I was reminded of this as I went to watch The Hurt Locker last night. The film tells the story of a US bomb disposal team in the early years after the invasion. The title of the film refers to the place an explosion sends you to – a private world of pain. Though it was filmed near-location (Jordan) using many Iraqi refugees in minor parts, it fails to humanise anyone other than the three American participants of the bomb squad.
This is hardly unusual in American war films. But The Hurt Locker is a particularly disappointment given its positive critical reception. It was based on the Iraqi accounts of embedded freelance journalist Mark Boal, who also wrote the screenplay. Boal should have been honest enough to look at the conflict from both sides. But the film never rises above a depiction of Iraqis as “the other”.
Director Kathryn Bigelow’s desire was to immerse the audience into something “raw, immediate and visceral” and to some extent she succeeded. But ultimately her movie put us in the position of the “fourth man in the humvee” and not the women looking fearfully out the window, or the boys in the alley or the men at the mosque or the souk. One of few Iraqis to be named was the boy called “Beckham” for a footballer from a country also at war in Iraq. “Beckham” was a mask, and even as it was peeled off it was never fully resolved as the American protagonist mistakenly believes he is dead. All these native boys look alike.
The film reveals the massive problem the US faced in its invasion of Iraq and still does in its Afghan incursion. There is a lack of empathy with the people whose lives they have interrupted. Hardly any of the invaders speak Arabic (even less so Pashto and Dari), and none have cultural affinity with the places they serve in. Their job was difficult and they faced hostility but nowhere in the film does anyone ask what they were doing in Iraq. There is no political context and no hint of the role oil played in the invasion.
The Hurt Locker does a wonderful white knuckle job of getting into the day to day stresses of a bomb disposal squad. But it offered no insights on why the bombs were there in the first place. Saddam Hussein was a cruel and vicious tyrant but he was created in America’s image. When the Republican Guard crumbled in 2003, the US was unprepared for what followed. A county that had suffered continual war or sanctions since 1980 was on the brink of collapse and many desperate people had nothing to lose by declaring jihad on the invaders. “The poor man’s air force” hardened opinion against the invasion in Iraq and the US. The legacy is that many will remain attracted to the violence well after Obama has withdrawn the troops. Iraq has a long way to go to escape the Hurt Locker.