Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Two different ways of thinking about war movies

I just saw "The Hurt Locker" for the first time a couple of weeks ago. I thought it was a reasonably good story, and that it did a pretty good job of capturing the look and feel of the Iraq War (or at least how I imagine it to be/to have been, as I've never been to Iraq). Recently a number of people have expressed to me their disappointment in the movie, particularly the feeling that aspects of it were not realistic; as several of these folks have spent time in theater, I took those objections to heart. At the end of the day, though, I feel like it was a reasonably entertaining movie that didn't do any great violence to the truth, and that's enough for me.

In this post on Abu Muqawama, Ex seems to agree: war movies are about entertainment, even though they're always going to miss a few details.
But I do not understand my fellow Iraq veterans complaining the Hurt Locker isn't realistic enough. When did war movies suddenly have to be realistic? Did Blackhawk Down start this? Was it the bank robbery scene in Heat? The reason I say this is that one of my best childhood friends was walking through a Walgreens in Nashville, passed a $9 DVD Double Feature of Kelly's Heroes and the Dirty Dozen and immediately thought, correctly, "Oh, man, this would make Ex's year if I bought this and sent it to him." Now there is very little that is realistic about either movie, but c'mon, they are surely two of the greatest war movies ever.
The comment thread there is interesting, as it covers a wide range of views: Ex is right, movies are entertainment; Ex is wrong, war movies should get the war parts right; and basically everything in between. Like I said before, I don't have a really strong opinion about this, but as a historian I suppose I trend towards favoring realism and authenticity.

So it was with great interest that I read this op-ed from yesterdays online Times. It was authored by Michael Jernigan, an Iraq vet who was severely wounded in Mahmoudiya. Jernigan isn't so much concerned with whether war movies are realistic or unrealistic (though he does say that he "saw a lot of reality" in "The Hurt Locker"), but rather with the entire genre's fundamental theme: that there is something commendable or positive about war. I'm going to excerpt the article at length here, because I think it helps you to understand Jernigan's criticism.

Later in the deployment my Humvee was hit by a large I.E.D. I had my forehead crushed in, lost both eyes, had to have my right hand fully reconstructed and took severe damage to my left knee. One buddy lost a foot; one of the others took shrapnel to the forehead but lived; one took superficial shrapnel wounds to the arm and one of my best friends died.

On a later deployment to Iraq that I did not go on, I lost three more friends to I.E.D.’s. One of them was the Navy Corpsman (Marine medic) who saved my life on the battlefield back in Mahmudiya. I have a tattoo over my left breast (where my heart is) that says “Semper Fidelis,” the Marine Corps motto. It is Latin for “Always Faithful” and refers to always accomplishing the mission. Around the “Semper Fidelis” are four names. “Thompson,” “Belchik,” Cockerham” and “Hodshire.” All great guys that I would let date my sister.

“The Hurt Locker” and all the other movies I mentioned, whether they are good or bad as entertainment, are still war movies and war movies glorify the acts of violence that I described above. How do you feel about that? Would you bring your children out to the battlefield to witness it live and in person? There is no happy ending. Kelly does not get the gold, Stryker does not make it to the top of Mount Suribachi and 8-Ball gets cut down by a sniper. Please remember that when you watch a war movie you are watching stories about young Americans who went far from home and risked their lives; some of them died there with only their brothers in arms to witness. Hollywood is now taking our money by walking on their graves.

Maybe that’s extreme. Of course I understand why people watch war movies. I watch them, too. But I have seen my friends die and most of the movies just bring up very painful memories.

While I agree that "taking our money by walking on their graves" is a bit "extreme," it's hard to ignore the kernel of truth in what Jernigan says: war movies, at least in some part, are profiting by offering to viewers a tiny slice of some imagined simulacrum of war, a taste of what it's like "being there" without any of the downsides. Sure, a lovable character might die, or the mission might go bad, but at the end the lights come on and you can walk away. Jernigan didn't just walk away.

It's almost certainly true that modern war movies, with more realistic effects and less societal censure for graphic violence, do a better job of at least hinting at the horror of war. "Saving Private Ryan," for example, does a better job of showing exactly how much it sucks to be an infantryman than did "Patton" or "A Bridge Too Far." Is that an improvement, or just an indulgence in the fantasy that anyone who's not been there can ever really understand just exactly how much it does suck?

It's probably not fair to suggest that these are two ends of a spectrum of opinion about war movies, because Exum and Jernigan are really answering two different questions. So do you think that the makers of war movies have a responsibility to authenticity, to exposing the awful realities of war and whatnot? To convince young people that war isn't fun, and that soldiering isn't a great adventure?

Answering these questions isn't really about movies, I don't suppose, but about morality: even in a world that needs soldiers, and that knows it needs soldiers, do writers, filmmakers, and other entertainers have some responsibility to create art that refuses to glorify war? Would it even be effective if they did? After all, we've had Stephen Crane and Robert Service and so on, and "Platoon" and "The Thin Red Line" and "Dances With Wolves" and others that make it clear that war's no picnic. But there will always be Virgil and Tennyson and John 15:13. And what about art for its own sake? Should we be similarly critical of literature and film that deals with drug abuse, or murder, or suicide?

Take a look at the AM thread and the Times piece and let us know what you think about this stuff. This is one of those rare instances where I don't have a firm, calcified opinion on the issue at hand, so take advantage!

Relatedly, here's Thomas Rid's "Great Films on Small Wars" post from Kings of War a couple of weeks ago. I should probably be embarrassed to admit I've only seen four of them.


  1. "So do you think that the makers of war movies have a responsibility to authenticity, to exposing the awful realities of war and what not? To convince young people that war isn't fun, and that soldiering isn't a great adventure?"

    Would you write the same about crime, another perennial topic for authors, TV and movies? What about the Freakonomics (!) finding that most drug dealers don't live glamorous lives? What about The Godfather (The Sopranos?)?

    I don't know where I stand on the issue. But I wonder, as do you, about the boundaries of artistic license; the above are just my initial reactions.


  2. ADTS -- Would you write the same about crime, another perennial topic for authors, TV and movies? What about the Freakonomics (!) finding that most drug dealers don't live glamorous lives? What about The Godfather (The Sopranos?)?

    That's sort of where I was going with this: "And what about art for its own sake? Should we be similarly critical of literature and film that deals with drug abuse, or murder, or suicide?"

    I don't know the answer, but my tendency would be to say that artists and writers should not feel compelled to send any particular message. After all, isn't it incumbent on each of us to survey as much information as we can and form our own views? For every "The Hurt Locker," there's a publicized view like Jernigan's. Granted, the New York Times isn't spending millions of dollars doing publicity for its opinion pages, but...

  3. "isn't it incumbent on each of us to survey as much information as we can and form our own views?"

    I wouldn't so much say that it's incumbent upon us - although maybe it is - to construct a market of ideas and pick the best product, so much as that it's inevitable that we will do so, irrespective of the quality of our respective markets.


  4. See this review of the The Hurt Locker. The reviewer tipped me off about it. After reading it, I removed it from my Netflix queue.

    I laughed when I read your quote from Abu Muqawama: "When did war movies suddenly have to be realistic?" Or, for that matter, strategic assessments.

  5. See this review of the The Hurt Locker. The reviewer tipped me off about it. After reading it, I removed it from my Netflix queue.

    Recognizing that all of those complaints are legitimate, I just don't find that I'm all that "distracted" by the cinematic lack of authenticity of TTPs. Maybe it's as simple as that fault line: some people watch movies about things that they're intimately acquainted with and feel that the whole thing is ruined if they can effectively pick nits; other people don't.

    "The West Wing" messes up a lot of stuff about national security, in particular (I remember one episode that continually refers to OSD-SOLIC as something like the Pentagon Office of Low-Grade War), but it doesn't drive me so crazy that I can't enjoy the show. I suppose the argument here would be that "The Hurt Locker" messes up stuff that's central to the plot, but I don't think it's meant to be an accurate reflection of the day-to-day in Iraq. Plenty of people enjoy "Full Metal Jacket," with or without realizing that the scenes of urban combat from Hue city are totally unrepresentative of 99% of combat operations in Vietnam.

  6. Whoops - I posted the following to the wrong thread:

    Schmedlap's comment - or at least the review to which he posted - made me laugh. I saw The Hurt Locker with an OIF veteran, and he was like, "You'd NEVER go out in a single Humvee!"


  7. "Hurt Locker" did itself a diservice. I saw it at a theatre when it came out because i was working on a project looking at ied's at the time. It was billed as a small budget authentic view of an EOD team in Iraq. I'm more likely to blame the publishing/advertising company than the movie. It set unreal expectations. Having said that, why do we hope that every aspect of a movie is completely accurate? Dramatic license can be a great tool when the director is trying to convey emotion, as opposed to technical details

  8. As far as "The Hurt Locker" is concerned, I agree with those who have been crapping on it for being inauthentic. After the first 20 minutes, which I thought were really good, I found it almost painful to watch.

    At the same time, though, I agree that war movies don't HAVE to be hyper-realistic -- I'm pumped about this "Green Zone" movie, and realistic is the last word that comes to mind from the trailers and reviews.

    The difference, I think, is the intent of the movie. "Green Zone" is an action movie, nothing more and nothing less. When "The Hurt Locker" first came out, that's how it was sort of treated, too -- and you might have noticed that the stream of criticism from veterans didn't really begin until it was nominated for the Academy Awards and it became clear that in Hollywood, people are looking at this as a serious depiction of the war, NOT as a fun action movie.

    As for the idea that even the grimmest anti-war movies glorify war...I sort of agree. Here at school, the sad little student antiwar group once screened "Full Metal Jacket," which they thought made total sense -- such an antiwar, anti-military movie, right? Actually, that had never occurred to me. The last time I'd seen "Full Metal Jacket," some soldiers in Baghdad had been watching it to get pumped up before a night raid.

  9. I once saw an interview with Clint Eastwood about the double Iwo Jima flicks he did a couple of years back. I think it was on Charlie Rose.
    He was asked about the criticism that some people had made about some of his movies being pro-war, i think specifically the American version of that double feature.

    He responded that in his opinion it was not possible to make a pro-war movie.
    The inference being if you make a movie that really shows it like it is how could it possibly be,...

    Anywho, i remember thinking at the time that it was a great line and that it also changed my somewhat misguided opinion of him as a war-movie fetishist..

  10. Of course the Abu M thread is interesting. *I* posted on it.

    The artist has an obligation to make the art he or she wants. And the audience has an obligation to be critical in the way the audience wants.

    I likely will watch Hurt Locker, although now, with a more critical eye. I had thought it was meant to be fairly authentic, so the admonitions are helpful. Wasn't it MikeF in a previous thread who warned me that it wasn't? And he said he enjoyed House, which I then bothered to watch a few minutes of, just to see.

    I've been out of clinical medicine for a long time, but House seemed a little stagey. Actually, a lot stagey. Why do all medical shows make it seem as if the doc has only one patient at a time? I maintain, and it's been said by many others including in a wonderful Slate piece, that Scrubs is the most authentic in terms of emotional details, despite it's obvious over-the-top nature.

    Where was I going with all of this? Well, a clever thing to do might be do have a site or Youtube mashup where those in the know take down the movie in a funny way - or the mistaken details. So, you watch the movie, you watch the awards show, you search online, and you get to the site and get a different feel for all of it. The process matters....and art is a process, as much as the creation of a product.

  11. "The last time I'd seen 'Full Metal Jacket,' some soldiers in Baghdad had been watching it to get pumped up before a night raid."

    Okay, I hate it when people make comments about this or that unit "not getting COIN." But damn. If you're "getting pumped up" for a raid in Iraq then you just don't get it.

  12. One last - and quick, because as usual, procrastinating! - point to make:

    The call for "authenticity" in art of the type suggested in the Times article, and by some on the Abu M thread, refers to a very modern definition of authenticity. By that I mean the sort of authenticity demanded since the advent of photography and film. I am pretty sure I am stealing this from someone! Who? It is a function of the digital age, too. Realism equates photographic faithfulness to detail!

    Is the Iliad great war art? Is it authentic? Is it realistic? It's a stylized epic poem! And yet...See where I am going with this?

    Is art, or film, or entertainment, meant to illuminate or faithfully recreate?

    It's not a question with an either/or answer, and so, you have the conundrum. I think, perhaps, a component of the complaint is that there is so much ignorance out there about the military given our all-volunteer force. The audience watching won't know what is realistic, and what is not.

    Look at all my misunderstandings on this board and at other sites! And I'm someone trying to pay attention, you know?

  13. Allow me to advance the position of one citizen far removed from war.

    You are right, of course. War movies allow audiences who have never tasted the horrors of war to get a taste of the thrill of combat without any of the risks or costs that come with the real life variety.

    This does not mean much though.

    My viewpoint is easier to understand if we take our focus off of war movies for a bit, and into a new medium - literature. A great portion of the world's literary canon is, in effect, war stories. Shall we stop reading these works? Shall we scratch out everything twixt the Epic of Roland and The Things They Carried?

    No one will make such cries. For Whom the Bells Toll, All Quiet on the Western Front - these are books that don't just make statements about war, but about the entire human condition. (Or so most critics of literature - and probably the work's authors - would claim.)

    The best war stories tell us something about war, yes. They tell us something about the lives of those who led the war, yes. But the best also tell us something more.

    Just like all great art.

    And here we hit upon the real issue. All art is an escape. All of it. It is the conceit that art is built upon - by listening to this tale, reading this book, gazing upon this painting, or watching this film, you can see the world through a pair of eyes that have seen things vastly different than you have seen, to become part of an existence that is not your own... and then return back to your life as if nothing had changed. In the end art is a form of vicarious living - you are allowed to step into the shoes of another and make live as they would without the need to accept responsibility for these experiences.

    We leave these escapes unchanged - except, perhaps, in the lessons we choose to take back with us when we return. And this is true for all types of art - photographs of massacre, the memoirs of former slaves, poems of betrayal and broken love - all must follow this iron law of art and story.

    War stories are still stories. We do no good pretending their anything else. And if they are indeed works of art, what grounds exist to treat them differently than the rest?

  14. Okay, I changed my mind (imagine that). About a month ago, I rented "The Hurt Locker" and "Inglorious Bastards" (a great fictional example of unconventional warfare btw) back-to-back. My initial reactions to the Hurt Locker was that it was ridiculous.

    1. Dudes don't go out on their own and after the initial invasion was over, everyone had radios.
    2. I've never seen EOD pull security while me or my men abandoned their vehicles and hid in an alley.
    3. EOD guys typically aren't cross-trained as expert snipers and proficient in clearing buildings.
    4. Etc, etc...

    However, letting it stir for a bit, I watched some interviews with the director. During the interviews, she replayed the final scene, and she described what she was trying to portray in the movie (outside of the Hollywood exagerations). They include,

    1. The brutality of war.
    2. Capturing what an IED blast looks like for an American public that is used to just reading a daily news report of 10 IEDs with 70 wounded.
    3. The stress of war on American solders to include the continous decision making process.
    4. The dislocation that a soldier might feel in the change of environment upon coming home. Final scene where EOD dude can't make a decision on what cereal to buy.

    So now, I like it. My brother and my mom can watch it and get a sense of what Iraq is like and what I went through.