Revolution #196, March 28, 2010

The Harm of The Hurt Locker

There are times when you feel we've entered the twilight zone. Large sections of people with the capacity for progressive and humane sentiments find themselves standing with, and actively supporting, criminals. This is how I felt watching The Hurt Locker, and watching The Hurt Locker win award after award at the Oscars. It was only seven years ago where the tension was palpable at the Oscars—who was going to have the courage to speak out, and several did—they wore pins with the symbol of our planet, called for peace, used their platform to declare the actions of this government were not to be done in their name. And now, cheers and accolades from the same people for the soldiers executing those same actions. There is something seriously wrong here.

The Hurt Locker is a film that is supposed to exist without context. It depicts Iraq as a shadowy, nearly soulless place. A line is dropped here or there to just barely intimate there is a problem with the U.S. occupation but that is all in passing. An Iraqi taxi driver escapes death, is dragged away, arrested by Americans, "if he wasn't an insurgent, he is now." Or we see an American commander willfully let an Iraqi insurgent bleed to death, though saving his life is possible. There are a few innocent Iraqis—stuck in between sadistic insurgents and the heroic, if flawed, Americans. Some even support Americans, but they are not to be trusted, and you get the feeling they could shoot at any point. The incessant use of the racist slur, "haji" to describe any and every Iraqi becomes like background noise, just a normal part of the scenery.

Even those intimations float away, or perhaps a larger logic takes hold and we are left hoping for "our kind." Because whatever you are to think of the war, in this film, our hearts are to be with those fighting it.

Watching The Hurt Locker, the viewer finds themself rooting for the American soldier. They will be out in a matter of days—and you want them to live, to make babies, and to get out of what is only portrayed as a dusty, dirty, hot hellhole. Despite perhaps your rational and civilized sentiments, watching this film, you find yourself hoping the soldier will not hesitate to shoot, even if it means risking an innocent Iraqi life because the last time he hesitated, an American was blown to bits. Or in another scene, you want the American to leave the innocent Iraqi who was strapped to bombs against his will in order to save himself. Here is the subtle and insidious message—when it comes right down to it, the lives of the American soldiers matter more than the people of this land.

And while war may twist and break people, and isn't it unfortunate this began in the first place, we should be glad there are heroes fighting it and we must at any rate finish what's begun.

But this is a message full of grave dangers for the people of the world, and it threatens in turn to make criminal every person who is complicit.

While any one film does not have to tell you everything about anything, there are essential assumptions in this that go not only unspoken and unchallenged, but built on. Why do so many Iraqis want to fight the Americans? A question never asked or answered. Though many of the soldiers may want out, why are they there? A question never asked or answered. Was Iraq always a nightmare, with every woman wearing a headscarf? A question never asked or answered. And besides counting down the days, carrying through on the logic of a war once set in motion, do the soldiers have any other choice? A question never asked or answered.

What is the reality? American soldiers are part of an occupying army—they are carrying out war crimes. They are not innocent victims stuck in a web not of their own making. They have a role, and they have a responsibility.

Here is just one soldier's testimony about what the reality was:

"By the time we got to Baghdad, however, I was explicitly told by my chain of command that I could shoot anyone who came closer to me than I felt comfortable with if that person did not immediately move when I ordered them to do so, keeping in mind I don't speak Arabic. The general attitude that I got from my chain of command was 'better them than us,' and the guidance that we were given reinforced that attitude across the ranks. It was an attitude that I watched intensify greatly throughout the course of my three tours. I remember in January of 2004 attending the formation where we were given what was going to be our mission for the second deployment. And I was sitting there, like a good Marine, with my pen and paper ready to write down those carefully chosen, thoughtful words that would justify my existence in Iraq for the next seven months, and my commander told me that our mission was, and I quote, 'to kill those who need to be killed and save those who need to be saved,' and that was it" (from Jason Lemieux at the Winter Soldier hearings, "Testimony from Veterans, Winter Soldier Investigation: Iraq and Afghanistan," Revolution, #126, April 13, 2008).

Or another, "There was really no rule governing the amount of force we were allowed to use on targets during the invasion. I remember one woman was walking by, and she was carrying a huge bag, and she looked like she was heading towards us, so we lit her up with a Mark 19, which is an automatic grenade launcher, and when the dust settled we realized that the bag was only full of groceries.  She had been trying to bring us food and we blew her to pieces for it" (from Jason Washburn, "Testimony from Veterans, Winter Soldier Investigation: Iraq and Afghanistan," Revolution, #126).

This testimony goes on and on for hours like this. This morality, these tactics are the morality and tactics of an occupying force, a force there for their imperialist interests. They can only fight by terrorizing a whole nation. And terrorize they do—in the sickest, and most gruesome of ways.

The ones fighting do have a choice. And all of us have a responsibility. These soldiers need to be challenged—very, very sharply. With whom should they stand, and should they go along or should they resist? We have seen throughout history what difference it makes when people who have done this system's bidding wake up, confront what it has meant and speak out. And we also have a choice—will we actually stand with the people of the world, will we break from the narrow chauvinism and American exceptionalism, the fear of the other and the foreign? Or will we continue to go down this deadly path, accepting the terms provided by the imperialist war makers, going along with torture, endless occupation, now on several war fronts? Will we, through our resistance, attempt to speak to the people of the world, telling them we are not with our government, giving air to breathe for the potential of liberating resistance (and not the resistance that ends up strengthening Islamic fundamentalism).

Several years ago, there was a flurry of different war movies—The Valley of Elah, Redacted, Rendition. And while I didn't like everything about all of them, there was a basic clarity about what this war was, and what it meant—for Iraq, America and the world. These films did not win any major awards, and a summation was propagated—one should not attempt to make "political" war films, one should not speak badly of "our troops." And now this—The Messenger, Brothers and yes, The Hurt Locker . Films that tell us the stories of soldiers, "without the politics" we are told.

But here it must be said loud and clear: in this, there is no such thing as not taking a side! There is no such thing as an "apolitical war film." The most essential fact of war is, to quote one of the most famous war strategists, that it is "a mere continuation of politics by other means." When this is glaringly the case, to attempt to step around all that is to take the side of the aggressor.

We do not need this.

We need a resurgence of cultural opposition, we need stories told from the perspective of the people of the world, we need films that expose the crimes of our government, and the crimes of those going along with our government. And we need a rising wave of defiance in society, those who are breaking free from all this narrow fucking chauvinism, we need people to stop thinking like Americans, and to really and truly, think about humanity.

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