The empty locker

March 22, 2010

Why did the Academy Award for Best Picture go to a film about the Iraq war that has absolutely nothing to say, asks Iraq Veterans Against the War member Phil Aliff.

THE FILM The Hurt Locker, with its dramatic look at an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team and its reckless leader, has been critically acclaimed for its high-octane action and depiction of the Iraq war.

With the U.S. occupation of Iraq drawing to a close--at least according to the Obama administration--it seems like Hollywood decided it was a fitting time to release a film that, instead of offering a critique of the disastrous and bloody occupation, rewrites the narrative of the war. In doing so, it has been widely celebrated, while saying absolutely nothing of substance.

The Hurt Locker, which has been referred to in the mainstream press as the best of the films about the Iraq war, won six Academy Awards in early March and a plethora of independent awards last year. According to the film review Web site Rotten Tomatoes, The Hurt Locker received 97 percent approval from critics.

Unfortunately, none of these critics have spent even a single day in Iraq.

The praise swept through every mainstream newspaper, including the New York Times, where reviewer A.O. Scott wrote, "If The Hurt Locker is not the best action movie of the summer, I'll blow up my car." Yet the film is full of so many inaccuracies that no veteran of the Iraq war would ever take it seriously.

A bomb technician finds a set of linked IEDs in The Hurt Locker
A bomb technician finds a set of linked IEDs in The Hurt Locker

In fact, reviews from Iraq war veterans have been much more negative and telling. According to one in the Air Force Times, an EOD team member said that the main character's "swagger would put a whole team at risk. Our team leaders don't have that kind of invincibility complex, and if they do, they aren't allowed to operate. A team leader's first priority is getting his team home in one piece."

Also in the Air Force Times review, another EOD team member from the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division said that the film's depiction of bomb disposal experts was "grossly exaggerated and not appropriate." The soldier went on to say that the main character was "more of a run-and-gun cowboy type...exactly the kind of person that we're not looking for."

Meanwhile, amid all the praise for The Hurt Locker, a film like The Valley of Elah--which addresses the true and often horrific experiences of veterans with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)--is forgotten in favor of one that overshadows the realities of combat with Hollywood-style action and suspense. This only serves to further entrench the lack of awareness in our society about the experiences of soldiers coming home.

Review: Movies

The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, written by Mark Boal, starring Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie.

THE FILM itself begins with a quote from journalist Chris Hedges' book War Is the Force That Gives Us Meaning: "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal injection, for war is a drug." In reality, this is the only part of the film that alludes to the true experience of war.

The missions themselves play out as if no Iraq war veteran was even consulted while the film was being made.

This is most obvious at the end of the film when the soldier in charge of the EOD team, Sgt. 1st Class William James, orders the three-man team to split up at the site of an explosion in Baghdad in order to track down an Iraqi insurgent he suspects is in the surrounding neighborhood. This predictably leads to one of the soldiers being captured temporarily by the insurgent.

It seems that the writers of The Hurt Locker were more concerned with playing on our worst fears about the people of Iraq rather than any kind of realism. Like other military units in Iraq, EOD does not conduct missions in a three-man team, but instead convoys to their objectives, using many sophisticated armored vehicles.

This is because the mission of disposing of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) is incredibly dangerous. They also travel in long convoys because most EOD soldiers are not trained in small unit tactics.

Take, for instance, my deployment to Iraq, where my unit encountered multiple IEDs. In order for EOD to respond to the scene of a possible IED, our unit would have to confirm the IED, and then wait for hours until they showed up. This is because EOD units in Iraq are completely overextended, which leads to excruciating wait times because they can't respond to the scene on their own without us being there to provide security for them.

This isn't the case in The Hurt Locker, where the three main characters seem to convoy in one vehicle by themselves all over Iraq. Not only would this be known as a suicide mission to any soldier overseas, but it would never be allowed by anyone's chain of command.

Also disturbing are the scenes involving the disarming of car bombs. While the film's main character seems content on disarming these bombs with absolutely no protective gear, no soldier in their right mind would ever do something like that. In fact, instead of disarming the bomb, which could cause unnecessary harm to U.S. soldiers, EOD would be more likely to just detonate the car.

Another critique shared by many veterans is that the foreshadowing of PTSD among the combat soldiers is shallow at best. In fact, when it is alluded to, it feels as though PTSD is only highlighted in the film as an obligation, because of its exposure in the media.

Instead of taking on the issue and showing the real effects that mental health problems are having on service members, the film shows the main character at home after his deployment, solemnly preparing to return for another tour.

There are hundreds of other inaccuracies in the film, which make it hard as a veteran to even sit through. But what is most infuriating is that the film inevitably sells combat to a new generation growing up in the midst of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression.

As more young people look to the military as a way to avoid unemployment and lack of social benefits, The Hurt Locker only seems to make the war look "cool."

In reality, war is neither "cool," nor are soldiers reckless to the point of absurdity. We are put in horrific situations against our will, and once discharged, we find a difficult world, with little to no help. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "war on terror" veterans had an official unemployment rate of 10.2 percent in 2009.

Maybe for her next blockbuster, Kathryn Bigelow should film the day-to-day operations of a VA hospital or a homeless shelter. But like most of the Hollywood elite, she seems content with the view from the top.

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