonal, protective costume of the bomb tech and says “If I’m gonna die, I’m at least gonna be comfortable”). James and Sanford have been beating each other up, masochistic male bonding at its purest, and then the third party, young blond specialist Eldridge, discovers the hurt locker, the plastic bin where Will keeps the memorable evidence of the 873 bombs he’s disarmed—detonators, mainly, all with wires dangling, leading toward the stories of each device, except the battery that would have set off today’s bomb.
“What’s this shit?” Sanford asks, now he’s suspicious, and Will takes out the detonator he removed from the car, admires it, and says, referring to the whole lot, “This is what would have killed me,” he’s ready to finger those wires and launch into the story of every piece of hardware. Sanford stops him—he picks up the battery, turns it in his hand, and says, “This is Radio Shack, man,” and throws it back into the hurt locker.
This is mass-produced, he means, it wasn’t meant for you and it’s not about you, Will. So get over the idea that you can take it personally—get over the idea that hands-on know-how, artisanal dedication to your surgical craft, and raw courage will change the course of this conflict, or prove to me that you’re a man. When you treat war as if it’s work, as if it remains the theater in which manhood gets created, you won’t notice and you can’t devise any moral equivalents (William James’s most-read essay is of course “The Moral Equivalent of War” , in which he worried that war and work were the settings in which “manliness” had once been cultivated, and that both were becoming impossible under the regime of “pacific cosmopolitan industrialism”).
If Sanford holds out, the voiceover remains ambiguous, and those moral equivalents of war will become.absent causes in our narrative retrospect. But he doesn’t. He finally identifies with Will’s artisanal urge to take it personally, to be his own man, and to commemorate his life by impregnating a woman. Only the pathetic specialist with the shattered femur removes himself from the moral ambit Will has created by putting everyone in harm’s way. The rest of the boys eventually say “hot shit,” along with the colonel who asks the new tech how many of those devices he’s disarmed.
It is this foreclosure of the complicated moral choices that come with modern war—not in spite but because of its increasing impersonality—that made me sick to my stomach. Let me illustrate my nausea by reference to a conversation I had with a friend of a friend back in June, a single woman who was supposed to have some interest in me because I am getting divorced. I had talked to her a little about my son’s choice to join the Marines, how much I admired him for making it, and how much I had come to appreciate the armed services, especially but not only the Marines, for living up to the egalitarian ideals of the 1960s.
She asked me, “Would you be saying this if he had been killed in Iraq?” I was speechless, I stammered, and that was her opening, she went on to tell me how the military as such produces the violent bestiality of manhood predicated on misogyny, and why I should have opposed his enlistment. I finally regained my wits—having asked myself, well, would you be saying this?—and said, “You’re totally wrong.” I got that out, anyway, I tried, unsuccessfully I’m sure, to say what follows.
The abstractions from the heat of the moment, the cognitive distance supplied by the role-playing all trainees undergo, these allow for the making of more careful moral choices in battle, regardless of the phenomenological density—the fog of war—you experience in battle. For with the impersonality of modern war comes the image-repertoire, the narrative resouirces, of a complex story in which you are cast as a supporting player, not the main character or worse, the tragic hero doomed, like Will James, by his own outrageous excellence, his radical individuality. With those narrative resources, you can quickly, reflexively step back and understand it’s not about you, it’s about a much larger, still unfolding drama. You’re not the author of this text—you’re not the artisan. You don’t have to take it personally, your manhood is not at stake, and so the authentic emotional manifold you bring to bear back home, in domestic squabbles, say, is not necessarily mobilized for the task at hand, and in fact, if your training was effective, it’s moot.
That’s an artifact you won’t find in Will’s hurt locker, in Bigelow’s movie, or, for that matter, in the intellectual inventory of the American Left.