At first glance, The Hurt Lockerlooks all right. The setting seems accurate, the acting is solid, and it is one of the few war movies to rightly do away with the tacky combat music. Yet a closer look reveals that Hollywood's latest attempt to define the Iraq War and the American troops who have fought in it is just as disappointing as all the others produced so far, but with better window dressing and an Oscar nomination.
I'm not a professional film critic, but almost every movie about Iraq and Afghanistan comes across my desk. I feel an obligation as an Iraq veteran, and as the leader of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the first and largest nonprofit for veterans of those wars , to comment on films that attempt to define our experiences, especially those in the running to win the most prestigious award in the film industry. As a voice of the new veterans' movement, and of thousands of IAVA members across the country, I have a responsibility to serve as pop-culture watchdog, and to help the American public understand what accurately depicts the military's experience in Iraq and what doesn't. Especially because with less than 1 percent of American citizens now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, films are one of the few ways to connect the other 99 percent of Americans to the reality of modern combat. Even today, if you ask most Americans about Vietnam, they base their opinion largely on popular movies like Apocalypse Now, Platoon (written and directed by Vietnam vet Oliver Stone), Full Metal Jacket, or Stone's Born on the Fourth of July.
The Hurt Locker tries to articulate that experience, but those of us who have served in the military couldn't help but be distracted by a litany of inaccuracies that reveal not only a lack of research, but ultimately respect for the American military.
In the military, precision is critical. Take, for instance, the role of Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) units, a heroic and prestigious group, and the focus of the film. EOD is a specialized job in the military that does one thing exceptionally well: disposing of bombs. Members do not generally patrol looking for bad guys, kick in doors, or execute sniper missions. Yet there is a whole scene in The Hurt Locker when the two EOD characters clear a building to find a bomb inside a kid. Securing the area for the EOD specialists to come in is usually the role of infantry or military-police units. As Tom Tarantino, a former cavalry officer who led patrols in Baghdad told me, "EOD arriving on an unsecured scene alone to find ground forces huddled and hiding together in a courtyard stretched my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. The portrayal of the ground forces was outright insulting."
Tom's frustration is not unique. Many of our members around the country have noted the flawed portrayal of EOD and the other (to the civilian eye) seemingly minor mistakes, such as soldiers in the wrong uniforms, using poor tactics, and ranks that don't accurately correspond to the leadership being shown. This equates to something larger than just a series of careless errors: it is disrespectful. The scene with Jeremy Renner's character sneaking off base to chase a boy he is worried about is as fictional as Jason Bourne and is not representative of the real military experience in Iraq. I know this is a dramatization, and films take liberties to create good storylines, but this is not indicative of those of us who served there. The men in my platoon followed rules and orders, and they stuck with their fellow soldiers. The military takes great pride in their training and their mission. Service members train for years to perform the job that they do in combat and highly value each other's role in this environment. They don't run around on their own unless they want to be court-martialed—or killed. The Hurt Locker strains credulity further when it shows that soldier reentering the base with no identification. Here is the reality: this soldier would likely be shot by a guard on duty while sneaking around the perimeter—but, then again, that probably wouldn't make for a good plot addition.
Some may argue that on balance, the film does a good job of articulating the challenges returning troops face when they are coming home and trying to assimilate back to normal life. On this point, the film hits closer to the mark. I can tell you it isn't easy. One minute you are maneuvering your platoon through an ambush, the next you are maneuvering through the laundromat on the Lower East Side. It can be a challenging transition.
Yet Hollywood and the media must find a way to address these challenges while balancing the reality of the combat experience. Service members need to see Hollywood commit to getting it right, and not portray cheap generalizations and made-for-TV sensationalism. Films like HBO's Taking Chance and the documentary The War Tapes have walked that fine line extremely well.
Americans want to think they know what the ground truth is in Iraq, but until Hollywood and the media give them the right information, our experience will continue to be lost in translation. So someone, do us a favor and tell our story properly. Or maybe Hollywood will help one of us tell it ourselves.