A Soft Focus on War

How Hollywood hides the horrors of war.

Slavoj Žižek

Jeremy Renner stars as Staff Sergeant William James in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. (Photo courtesy Summit Entertainment.)

When Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Lock­er won all the big Oscars over James Cameron’s Avatar, the vic­to­ry was per­ceived as a good sign of the state of things in Hol­ly­wood: A mod­est pro­duc­tion meant for inde­pen­dent fes­ti­vals clear­ly over­ran a super­pro­duc­tion whose tech­ni­cal bril­liance can­not cov­er up the flat sim­plic­i­ty of its sto­ry. Did this mean that Hol­ly­wood is not just a block­buster machine, but still knows how to appre­ci­ate mar­gin­al cre­ative efforts? Maybe – but that’s a big maybe. 

In its very invisibility, ideology is here, more than ever: We are there, with our boys, instead of questioning what they are doing at war in the first place.

For all its mys­ti­fi­ca­tions, Avatar clear­ly sides with those who oppose the glob­al Mil­i­tary-Indus­tri­al Com­plex, por­tray­ing the super­pow­er army as a force of bru­tal destruc­tion serv­ing big cor­po­rate inter­ests. The Hurt Lock­er, on the oth­er hand, presents the U.S. Army in a way that is much more fine­ly attuned to its own pub­lic image in our time of human­i­tar­i­an inter­ven­tions and mil­i­taris­tic pacifism.

The film large­ly ignores the big debate about the U.S. mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in Iraq, and instead focus­es on the dai­ly ordeals of ordi­nary sol­diers who are forced to deal with dan­ger and destruc­tion. In pseu­do-doc­u­men­tary style, it tells the sto­ry – or rather, presents a series of vignettes – of an Explo­sive Ord­nance Dis­pos­al (EOD) squad and their poten­tial­ly dead­ly work of dis­arm­ing plant­ed bombs. This choice is deeply symp­to­matic: Although sol­diers, they do not kill, but dai­ly risk their lives dis­man­tling ter­ror­ist bombs that are des­tined to kill civil­ians. Can there be any­thing more sym­pa­thet­ic to our lib­er­al sen­si­bil­i­ties? Are our armies in the ongo­ing War on Ter­ror (aka The Long War), even when they bomb and destroy, ulti­mate­ly not just like EOD squads, patient­ly dis­man­tling ter­ror­ist net­works in order to make the lives of civil­ians safer?

But there is more to the film. The Hurt Lock­er brought to Hol­ly­wood the trend that accounts for the suc­cess of two recent Israeli films about the 1982 Lebanon war, Ari Folman’s ani­mat­ed doc­u­men­tary Waltz With Bashir and Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon.

Lebanon draws on Maoz’s own mem­o­ries as a young sol­dier, ren­der­ing the war’s fear and claus­tro­pho­bia by shoot­ing most of the action from inside a tank. The movie fol­lows four inex­pe­ri­enced sol­diers dis­patched in a tank to mop up” ene­mies in a Lebanese town that has already been bom­bard­ed by the Israeli air force. Inter­viewed at the 2009 Venice Film Fes­ti­val, Yoav Donat, the actor who plays the sol­dier Maoz from a quar­ter of a cen­tu­ry ago, said: This is not a movie that makes you think I’ve just been to a movie.’ This is a movie that makes you feel like you’ve been to war.” In a sim­i­lar way, Waltz With Bashir, ren­ders the hor­rors of the 1982 con­flict from the point of view of Israeli soldiers.

Maoz said his film is not a con­dem­na­tion of Israel’s poli­cies, but a per­son­al account of what he went through. The mis­take I made is to call the film Lebanon because the Lebanon War is no dif­fer­ent in its essence from any oth­er war and for me any attempt to be polit­i­cal would have flat­tened the film.” This is ide­ol­o­gy at its purest: The re-focus on the perpetrator’s trau­mat­ic expe­ri­ence enables us to oblit­er­ate the entire ethico-polit­i­cal back­ground of the con­flict: What was the Israeli army doing deep in Lebanon? Such a human­iza­tion” thus serves to obfus­cate the key point: the need for a ruth­less analy­sis of what we are doing in our polit­i­cal-mil­i­tary activ­i­ty and what is at stake. Our polit­i­cal-mil­i­tary strug­gles are not an opaque his­to­ry that bru­tal­ly dis­rupts our inti­mate per­son­al lives – they are some­thing in which we ful­ly participate.

More gen­er­al­ly, such a human­iza­tion” of the sol­dier (in the direc­tion of the prover­bial wis­dom it is human to err”) is a key con­stituent of the ide­o­log­i­cal (self-)presentation of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The Israeli media loves to dwell on the imper­fec­tions and psy­chic trau­mas of Israeli sol­diers, pre­sent­ing them nei­ther as per­fect mil­i­tary machines nor as super-human heroes, but as ordi­nary peo­ple who, caught into the trau­mas of his­to­ry and war­fare, com­mit errors and can get lost as all nor­mal peo­ple can.

For exam­ple, in Jan­u­ary 2003, the IDF demol­ished the house of the fam­i­ly of a sus­pect­ed ter­ror­ist. They did it with accen­tu­at­ed kind­ness, even help­ing the fam­i­ly to move the fur­ni­ture out before destroy­ing the house with a bull­doz­er. A sim­i­lar inci­dent was report­ed a lit­tle bit ear­li­er in the Israeli press. When an Israeli sol­dier was search­ing a Pales­tin­ian house for sus­pects, the moth­er of the fam­i­ly called her daugh­ter by her name in order to calm her down, and the sur­prised sol­dier learned that the fright­ened girl’s name was the same as his own daughter’s. In a sen­ti­men­tal upsurge, he pulled out his wal­let and showed her pic­ture to the Pales­tin­ian mother. 

It is easy to dis­cern the fal­si­ty of such a ges­ture of empa­thy: The notion that, in spite of polit­i­cal dif­fer­ences, we are all human beings with the same loves and wor­ries, neu­tral­izes the impact of what the sol­dier is effec­tive­ly doing at that moment. The only prop­er reply of the moth­er should be to demand that the sol­dier address this ques­tion: If you real­ly are human like me, why are you doing what you are doing now?” The sol­dier can then only take refuge in rei­fied duty: I don’t like it, but these are my orders,” thus avoid­ing any respon­si­bil­i­ty for his actions.

The mes­sage of such human­iza­tion is to empha­size the gap between the person’s com­plex real­i­ty and the role they are forced – against their true nature – to play. In my fam­i­ly, the mil­i­tary is not genet­ic,” says one of the inter­viewed sol­diers who is sur­prised to find him­self a career offi­cer, in Claude Lanzmann’s doc­u­men­tary on the IDF, Tsa­hal.

And this brings us back to The Hurt Lock­er. Its depic­tion of the dai­ly hor­ror and trau­mat­ic impact of serv­ing in a war zone seems to put it miles apart from sen­ti­men­tal cel­e­bra­tions of the U.S. Army’s human­i­tar­i­an role, like in John Wayne’s infa­mous Green Berets. How­ev­er, we should always bear in mind that the terse-real­is­tic pre­sen­ta­tion of the absur­di­ties of war in The Hurt Lock­er obfus­cates and thus ren­ders accept­able the fact that its heroes are doing exact­ly the same job as the heroes of Green Berets. In its very invis­i­bil­i­ty, ide­ol­o­gy is here, more than ever: We are there, with our boys, iden­ti­fy­ing with their fears and anguish­es instead of ques­tion­ing what they are doing at war in the first place.

Slavoj Žižek, a Sloven­ian philoso­pher and psy­cho­an­a­lyst, is a senior researcher at the the Insti­tute for Human­i­ties, Birk­beck Col­lege, Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don. He has also been a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at more than 10 uni­ver­si­ties around the world. Žižek is the author of many books, includ­ing Liv­ing in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Year of Dream­ing Dan­ger­ous­ly and Trou­ble in Paradise.
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