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War – the ‘Lethal Custom’ E.O.D, I.E.D.s

Explosives Ordnance Disposal - EOD

Explosives Ordnance Disposal - EOD

The Hurt Locker – Kathryn Bigelow

Maybe my last war film: willingly seen. As a reviewer I guess I may need to go to future war movies: but I am weary of them. It has all been said. War is a hell that offers the ultimate challenge to a certain concept of courage – deeply macho centric, defined by violence and a man’s willingness to either kill or die for his country – or both. Soldiers are intentionally damaged people. Kubrick (Full Metal Jacket) showed us the pathology of military training: disobey orders and your comrades die; obey orders and the ‘enemy’ dies. The thing about war is that someone has to die. Aesthetically that is the narrative drive; that is the juice, literally the lifeblood, of the war movie. So long as war is seen as an inescapable means to achieve stability and peace when faced with a belligerent enemy, innocent non-combatants will die – women and children – ‘collateral damage’ in a poem of force.

Suicide bombers have altered the metaphysical and ethical basis of war. Changed its logic. Is a suicide bomber willing to strap death to his body and knowingly, without any hope of survival, sacrifice his own life to kill others, brave or misguided? Brainwashed or possessed of a profound ‘next world’ faith that transcends his love of this life? The paradox remains: all military basic training is a form of brainwashing to make an individual subjugate his wishes and desires to a group up to and beyond his own death: the Islamic faith that inspires some men, women and God help us, children to violence, is much the same – just a different kind of willing subjugation. The result is the same in both cases: innocent people, including children, eventually die as the inevitable consequence of a socially conditioned, ‘individual’ choice the victims have never made for themselves. The concept of non-combatants is like them – dead: if we vote the prosecutors of a war on our behalf into power – we are as guilty as them and in a sense more guilty than the soldier who pulls the trigger; the pilot who drops the bomb; the weapons officer who orders the button pressed; and the rating who presses it.

War is the home of contradiction: in ethics, religion, humanity, faith and belief. Military technology has separated act from consequence; causation from responsibility; result from intention. Press a button and thousands of men, women and children the pusher has never seen, or known, or been harmed by, are consigned to oblivion: killed as the specious logic, the obscene rationale has it, to create stability, peace. Democracy. Necessary evil. A ‘Just’ war: regrettable, but inescapable; ‘collateral damage’ of the evil of their leaders (never ours) whom they neither chose nor can remove. So we kill people in order to set them free – suppressing this obscene irony that troubles our sleep. Denial.

My decision to avoid future war films is not disgust at the excesses and awfulness of a bad film like say Lord of War; it is precisely the genuinely realistic, moving, descriptive quality of The Hurt Locker that persuades me that war films have become pointless. We all know what they tell us; what they distress us about; what they condemn us for; and have accepted with a remorseful resignation that there is nothing we can do to change what Kathryn Bigelow’s superbly accomplished film calls in her opening credits – our addiction to war. War as an addiction. War as a drug. What War correspondent Gwynne Dyer has called The Lethal Custom).

The journalistic credentials of Bigelow’s film are as impeccable as the cinematic: writer Mark Boal was embedded with an Explosives Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Unit in Baghdad in 2004 and The Hurt Locker carries its authenticity born of that direct experience lightly but unmistakably. Boal’s lean sparse dialogue also carried conviction in perhaps the best Iraq-war-based movie before this one, Paul Haggis’s In The Valley Of Elah (2007).

Bigelow has pitched her film cleverly: with claustrophobic intensity she focuses on the end-of-tour few weeks’ service of three men in an EOD unit. This context gives her two big advantages: first there can be hardly any role in combat zones more inherently tense and nerve-racking than walking towards a primed bomb neither knowing whether it is self detonating or may be remotely set off with a mobile phone by one of the many watching Iraqis displaying an unreadable mixture of fascination, hatred, contempt, fear or dedicated hostility. Bigelow’s second advantage is that the role of bomb-disposal is inherently defensive: EOD officers are pitted against bombs, things, technology, however diabolically cunning the human mind that conceived, built and set them may be. There is none of the moral ambiguity of killing others before they kill you. Even when trapped in a fire-fight Bigelow’s EOD unit responds defensively to attack.

We know that most of the Allied fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan have been caused not by open face-to-face fire-fights but through the results of the deadly acronym we can all now knowingly expand – I.E.D – Improvised Explosive Device. You would have to be a pretty poor director, which Bigelow manifestly is not, to fail to create tension, indeed unbearable suspense from such a context. The intensity of focus on three characters adds to our sense of intimacy and involvement with these men and the seemingly impossible stress with which they cope – minute by terrifying minute, day by uncertain day. Even the infantryman does not fight, face death every single day as these strange, extraordinary men do.

Sgt Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) lose their unit leader in the jaggedly tense opening scene. He is replaced by Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a ‘wild man’ who we later learn has defused some 800 bombs in Afghanistan and elsewhere and whose instinctive morbidity is satisfied by collecting bits of bombs he’s defused: intrigued to collect things, as he puts it, “that could have killed me”. For Sanborn, James’ nonchalance about rigorously disciplined safety procedure is more heroics than heroism and likely to get them all killed before the last few days of their tour are over. He and Eldridge even contemplate a him-or-us strategy at one point.

To call James simply an adrenaline junkie, as Eldridge does after being injured on an unnecessary, wildcat mission initiated by James, is too simple. This father of a young son is what his training and the deadly madness of combat and war have made him: driven to do a job no one wants, few can do, and fewer survive. What is most interesting it seems to me about James is that he confronts the reality of war: its arbitrariness and chance. His indifference to procedure and safe practice is a kind of rebellion against the lie that obedience to orders and good practice will protect you, save you, keep you alive. His unique expertise also makes his acceptance of military discipline an existential choice he has made for himself, rebellious in spirit, not one he slavishly, passively submits to either to save himself or to be a ‘good soldier’.

Boal’s slight but subtle narrative allows us to see flashes of these three men’s normal emotions, skewed and dissonant within the absurd context of a combat zone. James befriends a young street hustler who likes to play football and calls himself ‘Beckham’. But combat, war, inevitably breeds distrust, hatred, betrayal and misunderstanding. The clarity perhaps that soldiers find in this form of life is the implacable rule of necessity; the thrill of the triumph of the unexpected, the unpredictable over intention and planning. War is the rigorously disciplined, systematic pursuit of a contradictory outcome: one in which the honour, the humanity that drive us to pursue it are necessarily negated by the means we feel bound to take to achieve it. War turns contingent choice into absolute necessity to persuade men to wage it: to conflate honourable human intentions and ends with dishonourable inhuman means. The concept of a ‘Just War’ is blasphemous.

Kathryn Bigelow’s impressive film is well-written, superbly shot and edited and evokes all of these profoundly disturbing issues in our minds and hearts – thankfully offering no sentimentally trite or glib escape from the contradictions that are the essence of war as a human practice. In an eloquently evocative, utterly prosaic scene we see James, home in the USA, shopping with his wife and son at the supermarket. This is her world: he is lost, can’t find his bearings. Looking more out of place in the culture of his upbringing than as a hated, lethal infidel, in the hostile cauldron of a Baghdad street, he looks helplessly and bewildered, at shelf upon shelf, row upon row of breakfast cereals: an infinity of meaningless choice between the virtually indistinguishable – the trivial.

How can we be surprised when James cannot adjust to what we call everyday life? He is what we and the lethal custom of war have made him: willing and able to die, even kill for a way of life he cannot bring himself to live for.

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