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America Critical Essay Film Historical In War

BAGHDAD — I long ago learned not to discuss war movies with soldiers. They tend to be detail-oriented and obsessed with authenticity. They frequently dismiss well-made, thought-provoking films because of some minor detail — the scope on a rifle is wrong, or the markings on a vehicle incorrect.

Last summer, I began to see rave reviews of “The Hurt Locker,” a movie about the Iraq war by Kathryn Bigelow. After a string of Iraq-related Hollywood flops, reviewers said this was the movie that finally brought home the reality and horror of Iraq. Soon I began to get e-mail from friends back in the states who loved the movie for its “realistic depiction” of the war. I’ve worked in Iraq over a six-year period, and they wanted to know what I thought.

Though I’m back in Iraq now, I put off seeing the movie, partly because I felt no need to be disturbed by memories that its graphic images would surely raise. But I mentioned the movie to a few soldiers. Predictably, none liked it. A group from the 2nd Infantry Division laughed uproariously, recalling the scene where a blood-soaked bullet jams a massive .50-caliber rifle. “A fifty cal? Blood would just lubricate it!”

Another soldier: “Remember the scene where the dude is running alone through Baghdad? Ridiculous!”

Finally, a few nights ago, I sat down to see “The Hurt Locker” for myself.

This time, the soldiers were right. The film is a collection of scenes that are completely implausible — wrong in almost every respect. This time, it’s not just minor details that are wrong.

If there is one rule with the military, it is that there is strength in numbers. No one soldier, no one vehicle, goes out alone. Ever. Four vehicles and a 20-man squad is the minimum that I have worked with in Iraq. A lone Humvee would not be allowed to clear the gate at any base in Iraq.

Yet, in scene after scene, the bomb disposal team, led by Staff Sgt. William James, appears to be fighting the war alone. They drive the streets of Baghdad, a three-man team in a lonely Humvee, with no back up. They single-handedly clear buildings, drive desert roads alone with no air cover and confront a truckload of potential enemy fighters — who turn out to be bizarre and incompetent British mercenaries. When the British are killed, the American explosive technicians turn out to be expert snipers and spotters as well.

In one sequence, Sergeant James sneaks away to a house he believes to be an insurgent base. Realizing he is mistaken, he then runs alone for what appears to be several miles through the labyrinthine streets of Baghdad to return to his base. Strangely, he encounters no U.S. checkpoints on the streets, though they were numerous in that period. And he returns, as if by magic, unscathed.

In 2004, with the insurgency in full swing, the chances of a U.S. soldier running through the streets of Baghdad and making it back to base were approximately zero.

Michael Kamber for The New York TimesA badly wounded soldier is evacuated in Baghdad. 2004.

The movie’s denouement — the explosive ordnance disposal (E.O.D.) team responds to a massive truck bomb in the Green Zone — is so completely wrong in every respect that it borders on farce. Insurgents did not operate freely in the Green Zone. They would never have kidnapped a soldier in an area with thousands of U.S. troops. And they would never have hung around an active investigation scene with their weapons. No American E.O.D. team in existence (or any other three-man squad) would go charging alone down dark alleyways when there are hundreds of infantrymen at hand.

These are mere details compared to the way Sergeant James repeatedly swaggers up to bombs. As Mark Boal, the screenwriter, well knows, many I.E.D.’s in Iraq are remotely detonated. Mr. Boal actually embedded with an E.O.D. team in Iraq, so he knows the chances of recklessly approaching even a single command-detonated bomb and surviving are quite small. Yet we are made to believe that Sergeant James has disabled over 800 bombs in this reckless, cowboy-like fashion.

More disturbing and implausible yet is the way the protagonist repeatedly endangers the lives of his team members. The soldiers I have worked with over the years are like brothers to one another. Never have I seen stronger bonds between men. Any soldier who routinely endangers his own life or those of his squad members would not be punched, as the movie’s star is in one scene. He would be demoted and kicked out of his unit.

“Our No. 1 job is protection of people and property,” said Rob Wagner, an E.O.D. team chief based in Diyala Province. “If we do our job the way it’s done in the movie, we would get people killed.”

Lt.j.g. Glenn Moffat, another member of the team, added, “We have to be level-headed and mature, to think things through — the opposite of the how it’s done in the movie.”

One of the greatest disservices of “The Hurt Locker” is the impression that soldiers in Iraq were masters of their destinies. If they snipped the right wire, made the right shot, cleared the right room, they would stay alive. In fact, the opposite was true. Certainly there were firefights, but the vast majority of U.S. deaths were from I.E.D.’s.

This is what was so absolutely terrifying about the war. A faceless enemy was catastrophically destroying U.S. vehicles every day with I.E.D.’s (and I can assure you the enemy did not stand in the open, as per several scenes in the movie). Regardless of your training, if you were in that vehicle when the button got pressed, you were dead.

Michael Kamber for The New York TimesMembers of Delta Company patrolling the streets of Khadamiya. 2007.

I’ve covered a number of conflicts and Iraq was the least romantic, the one that looked the least like the war movies I grew up on. Yet Ms. Bigelow pulls one out for Hollywood. While many have praised the movie as anti-war, I believe — in a counter-intuitive way — that it glamorizes war. The Steely-Nerved-Protagonist Who Has Seen Too Much kills the bad guys in an action-packed setting and eventually signs up for more. His hard-drinking, P.T.S.D.-ravaged character becomes that much more romantic for his flaws.

I understand the argument that Ms. Bigelow and her team should be applauded for tackling certain issues and bringing the war home to Americans. Yet with so many scenes and details untrue, the actual war in Iraq becomes merely a dramatic jumping off point for the filmmakers.

E.O.D. teams are highly specialized. They do not fire sniper rifles, clear buildings full of insurgents, single-handedly engage a squad of enemy combatants or drive the streets of Iraq alone. What they do in reality is amazing enough: one of the most nerve-wracking and dangerous jobs on earth. It is done a disservice by this degree of dramatization.

When a filmmaker gets that many details wrong, it’s hard to believe she got the war right. “The Hurt Locker” is not a drama about a make-believe event. This is a movie about an ongoing war that has affected millions, in which 100,000 Americans are still serving. It deserves a minimal degree of historical accuracy and attention to detail.


Mr. Kamber is not the first to fault “The Hurt Locker” for its accuracy, as Melena Ryzik reported in “The Curious Case of the ‘Hurt Locker’ Attacks” on Carpetbagger. “I have no dog in this fight,” Mr. Kamber said about his own essay. “I’m not a Hollywood person. I don’t know anyone out there. And I’m glad movies about Iraq are getting made.”

Explosive Ordnance Disposal
A Perilous Search

Michael Kamber, the writer of this essay, was the videographer, photographer and co-producer of a 2009 video on the work of an explosive ordnance disposal team.

Introduction

War films first appeared in 1898, a few years after the birth of the motion picture. Their subject was the Spanish-American War, which began shortly after the sinking of the USS Maine. From the beginning they proved a sensational draw for audiences who wanted information about the first major international conflict they and the country were experiencing. War films have remained a consistent attraction for viewers. Sometimes, as in the case of World War II, the immediacy of the conflict and support for it by citizens helped spur production of and attendance at war films. At other times, even while a major war ensued, as in the case of the controversial and unpopular Vietnam War, practically all filmmakers held off until after its conclusion, upon which a spate of highly regarded antiwar films appeared. With only a few exceptions, the involvement of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan has not encouraged significant film production by major producers, only a smattering of works by mostly independent artists. The genre at its birth consisted of three kinds of films: “actualities” (akin to documentaries), showing battleships, training camps, and ceremonies; reenactments, presenting staged versions of battles and events; and narratives. All continue in some form in the early 21st century as a means of rendering our experience with the numerous wars that have occurred since the beginning of motion pictures, as well as those that preceded the birth of the genre. While the war film is one of the oldest genres and not unique to any one nation or culture, there has as yet been no comprehensive world history of the war film. But an enormous amount of criticism has been produced. One could say this began with the earliest newspaper reviews. Without too much exaggeration, a kind of protocriticism can be said to have been initiated in the earliest advertisements in contemporary trade newspapers and film catalogues, since these give a sense of what was understood to appeal to viewers. These films provide examples of what Tom Gunning has described famously as the “cinema of attractions.”

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