The Militarization of Hollywood: Unlocking 'The Hurt Locker'

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Why did The
Hurt Locker
, a well-acted, tension-filled but otherwise
undistinguished Hollywood war movie focusing on a military bomb-disposal
team in Iraq, win the 2010 Academy Award for Best Picture?

After viewing
the film recently, it appears to us that the main reason the U.S.
movie industry bestowed the honor is that Kathryn Bigelow, who also
received the Best Director prize, concealed the real nature of the
American war in two distinct ways.

1. The film
did not even hint that the three-man Army elite Explosive Ordnance
Disposal (EOD) squad operating in Baghdad a year after in the U.S.
invasion was engaged in an unjust, illegal war, and thus were participants
in what international law defines as a war crime.

According to
the film website, the task of the GIs in question was "to try
and make the city a safer place for Iraqis and Americans alike."

is the fact that the war destroyed perhaps a million Iraqi lives,
and created over four million refugees. Or that it took Washington’s
divide-and-conquer policy of exacerbating sectarian religious and
ethnic rivalries to produce a stalemate instead of a humiliating
defeat for the Pentagon at the hands of up to 25,000 poorly armed,
irregular and part-time guerrillas.

The film’s
odd title, according to the producers, "is soldier vernacular
for explosions that send you to the ‘hurt locker.’" But in
the "collateral damage" of this unnecessary war –
the civilian dead and wounded and millions of wrecked lives –
has no place in The Hurt Locker. Only American pain is stored
there, not Iraqi.

2. Director
Bigelow and the film’s big money backers mischaracterized their
efforts as "nonpolitical," as did virtually all the American

As one reviewer
wrote, it was "remarkably nonpartisan and nonpolitical."
Another wrote: "It’s a nonpolitical film about Iraq. Many films
about the Iraq war have fallen into a trap of appearing preachy
or at least having a strong point of view." The New Yorker’s
David Denby said the film "wasn’t political except by implication
– a mutual distrust between American occupiers and Iraqi citizens
is there in every scene," but the real meaning is that it "narrows
the war to the existential confrontation of man and deadly threat."

If "war
is a mere continuation of politics by other means," as von
Clausewitz famously and correctly surmised, a "nonpolitical"
film about what is virtually universally recognized as an unjust
war is a conscious misrepresentation of reality. The Hurt Locker
is an extremely political film, largely because of what it chose
to omit, masquerading as apolitical in order to disarm the viewer.

Bomb disposal
teams exist in all modern wars, but they do not exist in a moral
or political vacuum. One side often represents the oppressor, and
the other the oppressed, and it is morally dishonest to conceal
the distinction.

For example,
one assumes Japanese bomb teams were at work during the Nanking
Massacre in China, and the time of the notorious Bataan Death March
in the Philippines; and that German teams worked in Poland during
the Warsaw Uprising in the Jewish ghetto, and during the horrific
Nazi siege of Stalingrad.

These Japanese
and German handlers of unexploded bombs were extremely brave, as
are their American counterparts today, and some lost their lives,
particularly since they didn’t have all the protective gear and
bomb destroying robots available to Explosive Ordnance Disposal
teams in Iraq or Afghanistan.

But what should
we think about a German war film dealing with the Warsaw rising
and the slaughter of Stalingrad, or a Japanese film about Nanking
or the death march, that focused only on the heroism of their bomb-disposal
troopers, without any reference to the aggressive wars that situated
them in Poland, Russia, China and the Philippines? Most people would
characterize such films as "enemy propaganda," particularly
while the wars were still going on, as are the U.S. wars in Afghanistan,
Pakistan and Yemen (as well as Iraq, despite Washington’s claim
that "combat operations" are now over).

Suppose you
were an Iraqi, who lived through 12 years of U.S.-UK-UN killer sanctions
that took another million Iraqi lives, followed by seven years of
invasion and occupation. What would you think of a U.S. war film
where nearly all the Iraqi characters were villains or crooks, and
the occupying GIs were depicted as heroes and at least well-meaning?

What would
you think when you read from the producers that The Hurt Locker
is "a riveting, suspenseful portrait of the courage under fire
of the military’s unrecognized heroes: the technicians of a bomb
squad who volunteer to challenge the odds and save lives doing one
of the world’s most dangerous jobs…. Their mission is clear –
protect and save."

You’d probably
think this film, which won six Academy Awards while the war was
still going on, was enemy propaganda.

Well, propaganda
is propaganda no matter who’s the perpetrator. Most Americans, it
seems to us, are unable to distinguish self-serving war propaganda
from reality when it is delivered from the U.S. government, the
corporate mass media, or the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and

We can’t read
director Bigelow’s mind, but objectively The Hurt Locker
seeks to justify the Bush-Obama wars. It does so by suppressing
the political context of the wars, and by individualizing and conflating
the scope of the conflict to resemble, as reviewer Denby suggests,
an "existential confrontation [between] man and deadly threat."

The Hurt
Locker war is no longer a matter of U.S. foreign policy, military
power, and the quest for geopolitical advantage and hegemony over
the world’s largest petroleum reserves. It’s simply a matter of
how three American guys in a very dangerous military occupation
respond emotionally to the extraordinary pressure they are under.

The Hurt
Locker is a movie of pro-war propaganda. Had this powerful war
film instead told the truth about America’s ongoing imperial adventure
in Iraq, even as it continued to focus mainly on the dilemmas confronting
the bomb disposal team, it never would have been nominated for,
much less become the recipient of, the most prestigious award in
world filmmaking.

This article
originally appeared on

11, 2010

Jack A.
Smith is a frequent contributor to

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