Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Hurt Locker

The movie The Hurt Locker opens on a strange quote, which most of us, even most enlisted soldiers, would not be able to relate to at all, "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug." The movie is a character study exploring a bomb defuser in the current Iraq war named Sergeant William James - played by Jeremy Renner in a ferociously focused and nuanced performance - who not only relates to this quote, but lives and breathes it everyday. Like a man possessed, he returns voluntarily to the war tour after tour, being addicted to danger and thrill of life-and-death split second decisions. We get the sense that he is only truly content when he is at work on the battlefield defusing bombs and the few scenes at the end of the movie where he is at home suggest emptiness and an inability to fit in with "normal" people.

In one intense bomb disposal scene, we see his tunnel-visioned ability to stay easy in combat situations, how brashly confident he is in his skills, and the joy he brings to his work. Utterly bemused at the possibility of dying from defusing the bomb, he calmly takes off his bomb suit and says that if he's going to die he might as well die comfortably. His attitude is oft-putting to even his fellow soldiers, who later on almost consider "accidentally" killing him for his dangerous nature and blaming it on a training accident. He is both hated and respected by his colleagues; none of them can understand his recklessness and the joy he takes at being constantly in harms way but at the same time begrudgingly respected for his skill and grace under pressure. In the sniper scene, we see exactly why he is respected since his calm leadership and ability to make and help others make split second decisions help them to survive a deadly situation.

In another scene in a Humvee with William James and J.T. Sanborn after they almost died unsuccessfully trying to defuse a bomb (starting at the beginning of the above clip), the differences between the two men (and of most normal human beings and William James) are made apparent. Sanborn is shook up to his very core by his near death experience and makes a speech about the insanity of being so close to death everyday on the battlefield. He asks William James how he deals with it and his reaction is fascinating: simultaneously amused at his own inability to articulate himself and also taken aback by the question because while he can see why it would occur to other people, he realizes that it never occurred to himself.

We later see that this particular, almost insane personality and the skills he brings to the table that make him so effective on the battlefield are useless in the real world. In war, things are simple and black and white, decisions are made instinctively, not intellectually, must be made within split seconds, and boil down to simply whether to shoot or not to shoot, kill or be killed. In the real world though things are just the opposite. In one amusing scene (starting 1:40 in the above clip), where he is asked to buy some cereal by his wife at home, we see how overwhelmed he is at all the choices available at the grocery store and at the same time see his silent recognition that most of the choices he will now be making in the real world outside the battlefield will be the boring choices of consumerism. His hunter/warrior (or maybe better described as sociopathic) nature is completely out of place in domestic life.

But for as long as we have war, we will always need people like William James. In another life, his insane disregard for his life and his relentless pursuit of the next adrenaline fix (both sociopathic tendencies) might have added up to someone who is a serial killer or criminal, but fortunately for William James and the career soldiers like him, our culture has a socially acceptable role for them - on the battlefield.

1 comment:

  1. The difference in military decision making as opposed to decisions made by civilians is an interesting subject because it explains one of the reasons that ex-military find it difficult to adjust. William James is a perfect example of an individual whose traits make him perfect for the battlefield but useless in a grocery store. It would be interesting to study whether career criminals/serial killers also possess traits that make it difficult for them to adjust to living within societal constraints.


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