The 360 Degree Threat

“Sarver, 33, in wraparound shooting shades that make his baby face look even younger, takes a second to consider the possibilities: Is it real or a decoy to lure him into the kill zone of a second bomb? Is it a hoax designed only to pull him into the shooting range of a sniper? Is it wired to a mine or daisy-chained to a series of IEDs? Is it wired at all or remote-controlled? Is it on a mechanical timer ticking down? Wired in a collapsible circuit that will trigger the explosion when he cuts it? He runs back to his truck, a few inches of bellyfat moving under his uniform. He keeps his time on the ground to a minimum because it is impossible to tell whether that Iraqi in the dark suit with the cell phone is calling his wife or transmitting Sarver’s position to a sniper team. This is a job so dangerous that bomb techs in Iraq are five times more likely to die than all other soldiers in the theater.” (Tapley, 2010)

The paragraph describes a scene that is particularly foreign to most people. It describes a world in which death lurks behind every mound of trash or underneath every pile of rubble. It describes a day in the life of a member of Explosive Ordinance Disposal (E.O.D.), the group of U.S. Army soldiers whose job it is to rid the battlefields and streets of improvised explosive devices (I.E.D’s). The lines certainly remind the audience of a typical scene in the film “The Hurt Locker”; however, this paragraph comes from an excerpt from Mark Boal’s article “The Man In The Bomb Suit”, which was published in September of 2005 in an issue of Playboy magazine. The article, a legitimate piece of embedded journalism, later became the basis for the The Hurt Locker. While the film doesn’t deal with “terrorism” explicitly, the affect it has on understanding the ‘War on Terror’ and the psychology of war cannot be disregarded. The Hurt Locker serves as an exemplification of the idea of terrorism as an ever-present threat and shows the impact that building relationships can have on warring cultures.

The film never chooses to brand the Iraqi opposition within the film. Most of the references that are made toward the violent opposition in the movie come with the derogatory term “Haji”, which has become a military term to describe Arabs. The only other scene that helps to put a definition to the Iraqi fighters who are planting the bombs comes with the scene in which Sergeant First Class William James (the lead character and ‘wild man’) stops an Iraqi driver who has driven right through a military barricade. With his pistol drawn, James has a standoff with the man which results in the Iraqi driver slowly backing into the custody of other soldiers. James then utters the line to his partners, “If he wasn’t an insurgent before, he sure the hell is now.” But does calling someone an insurgent mean they are a terrorist? According to the Web site terrorism-research.com, though the terms are often lumped together, they can have very different interpretations:

Guerilla warfare and insurgencies are often assumed to be synonymous with terrorism. One reason for this is that insurgencies and terrorism often have similar goals. However, if we examine insurgency and guerilla warfare, specific differences emerge. A key difference is that an insurgency is a movement – a political effort with a specific aim. This sets it apart from both guerilla warfare and terrorism, as they are both methods available to pursue the goals of the political movement. (Differences, n.d.)

While this is just one interpretation, it shows some of the ambiguity that comes into play when calling someone an ‘insurgent’. This quote asserts that there are differences between terrorism and insurgency, but it also mentions that they are often lumped together. This develops the problem that the movie attempts to convey. What do you call the violent opposition to American troops in Iraq? This problem is reflected in the field of journalism on a daily basis. According to the book Terrorism and the Press, “these struggles partially grow out of the press routine of objectivity and fairness that compels news media to create a definition that is ideologically appropriate but also derived independently so organizations can maintain credibility.” (Barnett, pg. 40) Nobody wants to risk branding something like violence. Terms get thrown around, but to different people they mean different things. Depending on whose viewpoint one takes, those planting roadside bombs can be insurgents, or terrorists, or freedom fighters. By keeping a particular definition or characterization out of the film, the director, Kathryn Bigelow, is able to create a sense that anybody can be anything.

While the the distinctions between terrorist and insurgent remains clouded throughout the film, so to does the idea of threat. The point of view of the main characters takes each Iraqi citizen as a threat, very similar to what Mark Boal describes in his article:

He keeps his time on the ground to a minimum because it is impossible to tell whether that Iraqi in the dark suit with the cell phone is calling his wife or transmitting Sarver’s position to a sniper team. (Tapley, 2010)

The article introduces the idea that threat perception is an unknown while on the ground in Iraq. Any person you see could be planting a bomb or communicating with other opposition, or they could just be a curious onlooking civilian. In the film, the film-makers use of variety of shots that focus on individual Iraqi bystanders, whether a teenager, or elderly, or middle-aged. When asked about these in an interview with Sight & Sound magazine, Bigelow describes her view of the threat in Iraq and her purpose in showing close-ups of everyday Iraqi’s:

I’ve not been there myself, but certainly from what I understand, you’re very aware of your immediate environment in Baghdad, and that was very specifically delineated in the script. You’re in an environment I would call a ‘360-degree threat’ –the guy on the third-floor balcony could be hanging out his laundry or planning a sniper strike, and you won’t know until it reveals itself. I tried to capture that extremely random and chaotic sense. (Bell, 2009)

The ‘360 degree threat. The ever-present fear of the unknown. That’s the message that the movie would have it’s audience take away. The threat is everywhere, and it is that fear that makes the soldier’s mentality so difficult to understand. This effect becomes visible in the character of Specialist Eldridge, who visits with a psychologist after his team leader is killed in the opening scene of the movie. At one point he goes as far as saying, “Anybody comes along side the Humvee we’re dead. Anybody even looks at you funny we’re dead. The bottom line is: if you’re in Iraq, you’re dead.” This mindset is true of soldiers coming back from war. The following excerpt from a New York Times article helps portray this mindset of a soldier’s perspective on the film and the threat of death.

“It was a therapeutic journey for me. It allowed my mind to process experiences that occurred over there,” says Army Capt. Steve Scuba, 34, a nurse who served in Iraq for 15 months from 2007 to 2008 and suffered shrapnel wounds from the explosion of a bomb packed into a parked car. He found authentic the soldiers’ language, their camaraderie, the street scenes, even the silhouettes of Iraqis in the windows as U.S. troops pass by, never certain if they are friend or foe. “Seeing that explosion going off and seeing that (American soldier) fly through the air — I’m identifying with that guy,” Scuba says. (Gregg, 2010)

With this ‘360 degree threat’, death becomes an ever-present fear, even in a crowd of innocent looking people. In advancing a definition of terrorism, this idea of a threat is useful: the fear that is involved with terrorism is the fear of the unknown, the fear of the ‘360 degree threat’, the idea that death can come from anywhere at anytime.

The Hurt Locker also gives a little glimmer of hope as to the kind of relationships that can be built in Iraq and other war-torn countries. The character of Beckham, the little boy that sells DVD’s on the military base, is used effectively to symbolize these potential relationships. During the course of the movie, his interactions with the main character, James, develop into a friendship. James comes to enjoy seeing Beckham, and when he fears that Beckham has been killed, he goes out on a search to find the boy’s parents and inform them of their loss and track down those responsible. This comes to show just one small example of how Iraq and U.S. can get along and be friendly. In fostering these types of relationships and developing the ‘third cup of tea’, the idea of effective communication is a priority, as classmate Aaron Steichen describes in his blog post.

I believe the biggest obstacle to understanding and tolerance in any situation is communication. When you consider the international factor that is generally present in areas marked by terrorism, the language barrier makes it especially difficult to communicate in a meaningful way.

The idea of a language barrier that Aaron references is very important to note. The relationship between Beckham and James works, in part because Beckham can speak a little bit of english. When two groups of people have a common language to communicate in and can understand each other, the relationship has a place to start. The film makes it clear that friendly relationships can develop, but on a basis of understanding, both culturally and linguistically.

In addressing the The Hurt Locker, it’s important to note that despite the fact that the term “terrorism” is absent, the ideas and effects of terrorism are presented. Innocent civilians are killed, both in the body-bomb scene and with the night bombing at the end of the movie.  Fear is ever-present, as the character of Eldridge helps to portray. These two things are part of the collective idea of “terrorism.” The film is valuable in that it addresses terrorism without addressing terrorism. Though relationships with the locals can be achieved, they must always be opposed by the idea of the constant threat. This interplay between threat and friend leaves the audience with just a small portrayal of the struggle taking place in areas like Iraq and Afghanistan.