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The Hurt Locker, and What it Means to be Addicted to War

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The Hurt Locker looked poised to win big at the Oscars this weekend until getting embroiled in a controversy about whether or not it's realistic. Iraq and Afghanistan veteran advocate Paul Rieckhoff pointed out a couple of significant inaccuracies (bomb squad techs acting like infantrymen, bad tactics, wrong uniforms, etc.), a bunch of bomb techs have complained it's way too Hollywood, and a soldier who claims the story was based on him now plans to sue the filmmakers. But the pre-Oscar kneecapping misses the point: despite being set in Baghdad, Kathyrn Bigelow's film was never really about Iraq.

First off, the film doesn't engage the American experience in Iraq in a real political or intellectual way -- certainly, not in the way films like Platoon or Apocalypse Now or Deer Hunter raised questions about Vietnam, or even how Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers explored the U.S. role in World War II. Iraq is merely the backdrop for an action movie -- a remake of Bigelow's Point Break set in Mesopotamia -- that screenwriter Mark Boal uses to examine another theme entirely: the war junkie, embodied in Jeremy Renner's character, Staff Sergeant William James.

The film's true subject is explicit from the opening quote: "The rush of battle is a potent and almost lethal addiction, for war is a drug." That's a line from former war correspondent Chris Hedges book, War Is A Force that Gives Us Meaning. The movie cuts out the last bit of his quote. Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize winner, says war is a drug he "ingested for many years." It's no accident that Hedges is a journalist, and that the screenwriter Boal worked as reporter in Iraq: when it comes to being a war junky, journalists and writers have been at the forefront of exploring this destructive, adrenaline fueled, terrain.

I write this as someone who was recently accused, in conversation with a top newspaper editor, of being a war junkie. I denied it. But it's a question I ask myself each time I get my travel documents ready to head off to a deadly conflict, something I've been doing regularly for the past five years. Am doing this for the right reasons? Are there right reasons? Or have I, like Sgt. James in The Hurt Locker, fallen prey to an addiction? Am I about to take another potentially lethal dose?

For me, these questions became painfully acute after I suffered a devastating personal loss in Iraq. The girl I planned to marry, Andi Parhamovich, who was working for an NGO, was killed three years ago in an attempted kidnapping in Baghdad. To deal with the trauma, I did what war journalists are supposed to do. I wrote about the horrors of what I saw and felt, the numbing destruction of Iraq, and the timeless reasons, relearned as each generation loses its innocence, of why war is so terrible. It destroys what we love, people, children, sons and daughters, things, culture, buildings, possessions, morality, emotions, and our own sense of who we are as human beings. There is not much new for me to learn about war.

And yet, I've kept going back.

As an adolescent and young adult, I immersed myself in war literature. My favorite works were almost always accounts from journalists -- Michael Herr's Dispatches, the ur-text for a generation of war correspondents, photographer Ropert Capa's memoir, Slightly Out of Focus, Ernie Pyle and AJ Libeling's collected writings, John Laurence's The Cat from Hue, Neil Sheehan's A Bright and Shining Lie, Philip Caputo's Rumors of War (written as a soldier, but Caputo later became a war correspondent), Joe Sacco's graphic novels, anything by Ryzard Kapucinksi; Anothy Loyd's book, My War Gone By, I Miss It So, which twins his heroin addiction with covering the war in the Balkans; Vasily Grossman's accounts of the Russian front; and many others.

I read Hedges book at age 22, when I was working as a junior editor and reporter in the office of a major newsmagazine, six months before the invasion of Iraq. Despite its overwhelmingly anti-war message, despite its bitter and powerful descriptions of the effects of war on his own life -- in one passage, Hedges, returning from El Salvador, describes how he lost it an airport, jumping over a KLM counter and beating a man to the ground and getting stabbed in the face with a with a pen -- the book didn't make me shy away from war. Despite all of Hedges trauma and wisdom, I wrote in my diary in October 2002: "reading chris hedges war is a force that gives us meaning...spoke to a correspondent today...he was on a satellite phone in the back of a land cruiser after getting kicked out of Iraq by Saddam...I think I want to do that." By that, I meant go cover a war.

Almost all of these accounts of war address the subject of addiction -- rarely as explicitly as Hedges, but it's there. And if it's not explicit, the consequences of becoming fixated on war emerge in the life stories of these men. In 1954, Capa reluctantly accepted his final assignment to cover the French conflict in Indochina. He stepped on a landmine, and died. (Capa's 25-year-old girlfriend was killed decades earlier, covering the Spanish Civil War.) Pyle, the most respected correspondent of World War II -- he was featured on the cover of Time magazine -- chose to go cover the war in the Pacific while the fighting in Europe was coming to a close. He didn't need to -- he was a legend, position in journalistic history secure. He was also on the verge of a nervous breakdown, according to one account, and he had already made up his mind about war: "Fuck my shit," he said, using an expression popular with American GI's. "Fuck my shit. That's what war adds up to."* Pyle got shot by a Japanese sniper. The news of Pyle's death reached Capa in Europe, with a simple, chilling line, spoken in a hotel room of a bombed out city where the press corps was sleeping. "Ernie got it." The correspondents proceeded to get drunk.

Not all war correspondents are junkies. But for many, dark, intoxicating, forces keep pulling them back to new conflicts. Unlike many soldiers, journalists have been open about addressing their compulsive and addictive behavior (our vocation is to write, after all.) We are not compelled, like those in the military, to follow orders. We don't have to kill anyone. We haven't been drafted. We're not going to get shot or face court martial if we refuse an assignment. We can tell ourselves that it is our duty to democracy to cover these conflicts, our duty to tell the victims stories. But we do what we do by choice: each patrol, each mission, each trip to a scene of a suicide bomb, is optional.

There are, of course, incentives. There is prestige, there is career advancement, there is glory. Prestige is an empty concept in the face of death, and the glory is of course false and hollow. Here is an uncomfortable truth[A2] : War correspondents are often willing suckers for the myths of war -- at times we keep them alive as much as any Hollywood film -- even though we should know better.

Rather than in Hollywood, it's in another genre of literature -- that of actual drug addiction literature -- where I found the best explanation of the danger inherent in telling war stories. Drug books and movies -- from William S. Burroughs Junky to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to the Basketball Diaries to James Frey -- always run the risk of glamorizing their self-destructive tales. Even as we are presented with the vomiting and the bloody noses and the arrest records, there's also the rush of survival. I looked into the void, and I am here to tell about it. "Drug stories are sinister," wrote David Sheff, author of Beautiful Boy, a memoir about his son's meth addiction. "Like some war stories, they focus on adventure and escape...even hangovers and near death experiences and visits to the emergency room can be made to seem glamorous." War stories can be sinister, too. Albeit, unlike war correspondents, drug addicts aren't likely to get high profile media jobs, a steady pay check, and interviews with prime ministers in developing nations.

(I've also run into veteran correspondents, who having covered wars for years, take on an almost William S. Burroughs appearance -- aged and leathery skin, pickled by their drug of choice, eyes with a hint of madness. And like junk for Burroughs, they need war to live happily, or, usually unhappily. It's not journalism if you're not being shot at.)

Which brings me back to The Hurt Locker. Spoiler alert: I'm about to discuss the final scene.

The film's hero, Sgt. James, has completed his tour of duty. The film cuts to a supermarket back home. James is in civilian clothes, uncomfortable and out of sorts, dazed by the rows of dairy products and brand-name breakfast cereal. We see him play with his child, talk to his wife. We see him in what's supposed to be normal life. Then we cut back to Iraq -- James has signed on for another tour. James walks off into the sunset to defuse another bomb. Credits roll.

Normal life can't compete with the potent drug of war.

I don't disagree. Normal life doesn't stand a chance against war, in the same way that shooting up or swallowing a pill of ecstasy trumps reality every time. But I do take issue with how The Hurt Locker ends -- not because I didn't like the movie, or that it wasn't enjoyable. It just doesn't go far enough. In fact, I don't think it was enough like Kathryn Bigelow's earlier classic on adrenaline junkies, Point Break, a film about a gang of bank robbing surfers. That might sound ridiculous, but the movies' themes are identical.

In the finale, the late Patrick Swazye (playing Bodhi, Point Break's version of Sgt. James) is found on an Australian beach, chasing the ultimate storm, the big wave. Bohdi gets swept away by this overwhelming, violent, thrilling, force of nature. Keanu Reeves, playing the troubled cop hero, speaks the film's last memorable line: "He's not coming back." That's what happens when you embrace dark and wild forces beyond control. The Hurt Locker, on the other hand, doesn't take war addiction to its logical, unambiguous, conclusion. That is, death.

Addictions destroy, junkies usually die, and the war always wins.

*The quote from Pyle is taken from William Prochnau's excellent account of Vietnam era war correspondents, "Once Upon a Distant War."

2010-03-04-bookcover.jpgMichael Hastings is the author of I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story, recently released in paperback. He is also a regular contributor to GQ.