‘For War is a Drug’

By skepticlawyer

O wad some Power the gift tae gie us 
To see oursels as ithers see us! 
It wad frae mony a blunder free us, 
An foolish notion.

From Robert Burns, To a Louse

The course Burns commends has, of late, become unfashionable. Instead of observing others unlike ourselves and reporting back, we have been enjoined to comment on things within our ken and to leave others alone. Sometimes those who wish to comment on others–on those unlike themselves–are even chased away with sticks. Whole critical industries are devoted to writings from this or that minority group, or this or that victim group, forgetting that the first task of all imaginative literature (in which I include cinema) is to engender empathy in the reader or viewer, to make us imagine people and places at least partly unlike ourselves. It’s even better if the writer can engender readerly empathy for things wholly unlike us or outside our ken. Homer even makes you pity his horses.

This focus on the local and familiar has, of course, diversified literature at the expense of its imaginative depth. Our writers are licorice allsorts, but none of them can make you care about their human characters as much as you care about one of Homer’s horses. We seldom have to dust off our willing suspension of disbelief and ask whether the writer pulled off the high wire act or not, for the simple reason that most writers no longer try walking across Niagara Falls on a length of rope. This, I think, is a loss, and while diversity is nice, it is only nice, and perhaps it is time to reward imaginative power again.

A good opportunity to sample a large imaginative vision is to watch Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, to date the only decent film about the Iraq War. This film succeeds because it honours warriors without expecting that they should be other than what they are. Unlike the preachy failures Redacted and Syriana, Bigelow’s film is painted on a much smaller canvas: a three man bomb-disposal squad in Iraq when the IED war was at its height (2004) and it seemed that the United States was getting nowhere. The Burnsian skill of Bigelow’s film is that she gifts us a woman’s vision of warriors, and does so with extraordinary skill and psychological insight. Some people, unfortunately, find this threatening:

What’s the point of this metaphor? It’s that I’m still coming to grips with how a woman could possibly have dreamed up this spartan American soldier in Iraq, who, while obsessively romancing death as a bomb-squad ace, outdoes the most extreme images of machismo ever produced by mainstream America. While Wayne set the testosterone standard in playing characters who lived to fight, his guys also found time to love women — Ethan’s Martha (Dorothy Jordan) in “The Searchers” and the Ringo Kid’s Dallas (Claire Trevor) in “Stagecoach,” to name two.

When they bonded with young, earnest boys, Wayne’s men became meaningful mentors — Gillom Rogers (Ron Howard) in “The Shootist” couldn’t have grown up without the wit and wisdom of Wayne’s John Bernard Books. But Will, with his Wayne-ian steely gaze, his laconic ease at the portals of death, and his patented hero saunter, loves “just one thing,” as he tells his baby boy before leaving him, maybe forever, to return to the killing fields of Iraq. And it isn’t women or kids.

The same critic goes on to complain about an absence of rom-coms at this year’s Oscars. A woman director, it seems, is to be penalised for seeing men as others see them, for giving us Burns’s gift. It is very sad. This despite the greatest imaginative art being about the ability to get inside other people’s heads, you know, like Tolstoy did to  Anna Karenina and Jane Austen did to Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. 

It is also fashionable, these days, to pretend that all soldiers come back from the front damaged beyond repair, unable to become full and fit members of society again. It is similarly fashionable to run down what they do while at the front. In America at least, this quinella no longer puts bums on seats, hence the failure of Redacted and Syriana. The Hurt Locker–apart from its deliberately confined vision–captures the extent to which some men are extraordinarily good at war, and that this skill does not make them bad men or cruel men, just different men from the common run of man (and woman) hood. The line ‘war is a drug’ comes from Chris Hedges, and is featured as part of a larger quotation at the start of the film:

The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.

Will James (Jeremy Renner) may be crazy brave, even drugged on war, but he is very good at what he does. And he likes it. He is also less good at other things: the scene where this consummate warrior is all but defeated by the Wal-Mart cereal aisle back home is chilling in its intensity and power. He is not, however, a bad father–that is made very clear. He just likes other things more than fatherhood. Quite a lot of men do; ditto with women and motherhood. It may not be fashionable to say this, but it remains true.

James is joined by Sanborn (Anthony Mackie)–a sane and seasoned operator–and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), the squad’s newbie. Sanborn is initially hostile to James, partly because he thinks he takes too many risks and partly because James’s predecessor in title was popular and well liked, not least of all by Sanborn himself. At one point he and Eldridge seriously consider manufacturing a ‘blue on blue‘ incident, so irritating does Sanborn find his new commander.

This hostility is diverted when the three men encounter a group of British mercenaries hunting down high ranking members of Saddam’s erstwhile government, featured–as you may recall–in the form of a deck of cards. Led by Ralph Fiennes, the Brits have gone Lawrence of Arabia native, and the Americans initially mistake them for insurgents. When this misidentification is overcome, the mixed group finds itself under fire from real insurgents, and there then follows fifteen minutes of the most suspenseful cinema you will ever see. This is broken by unintentional humour that is never forced or contrived: Fiennes’s character coyly reminding Sanborn that, ‘ah, we’re on the same side,’ or a soldier’s rifle jamming because the ammunition cartridge has been soaked with blood (necessitating extensive spit and polish in order to be made serviceable again).

Kathryn Bigelow is being heavily tipped for the Best Director Oscar. If she wins, it will be because she has held a mirror up to an aspect of humanity and made us see things we didn’t notice before. That’s the best, I think, we can expect of the narrative arts: they remind us what real life is like, if we’re willing to be reminded.


  1. Posted March 2, 2010 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    This film seems to inspire fine and thoughtful posts. Another one is here.

  2. Posted March 2, 2010 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    It’s that I’m still coming to grips with how a woman could possibly have dreamed up this spartan American soldier in Iraq, who, while obsessively romancing death as a bomb-squad ace, outdoes the most extreme images of machismo ever produced by mainstream America.

    So according to this writer feminism requires that a film director should stay away from subject matter that interests her because she’s a woman and women shouldn’t do that? Naturally I do s’pose Douglas Sirk should be celebrated for his domestic melodrams still even tho’ he was a man?

    I mean that’s what feminism’s all about right? Perpetuating double standards and telling chicks what to do? Um…

    Incidentally, bozo, if you’re gonna write about cinema at least understand something about how it gets made. Bigelow is the director. Mark Boal wrote it. And considering Boal was in Iraq as a correspondant he probably didn’t ‘dream it up’.


  3. AJ
    Posted March 2, 2010 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    It’s a great film. Probably the best released last year (this year in Aus) and definitely the best of the nominated films. Though I think we came to different conclusions about Renny’s character

    Another worthwhile depiction of the Iraq war is the HBO miniseries Generation Kill.

  4. AJ
    Posted March 2, 2010 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    err, Jeremy -Renner-‘s character

  5. Posted March 2, 2010 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    I also forgot to mention that it has a kicking soundtrack, including judicious use of Ministry’s Khyber Pass.

  6. Kodjo
    Posted March 3, 2010 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Slightly lateral connection–I guess, the connection is brave soldiers, addiction to war, and drawing public attention to the same–but reminds me of one of those emails one routinely gets, except in this case the story is true:

    Ed Freeman was a veteran of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. In 2001, he received the medal of honor for something he did more than a quarter of a century earlier.

    Pres. Bush said at the ceremony:

    “That story began with a battalion surrounded by the enemy in one of Vietnam’s fiercest battles. The survivors remember the desperate fear of almost certain death. They remember gunfire that one witness described as the most intense he had ever seen, and they remember the sight of an unarmed helicopter coming to their aid. The man with the controls flew through the gunfire not once, not 10 times, but at least 21 times. That single helicopter brought the water, ammunition and supplies that saved many lives on the ground, and the same pilot flew more than 70 wounded soldiers to safety.”


    It’s a weird that Freeman had to wait until 2001 for recognition for this extraordinary bravery, that most of us (certainly me) find out about him through guerrilla email, and that there were people who stood out for us in 2001, but they were almost without exception sport stars, musicians or politicians, usually with relatively limited claims for adulation.

  7. John H.
    Posted March 3, 2010 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Is this movie based on a real man?

    A US Army sergeant has sued the makers of Oscar-nominated film The Hurt Locker five days before the Academy Awards, claiming the central character in the film is based on him.

    Master Sergeant Jeffrey S. Sarver believes screenwriter Mark Boal based “virtually all of the situations” in the film on events involving him.

  8. Posted March 3, 2010 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    I would have read that Burns extract as arguing for us to try and see how we might look from an Iraqi or Middle Eastern point of view, so we avoid “money a blunder”. I agree, there’s sfa capacity for this in prevalent strategic (if not security) discourse.

  9. Posted March 3, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    I’d be curious as to the grounds of his suit; writers gather material from people around them all the time, it’s the way writing works. This would be even more the case for an embedded journalist, one would assume.

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