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What We're All Missing in the Zero Dark Thirty Debate

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Recent commentary on Zero Dark Thirty -- the Kathryn Bigelow film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden -- has attempted to move away from debating whether or not torture really mattered in finding the former leader of al Qaeda. I appreciate this, as it's useful to point out what is being obscured by the criticism of the movie's depiction of torture. But I think this still misses a broader aspect of the movie, as well as Kathryn Bigelow's other war film, The Hurt Locker (which focuses on an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team in Iraq): what it reveals about the civilian-military divide in the United States.

Many critics have praised Bigelow's work for its artistic value, and its significance for understanding the post-9/11 era. Much of this has to do with her filmmaking skills. But a good amount of praise focused on her ability to faithfully tell the story of contemporary military activities. In the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday exclaims that Bigelow demonstrates early in the film that "she will not turn away from the most unsavory aspects of the history she's chronicling." The New York Times' Manohla Dargis discusses the movie as "a seamless weave of truth and drama." Similarly, many praised The Hurt Locker for its "authenticity."

At the same time, many critiques of these movies focus on their lack of authenticity. By now, we are all familiar with the attacks on Zero Dark Thirty for misrepresenting the role torture played in the hunt for Bin Laden. But similar attacks arose after The Hurt Locker came out. The film was full of inaccuracies in its depiction of EOD teams, resulting in the head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America calling it "disrespectful."

Now, I realize the obvious response is: "it's a movie." That's correct, but if the biggest selling point of a movie -- or two -- is their faithfulness to reality, and they get that wrong, then we're all missing something, right? No one worries about inaccuracies in "Apocalypse Now" because of, well, Marlon Brando. But we should worry about inaccuracies in Bigelow's war movies.

Why should we worry? The divided response to these movies reflects the broader civilian-military divide in the United States. But this isn't a case of civilians attacking the military and the military -- and its supporters -- getting upset. This is a case of civilians claiming to understand the military, and the military getting upset because they don't. (I realize the controversy in Zero Dark Thirty revolves around the CIA, but I think it represents the broader attempt to understand U.S. warfighting.)

Over a decade of global counter-terrorism activities has given foreign policy commentators an incentive to understand -- or pretend to understand -- the military and the broader defense community. This includes a welcome attention to the conditions of active-duty troops and returning veterans. But it doesn't mask the very real divide between civilians and military in the United States; it can also result in substance-less flag-waving rather than respectful-and-informed debate about US national security. In a way, pretending to understand the military -- through either grittily "realistic" films or dropping military lingo into our DC-area conversations -- is worse than acknowledging the divide.

I say this as someone with a family member currently serving in the Army. Having a close family member in the military makes me appreciate what the men and women in the military sacrifice in their service, but also makes me realize how little I can understand about what they go through. I like to think that this allows me to comment on US military actions with a dose of healthy respect.

My concern about films like Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker is that they might set back civilian-military relations by giving people a false understanding of the struggles of U.S. troops and the mechanics of U.S. national security. This can lead to over-assuredness among civilian commentators and critics of US national security policy, and frustration on the part of the military and military families.

That being said, I'm totally fine with stylized representations of war on film; I'm a fan of both Apocalypse Now and The Longest Day. So maybe the solution is just to let Bigelow's films be films.

An earlier version of this post appeared on The Duck of Minerva.