Saturday, May 15, 2010

Iraq trapped inside the Hurt Locker

Iraq was reminded this week the country is still not an entirely safe place for civilians. Yesterday a bomb exploded at a football match in the northern city of Mosul killing 25 people and injuring another 120. The carnage was caused by a car bomb quickly followed by a suicide bomber. The incident came four days after a series of attacks in five cities killed 110 people in the bloodiest violence this year. Politicians have blamed Al Qaeda as the country struggled to form a government two months after an indecisive general election. The formation of a stable government is a crucial step in ensuring US combat troops leave the country by 31 August – almost seven and a half years since the Bush Administration launched its invasion.

I was reminded of all these things as I went to watch The Hurt Locker last night. The film tells the story of a US bomb disposal team in the early years after the invasion. The title of the film refers to the place where an explosion sends you to – a private world of pain. It is a fitting allegory for the film because despite the fact it was filmed on near-location (Jordan) using many Iraqi refugees in minor parts, it fails to humanise anyone other than the three American participants of the bomb squad.

This is hardly unusual in American war films. But The Hurt Locker is a particular disappointment given the positive critical reception it has received. It was based on the Iraqi accounts of embedded freelance journalist Mark Boal, who also wrote the screenplay. As a journalist Boal should have been honest enough to look at the conflict from both sides. But the film never rises above a depiction of Iraqis as “the other”.

Director Kathryn Bigelow’s stated desire was to immerse the audience into something that was “raw, immediate and visceral” and to some extent she succeeded. But ultimately her movie put us in the position of the “fourth man in the humvee” and not the women looking fearfully out the window, or the boys in the alley or the men at the mosque or the souk. The Iraqis were never humanised. Significantly one of few Iraqis to be named was the boy called “Beckham” in honour of a footballer of a country that was also at war in Iraq. The name “Beckham” was a mask, and even peeled off it was never fully resolved as the American protagonist mistakenly believes he is dead. All these native boys look alike.

The film reveals the massive problem the US faced in its invasion of Iraq and still does in its Afghan incursion. There is a local lack of empathy with the people whose lives they have interrupted. Hardly any of the invaders speak Arabic (even less so Pashto and Dari), and no one has any cultural affinity with the places they must serve in. Yes, their job was difficult and they faced hostility but nowhere in the film did anyone ask what they were doing in Iraq in the first place. There is no political context and not even a hint of the role oil played in the invasion.

The Hurt Locker does a wonderful white knuckle job of getting into the day to day stresses of a bomb disposal squad. But it offered no insight to American audiences on why the bombs were there in the first place. Saddam Hussein was a cruel and vicious tyrant but he was created in America’s image. When the Republican Guard crumbled in 2003, the US was unprepared for what might follow. A county that had suffered almost continual war or sanctions since 1980 was on the brink of collapse and many desperate people had nothing to lose by declaring jihad on the invaders. “The poor man’s air force” did much to harden opinion against the invasion in both Iraq and the US. The nasty legacy is that many will remain attracted to the violence well after Obama has withdrawn the troops. Iraq has a long way to go before it can escape the Hurt Locker.

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