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Kathryn Bigelow Does Iraq

Bringing the War Home

by BOB SOMMER

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq remain under the radar for most Americans. During the eight-year Bush nightmare, keeping Americans preoccupied and afraid was the enabling strategy for conducting war. Going shopping was how we’d contribute to the war effort. It was our sacrifice, our duty. Quit shopping and “the terrorists” win.

Now, with an economic crisis that measures 8.0-plus on the Richter scale of economic crises, Obama hasn’t had to resort to such underhanded (though bizarrely convincing) tactics. In fact, he’s been forthright about escalating the war in Afghanistan, and escalate he has.

As military parents during the Bush years, my wife and I were especially sensitive to how little attention most people paid to these wars. America seemed not only to be shopping itself into oblivion, but entertaining itself on a scale that you could only describe as stunning. Whatever pablum corporate media giants served up, from American Idol through the recent Avatar-event, which tries to convince us that we’re all good environmentalists for watching a 3-D movie that turns out to be a spectacle of technological and war-machine porn (is it really a movie?), the public ponied up. Gazillions of dollars changed hands. Everyone knows who survived on Survivor, while just a fraction know how many have died in our wars (and of course, only American dead count).

Entertainment is the Victory Gin of George Orwell’s 1984. We numb ourselves with it; we lurch from one sports season to another, from one pseudo-scandal, one salacious murder, one shocking (we’re more easily shocked than Claude Rains in Casablanca) idiocy that sputters through the lips of a shock jock or pundit (it’s hard to tell the difference) to another. David Foster Wallace’s brilliant novel Infinite Jest satirizes our quest for the holy (and deadly) grail of ultimate entertainment pleasure, and Chris Hedges has written eloquently on the topic in his recent book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

Appropriately enough, a Hedges quotation serves as the epigraph for the movie The Hurt Locker, which may be the first movie about our current wars to shun the stock characters and predictable plots that we expect from war movies.

"The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug," Hedges writes in his 2002 book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. The sentence melts away on the screen, leaving only the words war is a drug.

My wife and I found our way to The Hurt Locker through our son, who’d done tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He brought the DVD home and asked us to view it. It’s rare that he does such a thing, and he’s been very understated about his experiences overseas, but nothing he’d seen until now represented his experiences as well as this movie. In truth, we approached it with reluctance and a sense of obligation, yet we found ourselves in a compelling and meaningful story about a demolition team in Iraq at the height of the conflict.

The movie is not political in the sense that it takes the Bush administration out for one more whipping (deserving as it may be); it doesn’t. Nor is it polemical in the brow-beating manner of Avatar. But it powerfully represents the theme set by Hedges – war is a drug – not only in the character of SSG Will James, the demo expert who nervelessly confronts one deadly IED after another, but in the manner that he epitomizes the nation’s obsession with war. War is the ultimate high, the steroid of experience, an adrenaline jolt like no other – the ultimate entertainment. Don’t we love the flyovers at big football games? the color guards? all the cool guns Gunny shows us on his “militainment” show Mail Call? the soldier in BDUs in an airport? and our war video games?

In one scene, James disarms an unusually large bomb – a “daisy chain” – while recklessly exposing his team to needless danger, yet later he finds himself confronted by a nearly speechless colonel, so amped by James’s exploits that he sputters mindlessly in admiration, while James’s team members stand by and watch, dumbfounded.

My wife and I packed countless boxes of food and snacks to send to our son and his squad while they were deployed, but nothing brought home the meaning of that effort like seeing the soldiers drink from the same juice pouches we’d packed while they were pinned down in a firefight in brutal heat, in a nameless and meaningless place, and uncertain even of whom they were fighting. Heat and fear and fatigue blistered through the screen.

The sound and motion of improvised bombs exploding, the momentary lag between the pop of a sniper rifle and blood spurting from a human body as seen through a spotting scope, the danger of an Iraqi street, of ordinary citizens approaching a soldier, the randomness of guerilla warfare, the banality of fear and injury and death, and the countdown to redeployment home – watching this, we felt like we were experiencing what we’d lived through from a distance during the years our son was deployed and we searched for whatever news we could find buried deep within the noise machine of infotainment.

By asking us to see this movie, our son was communicating something to us about himself – and about what we, that is, all of us, are doing in these wars, and how different the reality is from what we imagine it to be.

The Hurt Locker has picked up a bevy of Oscar nominations, and this past weekend, it won six awards at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards (BAFTA), including Best Picture and Best Director. An added bonus: In an irony you couldn’t sell to a literary agent in a novel, the movie’s director, Kathryn Bigelow beat out her ex-husband, Avatar-director James Cameron, for these honors.

The Hurt Locker sets a standard for writers and directors to engage these wars in a mature way, and for all of us to consider why we’re at war at all.

BOB SOMMER’s novel, Where the Wind Blew, which tells the story how the past eventually caught up with one former member of a 60s radical group, was released in June 2008 by The Wessex Collective. He blogs at Uncommon Hours.