Much has been made of The Hurt Locker's unending tension and awful beauty as characters portrayed by Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty defuse IEDs on the urban battlefields of Iraq. But the film presents something more than entertainment. The writer, Mark Boal, and director, Kathryn Bigelow, have presented the first accurate portrait of the modern American soldier. Since less than five percent of the American population has served in the military and few even have a close friend or family member who is a veteran, we have had to rely on the media, including Hollywood movies, to form perceptions of the military. Hollywood stereotypes are reductive and often inaccurate, but they are nevertheless powerful touchstones in how America perceives its military. Until The Hurt Locker, these perceptions have been formed using seriously outdated models dating back to World War II and the Vietnam War.
Of course, there are many similarities among the generations of American soldiers, beginning with their tradition of courage and dedication. But there are also important differences.
The World War II soldier has often been cast as an Average Joe who heeds a righteous call, glad to pitch in with the great effort before heading home to get married or attend college. An all-around good guy, he gave his level best to win or die trying. Most importantly, he considered himself a bit of an amateur, a "citizen soldier" stepping forward in a time of danger, who learned to fight well-enough to win so that he could head back to civilian life once the crisis is over.
The Vietnam era movie stereotype, right or wrong, is that of a poor bastard whose number came up, a victim of the times - often angry, disillusioned, and hurt. His aim is to survive his one year tour in Vietnam and his own disillusionment so that he can return home and, if he's lucky, forget about the whole damn thing. What he has in common with the World War II era military is that he's also a draftee and, usually, a short-term soldier .
While modern American soldiers share the same call to duty as the best of those who came before, they are unique in that they are members of a 100% volunteer force. They joined out of a burning desire to serve, and in the military they find a code of conduct and belief system that makes them stronger individuals. They take pleasure in being surrounded by other men and women with a similar ethics, and spend years becoming experts in their field - whether in logistics, infantry or, as in The Hurt Locker, explosive ordnance disposal or "EOD."
Here are 3 facts about the modern American service member that we should know:
1. They are professionals. In The Hurt Locker Jeremy Renner's character makes an allusion to the many battlefields ("dusty shit holes") where he's served. American service personnel operate on every continent and ocean, and the skills and experiences they pick up in one theater become invaluable to their work in the next. By the end of a typical career, most service members will have lived (and raised their families) on several bases stateside and have served overseas in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and increasingly, Africa. They are very likely the best in the world at what they do, as evidenced by the fact that in modern coalition operations, the most difficult and dangerous tasks are almost always awarded to the Americans.
2. They are highly educated. In a recent study, 98% of military enlistees had a high school education, compared with 75% in the general population of the same age. Because Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines continue their schooling remotely, the educational disparity between them and past generations of service personnel and even their modern civilian counterparts becomes even more impressive. Most officers now earn at least one master's degree by the time they reach mid-career. This is necessary not only because the modern mission areas require technical skills but also because of the high profile roles modern officers fulfill as symbols of American power at the "bleeding edge" of our foreign policy. Former Marine Corps Commandant General Charles Krulak coined the term "Strategic Corporal" to describe the importance of developing decision-making skills in even the most junior military leaders because in a world of 24-hour cable news coverage, a tactical mistake can have strategic ramifications.
3. They are expensive. If this were baseball, the U.S. military would be the New York Yankees. Most military officers never miss a chance to say that the modern American soldier is the best that has existed in the history of the world. And they are right. But this does not come cheaply. Besides the training, salary, and benefits, the Associated Press recently estimated that it cost 100 times more to outfit today's infantry soldier than it did in World War II. If Americans wonder why the U.S. is gearing up to spend $708 billion in the Department of Defense 2011 budget (roughly a quarter of federal spending), they should consider the heavy load of world-wide security commitments and how much it costs to deploy each service member on the ground. Winning is not cheap. Furthermore, veterans' health costs will continue to rise as many wounded combat veterans today will survive the wounds that in previous conflicts would have taken their lives immediately. The wounded heroes of today must undergo the lengthy and costly road of recovery from these complex injuries. The kind of blast that Jeremy Renner's character walked away from at the end of The Hurt Locker would likely haunt him for decades in the form of debilitating traumatic brain injury (TBI), a spectrum of long-lasting neurotrauma that doctors are only now learning how to completely diagnose and treat.
Whether or not The Hurt Locker deservedly wins Best Picture at the upcoming Academy Awards, it has earned its place on the list of movies that Americans should see if they want to gain some valuable insight into the ever-evolving portrait of the modern American Soldier.
Richard Arthur is a naval reservist, television writer and fellow for the Truman National Security Project.