'The Hurt Locker' reminds us of America's war on 'terror'

This is not a movie review. It is, however, a recommendation to those who have not seen the film "The Hurt Locker" to not let it slip by (nominated for nine Oscars, it's now out on DVD).

It's the first film about Iraq that does not explore the rippling trauma of coming home; instead it is set in Baghdad and follows a Bomb Squad comprised of three soldiers who are called to investigate and if need be disarm IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), those stealth roadside bombs that have proven so lethal.

The film opens with the words, "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug," written by veteran New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges.

That statement is as editorial as the film gets about the war in Iraq. Rather, we are shown in graphic and wrenching terms what our soldiers are asked to do in an endeavor called war, in a place as remote as Iraq, for reasons both oblique and elusive.

"The Hurt Locker" focuses on one soldier, Sgt. Will James, who is the team leader of his bomb squad. It soon becomes clear that those existential moments when he is hunched over an IED define him, the adrenaline raging, his team searching the rooftops, scanning the small merchant stalls, ever-vigilant, looking for that one individual with a cell phone that could detonate the device. For Will, it's a fearful, terrible rush.

But implicit in this remarkable film are also fundamental questions about America's seemingly inescapable need to create its own hurt locker, our perpetual cul-de-sac wars that require the wrenching sacrifice of our young soldiers and the expenditure of billions of our treasure. Ultimately, who can explain it?

The rationale for Iraq, the elaborate justifications about WMD, the caricatures of "Islamo-fascists" and radical Muslims who hate us because we are free, the mendacity regarding the perpetrators of 9/11, echo the words of Lyndon Johnson as he moved our nation ever deeper into the swamp of Vietnam. Why do we seem incapable of learning from history? How can we not recognize our own hubris?

Vietnam, like Iraq, was born of a fraud called the Gulf of Tonkin, a war fought among an indigenous people where the enemy was unrecognizable. They were called the Viet Cong; now we call those who oppose us Insurgents.

In Vietnam our troops entered a village and scrutinized every local, wondering if he or she was carrying a grenade and not just a basket of rice. Were those who watched — clad in black pajamas, wearing cone-shaped hats, some holding small children, each possessed of an unyielding silence — friend or foe?

In Iraq, as shown in "The Hurt Locker," soldiers stand on a dusty, garbage-strewn street, deserted except for those who watch from balconies and rooftops, while the squad contemplates who is friendly and who is not and might one of those garbage bags hold a bomb. Will shots be fired from a window or an alley by shadows that disappear like so much smoke? Nothing is as it seems. All is futile and purposeful and contradictory.

As a nation we find ourselves in a perpetual, never-ending war on "terror." We discuss ad infinitum the efficacy of sending troops to countries riven by disparate tribes and loyalties, layered with ancient cultures and alliances, all seemingly indecipherable and, in the end, a geopolitical trap that can define the word quagmire.

How do we understand that we must spend billions to train the locals to fight, propping them up with cash and weapons and uniforms, while the Insurgents, who are also the locals, are well-trained and highly motivated? How do we square such a circle?

And when we discover that our enemy aka al Qaeda aka Muslim extremists is not just in Afghanistan or Iraq or Pakistan but in Somalia and Indonesia and a hundred other places, to include London, forcing us to contemplate, at tremendous cost, a permanent state of war, "How do we best respond?" We need more than a hammer, for not every situation is a nail and does not call for 100,000 troops.

And yet we know that more than a few will be asked, and asked again, to drive down a dusty street, somewhere, and disarm an IED, left there for reasons that shift like a vagrant zephyr wind.

Chris Hedges also wrote, "War is a force that gives us meaning." I hope he is wrong.

Chris Honoré is a freelance writer who's lived in Ashland since 2003.

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