The Hurt Locker's Greatest Victory

The Oscar-winning war drama provides a timely reminder: America’s army is fighting so that Iraqis might live free. Tunku Varadarajan on how far we’ve come since Vietnam.

Hadi Mizban / AP Photo

Some small but piquant satisfaction was had by many Americans when the tacky old Oscars yielded up their Best Picture award to a film on the Iraq War on the very day that Iraq conducted free elections—elections that would simply not have been possible without the war in question.

The Hurt Locker is many things: very inspiring, very disconcerting, and—so say veterans of the Iraq War—very inaccurate in its portrayal of military methods on the ground. But an anti-war film it is not, in the sense that it doesn’t invite us to inveigh against warfare; or against the politicians who send our soldiers to war. (There has been too much filmmaking of the latter kind, and The Hurt Locker is a corrective.)

The achievement of our all-volunteer army in service of the abstract goal of democracy abroad is all the more impressive, given that the country barely seems to register that we’re still in Iraq, and that President Obama rarely talks about it.

My aim, however, is not to delve into the impact of the Iraq War on popular, or cinematic, culture. Instead, it is to focus on the fact that Iraq is the purest example of the American soldier fighting for an abstraction: democracy in a faraway land.

Director Kathryn Bigelow: Why I Made The Hurt Locker This is a significant abstraction, to be sure, but an abstraction nonetheless. As Michael Walzer has written, the Bush administration “gave a variety of reasons for its decision to go to war: another day, another reason.” And yet, in spite of the programmatic incoherence that made the Iraq War the least transparently comprehensible war in modern American history, the American soldier has transcended the political bickering, the torrent of criticism of our presence in Iraq, and acquitted himself superbly.

There can be no doubt that the all-volunteer professionalism of the armed forces has made all the difference. Cast your mind back to the last time a war was waged for a seeming abstraction—Vietnam, fought to preempt communism at a distance, and fought in the main by drafted men. Soldiers who feel unluckily and arbitrarily selected tend to blame the authorities for “mission creep,” bad diplomacy, their lousy conditions, and the like. Vietnam, in the end, was not lost on the battlefield, but in a socio-political revolution at home—one that the draft helped create, and which the discontent of soldiers on the front kept fueled. Volunteers are not immune to the home front, of course, but they are trained to wall themselves off from its pressures. As a result, they are largely impervious to public whim, a fact all the more remarkable given their constant exposure to it via the mass and social media. (Imagine if we’d had Twitter in Vietnam, or email, or Facebook.)

Another point may well be that the quality of our all-volunteer armed forces has been greatly enhanced by the inequalities of civilian life in the U.S. Recruits are drawn from bright lower-middle-class young people who lack connections, but who want a life replete with at least some fruits of the American good life. The Ivy League is beyond reach economically and, probably, socially; good jobs in, say, auto factories are vanishing; mobility is negligible if not impossible. For these people, military service is a means to higher education and technology skills, and is today attracting “winners” who had the bad luck to be born or brought up outside the charmed circles.

There is no doubt that the political clumsiness of our intervention in Iraq led to a situation in which the military brass and the foot-soldiers had to rationalize their mission largely for themselves. They listened patiently to the reasons coming out of Washington and elected the best reason to fight and win the war: that it was their job, as military professionals, to do so.

Anyone who has spent any time with American troops in Iraq testifies to their thinking—they have wanted to help Iraq; and the more bloody the situation got, the more committed they felt to make the enterprise successful, to implant democracy, stability and, yes, humanity (as was seen in the relationship in The Hurt Locker between the protagonist and the Iraqi boy who calls himself “Beckham”). Once there, it was important for the soldiers not to be driven out; that much they owed their own country. But staying on to see things through was all about helping the Iraqis reach the far shore, since the U.S. had launched them willy-nilly into a tempest.

As Victor Davis Hanson explained in his book Carnage and Culture, a society that stresses a broad discipline, but not at the expense of individualism and free enterprise, and which encourages rational and open political debate, will always be able to call on citizens with the best virtues for battle. A worthy society, in other words, makes worthy warriors; a free society, equally, makes soldiers who understand wars for freedom, even the freedom of others.

It is worth noting here that The Hurt Locker has sold fewer tickets than any Best Picture winner in Oscar history. The achievement of our all-volunteer army in service of the abstract goal of democracy abroad is all the more impressive, given that the country barely seems to register that we’re still in Iraq, that President Obama rarely talks about it, that books and movies—even award-winning ones—don’t seem to be getting the kind of cultural engagement of the Vietnam era.

And yet, as a scholar-friend who spent time embedded with American soldiers in Iraq tells me, “The troops there genuinely believe that their country and its interests are worth defending. They had nearly universal contempt for those who cast aspersions on the honor of the war, for that would have been to cast aspersions on the honor of the military they had chosen to join. Never did I hear in the mess halls or in the trailers where I lived any debate about whether this was the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ war. I can tell you from living amid them several times that they blocked everything out about the controversy about the war.”

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In Vietnam, the early decision-makers in Washington never explained the war to the troops or to the public. Eventually, reasons emerged, and Charles Hill, a professor at Yale, summed them up for me: “The war had to be fought for vast geo-strategic reasons: Soviet world influence was growing. Maoist threats to take the Third World were having an effect across Southeast Asia. We were drastically weakened and distracted by layers of "cultural revolution" in the U.S. in the 1960s. The U.S. doctrine of containment was crucially challenged in the ‘divided countries’: Germany, Korea, China, and Vietnam. We had pushed back communist advances in the first three and had no choice but to push back in the fourth.”

Iraq has, in revealing ways, been an important test for motivating soldiers, precisely because it posed neither an arguable ideological threat (a la the Vietnam case, above), nor a proximate military one. So soldierly motivation has had a different valence, more missionary than knight. And that draws on a central element of American political culture, Tom Paine's assertion that "We have it in our power to make the world over again." But what keeps us in Iraq, and keeps the soldiers daily on their job, is something more straightforward, and yet just as exceptional: Our soldiers are all military professionals, and ours is a volunteer army. And long may it remain just so.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)