In the introduction of The Face of Battle—military historian John Keegan’s book about the infantry experience over the course of history—there is an introductory passage in which a hardened British veteran of the Falkland Islands war notes how he was not bothered in the slightest that he had killed in battle, or by the other things he had seen. The veteran simply noted that for every person who is repelled by war, there is another who is enthralled by it. Maybe that, more than anything, is why peace is so elusive. For many, it just doesn’t satisfy. That’s the idea behind The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning movie about a bomb disposal team working in Iraq during the height of the war.
The story focuses on SFC Will James, who takes over his unit when its previous staff sergeant is killed by an improvised explosive device. James appreciates the thrill of his work a little too much, which lends itself to a certain recklessness his colleagues find deeply troubling. As the team goes through the final days of their year-long deployment, James is tasked with increasingly dangerous situations to handle, and while he manages to guide his team through them successfully, the thinning margins of error get so threadbare that James’ squad mates even begin to wonder if maybe fragging the guy is the best way forward. Along the way, James befriends a local Iraqi boy who later appears not only to have been slain by local insurgents, but his body cavity stuffed with explosives. James’ sense of invincibility mixes with a desire for revenge that is at least as dangerous to himself and others as any of the bombs he defuses or snipers he encounters. His judgement begins to falter precisely when he can least afford it, and one wonders, maybe that’s what his adversaries really want from him: to keep making the kinds of decisions that will eventually do their work for them. After all, at some point there’s going to be a bomb that James can’t defuse, a situation he for which he can’t devise a solution clever enough or ballsy enough to succeed. The question is whether or not it’s something he’ll encounter on the streets of Baghdad, or something he’ll encounter within the recesses of his own mind.
The Hurt Locker won nearly universal acclaim among film critics for its depiction of the Iraqi War. The movie stays away from passing judgement on the war, and focuses entirely on the experience of its soldiers, paying special attention to the psychological stress it places on those in harm’s way. Our understanding of how quickly a soldier’s psyche erodes under battlefield conditions has improved much over the last century, graduating from “battle fatigue” meant to be shaken off to PTSD deserving of serious treatment. The Hurt Locker is all about how soldiers get that way in the first place, and the first thing we see is that for some guys, war just isn’t that bad. It’s dangerous, sure. It sucks, sure. But there is something about it that doesn’t just give one a sense of purpose, it gives them something they simply love to be a part of.
And it’s not necessarily the barbarity that often accompanies war, either. Will James is not a brutal man. But he is addicted to the supercharged thrill of surviving another close encounter with a bomb, of cheating the odds, of being the go-to guy in a line of work where the go-to guy never seems to live as long as he ought to. This is a tricky subject to address without simply resorting to a kind of gung-ho escapism that disrespects its subject matter. Yet, The Hurt Locker manages to be both an exciting, heroic war movie that speaks as realistically about modern war as a Hollywood movie is ever going to. This is not a documentary, but a drama that takes artistic license when needed. But the drama we see is one that sticks with us, indeed.
There is a steadily ratcheting tension in this movie as we wonder who among James’ group can possibly survive the dense occurrence of Very Bad Things that happen at the end of their rotation. Surely, James cannot buck the odds forever, and he knows it. His crew knows it. And we know it. There is a tinnitus in the movie that persists to give us a feeling of unease, and by the time we get to the final scenes of this thing, we are feeling a bit like James; strung out from the tension, and yet darkly fascinated by how thrilling it all has been.
The moment of truth comes at the very end of the movie, when James must reckon with where his military career has taken him, and where it might take him still. He is faced with a choice to make, and after seeing other soldiers face similar choices, his decision should be an easy one. And yet, for him, it is not. He knows what it is he loves to do. And what he loves to do is something that society doesn’t give him much permission to admit openly. His greatest burden isn’t that he loves war. It’s that he had no way to admit it to anyone who would understand why he feels as he does. And so, he is left with only one option. When we see him take it, we think, all things considered, he probably didn’t make the right call, but he certainly made the best call he could have made. I guess war is like that. I wouldn’t know. I have never fought in one, which is why I can enjoy war movies with a sense of detachment. Not everybody can. But one imagines that if James were to rotate back home and see The Hurt Locker, he’d give it a thumbs up, but with a caveat: needs more explosions.