Monday, March 8, 2010

The Hurt Locker Hurts

I guess when a 3D graphic cartoon goes against a war picture at the Oscars, the war picture wins. I happened to see the "Hurt Locker" on Netflix, thinking at best it would be a mad bomber movie with a lot of Hitchcock tension. But it was more. The story line informed the bomb disarmament procedure as a metaphor for war. It was a perfect metaphor. Like combat; trying to disarm a live bomb must be  tension filled and either complicated or simple but always unpredictable. That part, you learn from the film. The film teaches that how you approach the bomb is how you approach life while stationed in  modern day Middle East during a military tour.

It is of course, just a movie but delivered under the aegis of authenticity and wrapped up with a semi-documentary style. If you pitch that tent, you better make sure of  high ground. A movie is another form of art. Like painting, writing, play production, and sculpture, etc, through the creative process anything is allowed, but good art has to be built on a foundation of truth. Yes, to forge creativity, if you want one of the characters to sprout wings during the story, you can; as long as it services the plot's truth. Stories are important and need to be told for what they say about us and the human condition. I will never live Jay Gatsby's or Hamlet's life, but when I read, I learn about them - and so learn something about myself.

The Hurt Locker fails as art because it fails as truth - I'll tell you why.

As a quick synopsis, the story revolves around 3 GIs during a combat tour in the Middle East. The story contains a private (unsure of rank) who barely confronts his perilous environment and is unsure of his next move. A Spec 4 who has experience, follows proper procedure, is competent, and wants to complete his tour and get on with his life. The third character is the sergeant who supervises the bomb unit. As the movie progresses, the main content becomes the sergeant. He is slowly seduced (or has been already) into a combat junkie. He is attracted to the excitement and tension of war. Although the film portrays the price he pays as the war consumes more and more of him, you are still left with a notion filled with tragic romanticism. The problem with this portrayal is that it is false.

War is hell and you don't get addicted to hell.

To be addicted to something is to give it value, even knowing its destructive power. Anyone who has ever been in combat knows this truth. You could call a meeting comprised of the bowmen of Agincourt (either side), riflemen from Gettysburg or Cold Harbor ( either side), and men from the Battle of the Bulge (either side), and have no trouble getting a quorum on the commonality of the experience - and every one's revulsion to it.

I only knew of one man who thought combat was beneficial - a path to maturity and manhood. He was a sergeant during the Vietnam War. he was a brave man and had what we called a lot of "time in country", wise in the ways of that particular war. He was cool under fire and had saved lives. But he told all replacements that war was a passage into adulthood that would mold character. He never tired of giving this speech and I came to believe he meant every word of it. He may not go as far to say, war is addicting, but he believed in its uses and its ability to forge manhood. His words and beliefs, for me, were an anathema. We did what was expected from us, protect ourselves and our buddies, suffer the least amount of violence, then go home safe. And if you think he was some yahoo without any reflections on life, you would be wrong. He was from Chicago, had an MA in English Literature from the University of Chicago, planned to do another tour, then get his PhD and teach college. He had a wide range of interests, but because of his views, to be honest, I didn't like him much.

May 13th,1970, Quang Nghai Province, Vietnam

I was in an infantry company, 2nd platoon, 1st squad. A platoon is made up of roughly 20 men, 2 rifle squads of 10 each; our platoon was commanded by the sergeant. We were helicoptered into an area invitingly called "Leech Valley". . We were told that "tank-like" noises had been heard in the Valley the last few days. Everyone thought, "great...tanks." Because of the nature of the conflict we hadn't been exposed to US tanks, let alone any enemy tanks. We had no idea what they looked like, but decided if we saw any and they started shooting at us, then we'd know.

Our company started a slow sweep of the Valley. Elements then came across a large, natural, fort-like structure that looked like it belonged in Beau Geste more than Southeast Asia. There were multiple openings, almost like natural gates leading to the inside. My squad was given other things to do and the sergeant was ordered with the other squad to investigate inside these berms. Some other elements of the company would simultaneously enter the other openings. The sergeant had been uncharacteristically quiet that morning. Two days before in another part of the country, he had led a patrol that had almost walked into an ambush. The enemy prematurely fired their automatic weapons and the patrol returned fire. The sergeant killed an enemy soldier. She had a North Vietnamese uniform on, was young and pregnant. She was firing her automatic weapon at the patrol when he killed her. I don't know how you begin to assume that reality into your life.

As soon as the squad entered the area of the dirt berms, the place became a killing field. Many, too many, North Vietnamese Regulars were inside; having been patient, well supplied, and thorough at planning. They had taken careful advantage of the terrain. What the sergeant's squad had walked into was more murder than war. During the gunfire, my squad was set up as a blocking force outside the berms, but we were really just witnesses to the carnage. Those who were left from the squad that went into the berm started crawling, running, and stumbling out. Even though I had lived with them for 6 months, many were covered in so much blood I couldn't recognize them. A passing helicopter gunship came in to ferry the wounded out. A medivac helicopter also arrived. It usually took 20 minutes, but they both must have been in the area and heard the radio traffic that increasingly had a desperate tone. Our squad assisted getting the wounded on the two helicopters. I don't remember specifically helping the sergeant, but he was close and had a glazed look of someone in mental shock. He looked lost and afraid. He wanted out and although stumbling badly, ran to the helicopter as fast as he could - to get as far away as he could.

Some days out in the bush we had the upper hand. But not that day. The North Vietnamese ruled that day and the evil of the morning was not through with the sergeant's squad. The North Vietnamese cleaned our clock. Like a rogue wave that increases its malevolent velocity just before it attacks land and dies, the evil of the day rolled up into itself and unleashed its full fury. We were outgunned and outnumbered.

Once we loaded both helicopters, the gunship ascended about 10 feet into the air, was hit with multiple enemy rockets, and slammed into the ground with a violent shutter. Most inside the cab were killed including the sergeant. That same process was repeated with the second helicopter, the Medivac, seconds later.

How do you become addicted to something like that?

Later, I used to have imaginary conversations with the sergeant. It was not about me being right and him being wrong. No one has complete traction on the truth, but I think he would have changed his mind. I believe he would have seen the fallacy in his thinking. I support the troops, but as individuals with foibles, not people careening down some a path of self-absorbed mental illness or complete destruction like in the movie. I am not a pacifist, but I am anti-war. If he were alive, I like to think the sergeant would agree with me on that.

Sorry to go on so long. This was hard to write and maybe hard to read. I know it's just a movie, but it's important. If we see soldiers as combat junkies, we demean them and they should never be demeaned. They should be loved. I realize most adults will see the movie and understand its nuances, but teenagers may see the movie, understand some of its nuances, but still think it's "cool." We just can't have that.

They need to know the truth. We need to tell them.

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