Zen Buddhism and Martial Arts

Home » Literature Archives » Comments On The Hurt Locker

Author of this essay:

Abbot John
(February 26, 2010)

Comments On The Hurt Locker
by a soldier's father, Abbot John

"He jests at scars that never felt a wound."

-- Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2.

I have a son in the military currently serving in Iraq. He's a foot soldier in the 82nd Airborne, 504th Regiment, Red Devils Company.

After he enlisted, his mother and I would go to where he was stationed to attend each of his "rites of passage" ceremonies. The Army does ceremony well, even at the grunt end. They keep everything moving, and they don't give you any time to ask questions. It's not college. No one there is going to waste any time talking about your son or daughter's "potential." They either made the grade or they didn't.

There's a part of you that hopes your kid will fail and get booted out as honorably as possible. There's another part that makes you swell with pride at what he's doing. Parental reassurance is given at every step. The Captain finally advises, "Don't watch the TV news. Don't believe a word you hear about this or that horror. The main job of this Army is to protect this country and, in doing so, to bring your kids home." You want to believe. You really do.

I took the advice to heart and avoided watching anything - TV, movies, documentaries, that had to do with Iraq or Afghanistan. With the caveat that I should on no account allow my wife to watch The Hurt Locker, the film was recommended to me by several people. I was persuaded, and I watched it, sitting alone at home. Half an hour into the film, my wife walked in and asked what I was watching. I told her and she marched out of the room repeating, "I don't want to see. I don't want to see..." trying to drown out the dialogue. She is very active in various "support our troops" type organizations, and the friends she's made knew her well enough to warn her. Women view war differently from the way men view war - which is probably why the film, which is directed by a woman, Kathryn Bigelow, is so different from the usual war films.

The hardest part of watching it was the realism. Our son communicates with us regularly, emailing photos that seem interchangeable with many scenes in the film - such as the "rough-housing" that goes on in the barracks. And, when they first arrived, he and his buddies also tried to befriend the kids, giving them candy and "wheeling and dealing" for petty stuff. The kids, who always seemed attracted to our guys, were just as pesky; and, as in the film, the guys' efforts to be friendly with them waned over time. By the time the troops were on the Syrian border they would threaten anyone walking towards them within a radius of 75 yards. For good reason.

Their social/military interactions and dialogue could have been taken from the film's script. They even had a buddy who reminded me of William James, the film's lead character whose job is defusing bombs: fearless; don't give a shit; just track down the bad guys and kill them; no questions about the reason for the war; acceptance of the fact that they're right in the middle of it; and a "what the hell" attitude.

Voluntary military service in wartime represents something different to each soldier. Most know why they're there: a patriotic spirit; the opportunity to learn a trade; the chance for a college education; the adventure; a military career; or in James' case, the thrill of danger. Still, there is a time in every war when the individual soldier questions why he's there. Dramatically, as in The Hurt Locker, it's after a loss of someone or a close call with death. But as in most of life's experiences, the question arises more during those immense stretches of pregnant inactivity. It's the same in real life or in the film: a frayed family life or one that is completely unraveling; a girl friend who's about to deliver a baby; a wife who's had enough of loneliness; and money... always there's a lack of money.

One of the most poignant scenes in the film occurred when James - who is masterfully played by Jeremy Renner - gets hold of a satellite phone and calls home -- and then never speaks a word. His wife answers, "Hello, hello. Is that you? Hello, hello." The only sounds she hears are noise from helicopter blades and MRAP treads and engines. There's nothing to talk about and he knows it.

James keeps a box under his bunk. In it he stashes detonators, cell phones, printed circuits and other detritus taken from all the bombs he has disarmed in his time in Iraq. One of his comrades watches him as he goes through the box, handling the contents as though they were sacred souvenirs. Asked what he is doing, James responds with a tingling statement, "I find it interesting to think about the things that almost killed me." When his comrade later rummages through the box he finds James' wedding ring.

The Hurt Locker overall maintains a very personal perspective in its reflection on war. The grand themes, when they come up, are just as understated.

When James finishes this particular rotation we find him back home in a supermarket. He's standing in an aisle when his wife tells him to pick up some cereal and then meet her at the checkout. He rambles around a bit, finds the cereal aisle and is confounded by the immense number of irrelevant look-alike choices there are on the fully stocked shelves. The dull monotony of such civilian life-decisions contrasts with the excitation of life-and-death decisions he makes when he defuses a bomb.

The scene shifts to back to his home. James is playing with his infant son with an assortment of mobiles and a Jack-in-the-box. He seems to be in a moment of desperate contemplation. He then begins his soliloquy, his audience, a baby who cannot understand his words. Thinking aloud, he says plaintively, "You love your mommy and your daddy. You love everything, doncha? But you know what? As you get older some of the things you love might not seem so special anymore. Like this Jack-in-the-box. Maybe you realize it's just a piece of tin with a stuffed animal. Yeah, the older you get the fewer things you really love, and by the time you get to be my age maybe it's only one or two things----with me I think it's one." He re-ups for another tour.

Questions about a righteous war or an immoral war are neither asked nor answered in The Hurt Locker. Instead we see war from the points of view of the men who are in combat. And we also see that beneath the gripes, squabbles, wishes to be home, fear and recklessness, there is an undercurrent of a strange gallantry.

A few months ago I read an editorial in Der Spiegel. A German columnist, writing about the war-effort and NATO's position, lamented that of all the great nations in western civilization only the United States was showing any evidence that the 'warrior ethos' was still a dominant force in its culture.

Not unexpectedly, being German, he was somewhat dismissive of the French, but between the rough edges he had a well honed sense of humor. He thought that the Germans needed to rediscover that warrior spirit (something that could be a bit disconcerting to more than a few) and help the United States, or else Germans should resign themselves to taking up knitting and keeping an open line to America so they could call Uncle Sam whenever anyone heard a knock on the door at night.

He felt that the only nations that would even talk in and of this spirit were in the English speaking sphere, Australia and the UK; but he worried that Great Britain was losing its traditional "warrior spirit".

He related an interview he had with a French soldier in Afghanistan. The leadership of NATO's forces revolves on a six month time frame; and he asked the French soldier which leadership style he preferred. The soldier said that he preferred to serve under the U.S. when he was in the field. When asked why, he replied, "When gunfire erupts the Americans always run towards it, everyone else digs a hole and gets behind cover."

Whether the Warrior Ethos truly exists and if it does whether that a good thing or a bad thing, is not easy to answer. Perhaps it explains that undercurrent of gallantry, that "daring to take risks" which transfers into other creative areas. Orson Welles once famously noted, "In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed; but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock."

The gallantry begins with clearing the mind's slate of all emotional scars, of what in Zen we call "the destruction of the ego self." I remember in the HBO movie, Band of Brothers, there was a Lieutenant who would walk from hedge row to hedge row, taking out German machine guns and rallying the boys behind him. He's a loner type; and his men wonder how he can summon up the courage to do the things that he does, and why he wasn't afraid of dying. In one scene, the dialog went something like this:

Lieutenant: (talking to a soldier who hid in a ditch) "What's your name kid?"
Soldier: "Blithe."
Lieutenant: "You know why you hid in that ditch, Blithe?"
Soldier: "'Cause I was scared."
Lieutenant: "We're all scared. You hid in that ditch because you think there's still hope. But the only hope you have is to accept the fact that you're already dead, and the sooner you accept that the sooner you'll be able to function the way a soldier is suppose to function: without mercy; without compassion; without remorse. All war depends upon it."

In the absence of ego, they are all one, a unit.

At the Viet Nam War Memorial - which also, and perhaps not coincidentally, was another woman's work of genius - we see that bond which eternally connects those who fought and the commemorated fallen. They greet each other with a recognition that transcends all other salutations.

We see it too on Veteran's Day when old men gather to remember battles we know only from history books. They still weep when they talk about fallen comrades. And that is what astonishes us most, for we know that those who fell barely exist in the memory of their own families; yet in only a few weeks or months of sharing war's bitter duty they were welded together - and remain so, the still living and the long dead.

This is a pristine understanding of the situation the soldier finds himself in: the stripping away of everything except prayer and duty; the reason there are no atheists in foxholes; the unexpected rise to heroism; and finding camaraderie with others like himself. Most will count days and make remarks similar to the sentiments expressed by Sanborn and Eldridge, "I hate this fuckin' place. I wanna go home. I want a son." But they stay and do their job. A few others like James, see through even this illusion and become, for better or worse, those who love the battle... and existence at the edge of forever.

Humming Bird