Genocide, Fuck Yeah! How The Hurt Locker Put the Fun Back into Mass Murder
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There is a question used to illustrate the way in which presuppositions can constrain discourse: “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” The discourse of US international relations is somewhat like the inverse of that question – perhaps equivalent to “have you been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize yet?” It appears that people find it very difficult not to become apologists for the US when they set out to critique the US. For example a recent paper on possible violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL) in US drone “signature strikes” takes as written that there is a sustainable claim that these strikes are legitimate self-defence. This is in order to make the point that even acts of self-defence must conform to IHL and IHRL. You might think that is a reasonable stance, but how can anyone possibly think that signature strikes are legitimate self-defence? These are attacks carried out against unknown individuals based on patterns of behaviour such as visiting suspect buildings. This simply cannot be reconciled with the right of self-defence given under Article 51 of the UN Charter, so why on Earth would anyone simply concede this utter lie? Even the Obama administration prefers (citing US officials’ opinions as sufficient legal precedent) to claim that it is killing as part of an ongoing war, and that its violations of sovereignty are legitimate because the US has done the same thing in the past (and gotten away with it).
Sometimes, however, you don’t need to concede anything to have a critique subverted by the power of the hegemonic discourse. You stick your black spike of dissent in the path of the giant snowball of empire, and with barely a jolt or change in direction the ball gobbles up your spike which is soon obscured and does no more than add its weight to the thundering behemoth. For example, I greatly like the films Full Metal Jacket and Waltz with Bashir. They are both unflattering depictions of war from a conscript’s viewpoint. The problem is that they exist in a distorted context. It is good to humanise the forces of an aggressor, especially the actual grunts who have to face the dangers and do the most intimate dirty work. But to have a context wherein only the aggressors are humanised is sick and depraved, and I don’t mean that these films are sick and depraved. I mean the society we live in, that has never accorded such a deep three-dimensional humanity to Palestinians, Lebanese or Vietnamese, is sick and depraved – utterly sick and depraved.
Waltz with Bashir deserves an acknowledgement in that, in its final moments, it very movingly humanises the victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacres through still photographs (similar to the approach of DePalma’s Redacted). However, through no fault of the film-maker (who had his own story to tell), the victims were not protagonists; they were not actors; they were not agents. Both of these films unintentionally act to support Israeli or US aggression. Whenever Israel or the US invades a new country, our imaginations are embedded with their personnel. We think about their fears and their suffering, not the greater fears and suffering of their victims. The emotions of their victims can’t be shown in any significant way, because then the US and Israel would look like the “Bad Guys” and people might find it difficult to believe that their violence is founded in the fight against the “Bad Guys”.
It is not just perceptions of real life that are altered by this one-sidedness. The boundaries of what is allowable within the cinematic discourse may, because of this context, allow utterly toxic pieces of propaganda to pass unnoticed. They fit comfortably within the normal practice of privileging Western lives and Western stories. They blame the victims and revere the sacrifice of the perpetrators. They may even be ostensibly antiwar, but they are pro-war crime. Such a work is The Hurt Locker.
The film Zero Dark Thirty has rightly attracted criticism for being a repugnant pro-torture piece of propaganda. For example the Political Film Blog has quite a collection of posts from various writers on many different aspects of why it is a repulsive work. But writer, Mark Boal, and director, Kathryn Bigelow, received almost universal praise for their previous work, The Hurt Locker, and what criticism there was of this movie made it seem almost as if it was a vapid and empty thriller that, by default, promoted a nihilistic love of US muscularity and capacity for destruction. As one writer puts it: “When the film ends with James marching defiantly toward yet another bomb in slow motion, one can practically hear the parody song, ‘America, Fuck Yeah!’ playing in the background.”
But The Hurt Locker is far worse than just that, and I think that the fact that it passed with so little criticism shows that it was more insidious than Zero Dark Thirty. You see, when people perceive the Hurt Locker as somehow devoid of some level of commentary, what they are failing to see is that it is absolutely full of the sort of things that pass unremarked. It is deliberately constructed that way, and this construction is then used to promote the genocidal mass murder of civilians in a deliberately deceptive but direct manner. The only parallels I can think of are the Nazi propaganda film “that juxtaposed staged scenes of Jews living a life of luxury in the Warsaw Ghetto with chilling images that required no staging at all”; or Philip K. Dick’s rather misunderstood Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?(itself inspired by reading an S.S. soldier’s journal from Warsaw as research for The Man in the High Castle) which draws the reader into siding with the murderers of children. Perhaps a better understanding, though, can be gained from reading After Dachau. This book is another sci-fi allegory in which the world’s historical discourse has reconstructed Dachau as having been a major battle – a military conflict and not a one-sided slaughter. If it had not been written years beforehand, After Dachau might have been modelled on The Hurt Locker.
To explain why I take this view of the Hurt Locker I first have to explain what I mean by the “genocidal mass murder of civilians” in Iraq. Genocide, by its original conception or by its legal definition, may involve a combination of many different actions such as restricting a population’s food intake or destroying cultural items. It does not necessarily require that there is systematic killing. However, if the civilians of another country are systematically killed in large numbers, it is clearly an instance of genocide. What made the Iraq genocide unique when it entered the Occupation Period was that hundreds of thousands of civilians were systematically killed, but not in large scale massacres using air or ground based weapons. Civilians were not rounded up and shot en masse and there was no carpet bombing. The truly unique aspect of this period of the Iraq genocide was that the majority of civilian casualties were from coalition small arms in incidents wherein the number of victims was small. We know this because a group published the results of mortality studies in the Lancet in 2004 and 2006 (known as L1 and L2). Using a baseline mortality from January 2002 the 2006 study had the following findings:
[D]ata from 1849 households that contained 12801 individuals in 47 clusters was gathered. 1474 births and 629 deaths were reported during the observation period. Pre-invasion mortality rates were 5.5 per 1000 people per year (95% CI 4.3–7.1), compared with 13.3 per 1000 people per year (10.9–16.1) in the 40 months post-invasion. We estimate that as of July, 2006, there have been 654,965 (392,979–942,636) excess Iraqi deaths as a consequence of the war, which corresponds to 2.5% of the population in the study area. Of post-invasion deaths, 601,027 (426,369–793,663) were due to violence, the most common cause being gunfire.
This is the only study that gives us this clarity on causes of death. The majority of those violent deaths attributable to a given party were caused by coalition forces. The data reveals that many tens of thousands of Iraqis were shot to death by coalition forces. The Lancet studies were attacked, of course, but on grounds which were either completely innumerate or deliberately deceptive. In January 2008, UK polling company Opinion Research Business completed a survey and released the following:
Following responses to ORB’s earlier work, which was based on survey work undertaken in primarily urban locations, we have conducted almost 600 additional interviews in rural communities. By and large the results are in line with the ‘urban results’ and we now estimate that the death toll between March 2003 and August 2007 is likely to have been of the order of 1,033,000. If one takes into account the margin of error associated with survey data of this nature then the estimated range is between 946,000 and 1,120,000.
The circumstances in which Iraqi civilians are killed are complicated and subject to debate. This is itself symptomatic for the current need of deniability and dissimulation when committing mass murder. One can no longer build massive gas chambers and crematoria, but equally urban firebombing or carpetbombing may be altogether too obvious a means to be deployed in this era. Mass murder in this sense follows a grotesque fashionability. Those actions which are too closely associated with prior genocide or mass murder must be avoided. In Iraq this has led full circle to a return to very personal violence in which in excess of 100,000, civilians have been killed in a very atomised and geographically dispersed pattern with small arms by coalition forces. The closest parallel to this would be something like the Herero genocide, an early 20th Century colonial genocide.
In a work based on veteran testimony, Chris Hedges and Laila al-Arian explain that US personnel have gone“from killing – the shooting of someone who [can] harm you – to murder. The war in Iraq is primarily about murder. There is very little killing.”1 They are talking about the systematic murder of civilians in small increments multiplied many times over. This is the result of a disproportionate fear and lack of security induced within US personnel as well as such policies and tactics as: force protection; reactive firing; suppressive fire; reconnaissance by fire. These are of relevance during convoy operations, house raids and at checkpoints and I am quite confident that each of these situations has been shaped by US policy in such a way as to maximise civilian deaths, often putting US personnel in the situation of being unwilling murderers. Joshua Key describes, from early in the occupation, having to build a “corpse shack” where Iraqis could go to collect the bodies of relatives killed by his company. It was “near our front gate, so relatives could retrieve their loved ones without entering our compound.”2 Those who doubt the systematic manner in which the US killed civilians need only view the gun camera footage from an Apache helicopter released by Wikileaks under the title of Collateral Murder. It reveals the psychological state of US personnel desperate to kill when, despite the evinced outrage at spotting what they claim to be an ‘RPG’ (which was actually a camera), those personnel were never endangered. As a Syrian blogger explained: ‘I also have to add that RPGs used by the insurgents are anti-tank weapons and not a ground-to-air weapon. Trying to hit an Apache with these is similar to trying to kill a flying wasp with a slingshot. Suspecting the journalist’s camera to be an RPG which is quite an outrageous mistake to make and still does not hold as an excuse for the trigger-happy soldier operating that 30mm machine gun.’
Permission to fire is sought properly through the chain of command and all that occurs is according to the official Rules of Engagement (ROE), including the murder of those who innocently stopped to help the injured. This contravenes International Humanitarian Law on a number of grounds including protection for civilians but also Article 49 of the additional protocol to the 1949 Geneva Convention which protects combatants rendered hors de combat. The fact that it is legitimate according to ROE means that it is systematically applied murder which in turn means that the US is in clear breach of the UN Genocide Convention.
This brings us back to The Hurt Locker. It is somewhat surprising that the film garnered so much critical praise when its flaws, as a film, are really very large. The main character (Sgt James) has no sensible underlying psychology and of his two sidekicks one (Sgt Shelborn) has no character to speak of (except for being extremely callous, but that is presented as pure pragmatism) and the other (Spc Eldridge) is – like James – a nonsensical pastiche. Eldridge’s character is a very ugly marriage of the “nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nineteen” year-old conscript who fought in Vietnam (as seen in every Vietnam war film) and Yossarian from Catch-22. Though I couldn’t possibly deal with every sick aspect to this movie, it is worth noting here that a key turning point in Eldridge’s narrative journey comes when he is sucking a dead man’s blood from a large round of sniper ammunition while James says the following: “Just spit and rub. Spit and rub, man. Here, take it out. Take it out…. Just breathe, buddy. Come on. Just breathe in. You got it. You’re doing good. Here, just squeeze. Got it? Rub that ogive baby. Come on, you got it. Here.”
Eldridge is central for two reasons. He is needed because while the proper manly men (James and Shelborn) do not show fear, we need to be told that death waits at every crossroads: “I mean, anyone comes alongside a Humvee, we’re dead. Anybody even looks at you funny, we’re dead. Pretty much the bottom line is, if you’re in Iraq, you’re dead.” You might be getting to notice that the dialogue of The Hurt Locker is pretty weird: “Anybody even looks at you funny, we’re dead.” Odd words, but they serve a purpose – as will be seen.
The very first scene is a characteristically stupid scenario. The team leader (Thompson) of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team goes to disarm an IED. As he walks away from the bomb to retrieve something his team mate spots an Iraqi with a cellphone. The Iraqi is standing in the open, fidgeting. Why he didn’t depart the area when the IED was first discovered we are not shown. Why, if he was determined to blow up an EOD team leader, he waited until after said target was moving away from the bomb is not explained. Why he would expose himself completely unnecessarily to armed US soldiers when wishing to explode the device is not readily apparent, although it must be said that the bulk of the rest of the film does try very hard to suggest that Iraqi’s act completely irrationally and have no instinct for self-preservation whatsoever.
The real point to the fidgeting cellphone bomber is finally made clear when Eldridge is doing his Yossarian Jr. act with an Army psychiatrist: “What if all I can be is dead on the side of an Iraqi road? I mean, I think it’s logical. This is a war. People die all the time. Why not me? … You want to know what I’m thinking about, Doc?…This is what I’m thinking about, Doc. Here’s Thompson, okay. He’s dead. [gun clicks as Eldridge dry-fires his rifle] He’s alive. Here’s Thompson. He’s dead. [gun clicks] He’s alive. He’s dead. [gun clicks] He’s alive.” You get it? If you stop to think rather than immediately killing any Iraqi you see with a cellphone, your friend will die.
It is no joke that all sorts of conditions such as carrying shovels, using cellphones, binoculars or cameras were considered sufficient to warrant lethal violence under ROE’s in Iraq. US personnel were made to feel constantly insecure and constantly put in situations where their own security might be at risk if they did not use violence. They were given to understand that they would be protected from repercussions if fear should cause them to take actions which might constitute crimes. As one Sergeant said“All you got to say is, ‘I feel threatened,…’ and you shoot. They have no remorse.”3
Following an already established cinematic trope, one of the almost mystically powerful forces faced by the GI in The Hurt Locker is the dreaded AK-47. Yes, 60 years after first being made, in movieland the AK-47 is still more terrifying than all of the firepower that a US infantry unit can muster. In this instance, reports unheard, bullets zzzwap into hapless English idiots from snipers unseen causing instant and very accurately placed death. It later is revealed that the Iraqis are firing from 850 metres away. Now, the Iraqi army did in fact use a Kalashnikov variant as a sniper rifle, but it had an effective range of 600 metres and could not penetrate body armour. We are then treated to a long sniper duel with the Shelborn using some sort of tripod mounted, super long-barrelled, high-powered sniper rifle as if the film-makers were at this point actually mocking their know-nothing audience. So Kalashnikovs are another overblown threat. I’m not saying that assault rifles are not threatening, merely pointing out the inversion which suggests that, as in Indochina, GIs were seriously outgunned. Those who followed events in Iraq will know that among the patchwork quilt of military occupation authorities imposed on Iraq, many allowed private possession of assault rifles to continue for a very long time, but policies were confused and changeable. Being spotted bearing such a weapon would certainly have been considered reasonable grounds to use lethal force given that carrying a shovel was considered sufficient (in Vietnam, GIs would carry “drop weapons” to place on the corpses of unarmed victims, in Iraq they used “drop shovels” in the same manner).
But, for all the reasons the The Hurt Locker gives for why Iraqis might pose a threat, it is the “look at you funny” one that is the most menacing in the film. All of the male Iraqis (females are not much in evidence) tend to move in and to surround. They exude sullen hostility and seem to be deliberately maintaining a concealing blankness of expression. Often they move unpredictably, for unknown purposes. Friendly expressions are seemingly forced or possibly aggressive, certainly impossible to trust. The overall image given is that they all want to kill you, but only some of them are actually trying to kill you at any given moment.
So, the GI mentality, which the film would have us share, is that danger is constant and the enemy is every Iraqi. Worse than that, though, and far more chilling is the deadly combination creating an extravagant desire to kill through indoctrination, and the replacement of morality with considerations of formal “Rules of Engagement” criteria. At “boot camp” they are told that their whole reason for being is to kill, and to make the point sink in they get them to scream “Kill! Kill!” while bayoneting dummies and get them to chant desensitising cadences, like “Napalm sticks to kids” (which sound like ironic or even antiwar sentiments but take on a different character in the context of a military culture where “Er, kill babies” is a common greeting intended to be motivational).4 Moreover, I could devote a great deal of time to the racism and its role in dehumanising, desensitising and in creating hatred and an active desire to kill, but I will leave that to the reader’s imagination or their own research.
Along with the induced desire to kill, murder is legitimised through the formal criteria of the ROE and the chain of command. Again, one can hear this in operation as the gunner in Collateral Murder seeks permission to kill people. These are acts of murder – war crimes – but the murderers are absolutely convinced of their legality. Further, these acts are morally legitimised by formal criteria. After the fact it makes obvious sense that those who have killed harmless civilians would take comfort in having adhered to procedure and protocol. I have read many accounts, for example, of innocent civilians being killed at traffic control points by those who, in the final analysis, were equally innocent – forced into having to kill because of a situation deliberately created by the Bush administration itself. In such instances we know exactly who the criminals are. But the fear induced in US personnel, and the formalism, also combine in a truly frightening manner with a severely reductive Manichaeanism. Their purpose as soldiers or marines is to kill “Bad Guys”. Kill “Bad Guys”. Kill “Bad Guys”. Kill “Bad Guys”.
You kill “Bad Guys” and that is what makes you good. Kill Bad Guys and you are a Good Guy. You kill to save lives. But who is a Bad Guy? Someone with a shovel, or a camera, or a cellphone? They might not be posing any direct threat. They might have no way of fighting back. You might actually be cold-bloodedly gunning down a helpless person who has no means of resistance or flight, but they are Bad Guys and the use of lethal force is authorised – you are a Good Guy. If you don’t kill them it is an immoral act of cowardice, because they might kill your buddy. There is an implicit message here about the value of Iraqi lives and US lives. This is formalised under the doctrine of “Force Protection” which is in itself a blatant contravention of the 4th Geneva Convention. The message is quite simple – there is no upper limit to the number of Iraqis you should kill in order to save a US life. No limit – the difference in value between Iraqi and US lives is qualitative.
This brings us back to Eldridge of The Hurt Locker. He is set up as the one who failed to kill – the cowardly transgressor. He is further denigrated by his patronage of a therapist. The therapist himself is interesting – a liberal Yale type called “’Doc’ Cambridge” (subtle, huh?) he tries to reason with Iraqis only to be confronted with their sullen irrationality and immense obtuseness. He finally learns the lesson that force is the only language Iraqis understand and having served his purpose he is promptly blown up in a deliberately cartoon style. Eldridge wanders around with the dead man’s helmet crying out “Doc! Doc!”, but, befitting the style of this film, the scene changes before we begin to wonder why it has turned into a live-action version of South Park.
Looking at where Eldridge starts, it is pretty easy to see where he might go, but there are several tricks here. Not only is Eldridge lower status than James and Shelborn, we are led to expect, if only unconsciously, that he is the minor character of the three and that his arc will be simplest. Whilst our expectations are that the clash of personalities and philosophies between James and Shelborn will be used to make statements about the world, in fact it is nothing but a vapid pissing contest, while Eldridge is the vehicle for most of the messaging. From his introduction, we expect Eldridge to be “the kid” who gains his manhood, perhaps in the form of an old pearl-handled .45 or a trophy from a defeated adversary – you know, a penis (apparently you are not a man until you get one from somewhere). The fate of “Doc” Cambridge, though, should be considered fair warning. In this film nobody is allowed to change or “grow”. You see, throughout the film Eldridge is presented as being at least half female. He is, without a doubt, a pussy. After the scene with the “rub that ogive” line (which in visual terms is also presented like a form of violation – sickening in the light of the epidemic of sexual assaults and rapes in the US military) Eldridge kills an Iraqi, and we think right, well now he is on his way to the lofty goal of masculinity, but the very next scene has him as the girly bystander to the manly men who are hitting each other for fun. In his final scene he condemns James for reckless adventurism – asking, why chase the Bad Guys into a dark alley? Meaning, symbolically, why invade Iraq in the first place? There he is on a stretcher getting a medevac from a helicopter, the iconic image of the young Vietnam draftee whining like a bitch because he’s too much of a pussy to see that you don’t invade Iraq because you have too, you invade Iraq because you can. Fuck yeah!
Compared to Eldridge, James and Shelborn are pretty straightforward. James is a bit mad, and even a touch Iraqi in a funny way. Like the Iraqis he doesn’t have very good instincts for self-preservation. He keeps trying to cross over into the world of Iraqis, but every time there are obstacles that make human communication impossible. He can’t befriend a kid, talk to an urbane professor, nor save a middle-class family man. Though more puissant, he’s not a killer like Shelborn. He’s an adrenaline junky – good for blowing shit up, symbolically raping Eldridge, and demonstrating that there is never any point in communicating or negotiating with Arabs.
Shelborn is the everyman of the film. He embodies the baseline of the movie. We might sympathise with James for deciding to invade Iraq out of both noble Bad Guy killing desires and an urge to have fun and blow shit up, but we are meant to identify more closely with Shelborn. Stay safe. Keep your buddies safe. Do your job and come home at the end of your tour. You don’t try to talk to Iraqis – hating them is a natural state of being that Shelborn evinces in the film but which is not explored one bit. Hating Iraq is normal too – you, the audience, should be in no doubt that if you were in Iraq you would hate Iraq and its people, how could it be any other way (except for wierdos like James)? Above all, the rule that Shelborn lives by: when in doubt kill Iraqis. It’s not a big thing. Even Eldridge kills one. You gotta do these things to come home safe.
There is one last thing to note, something not unique to The Hurt Locker but which is taken to levels which verge on the ridiculous in this film. None of the Iraqis ever shows the least bit of fear of the US personnel. They passively watch or sometimes actively approach to pester with broken English. Even the professor is inhumanly sanguine – when a gun-toting foreigner breaks into his house and points his weapon directly at his head, he says, “You are CIA. No? I am very pleased to see CIA in my home. Please, sit.” A taxi driver barely flinches when James shoots right past his face, and doesn’t react at all to having a gun barrel placed to his forehead. This isn’t just a cinematic reiteration of Sir Hugh Trenchard’s claim that Iraqis “have no objection to being killed.”5 No, this is some serious hardcore propaganda here, and it is even little children who very pointedly show no iota of concern about heavily armed US personnel even as they run about discharging weapons and suchlike. The fact is that if you show Iraqis as being scared of US personnel, you threaten the narrative of this movie and much more. The people the US kills must be the Bad Guys. Why would children have any fear of the Good Guys? There was an Iraq War, not an Iraq Genocide, right?
1 Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian, Collateral Damage: America’s War against Iraqi Civilians, New York: Nation Books, 2008, p xiii.
2 Joshua Key and Lawrence Hill, The Deserter’s Tale: Why I Walked Away from the War in Iraq, Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2007.
3 Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, London: Penguin, 2007, p 258.
4 Aaron Glantz, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Winter Soldier, Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008, p 79.
5 Barry M. Lando, Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq, from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush, New York: Other Press, 2007, p 17.