Although portrayed from the viewpoint of a soldier, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker initially appears to be decidedly against the war and confronts the issue of what the definition of terrorism is. The film opens with a line from the novel War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” As the quote fades out, the words “War is a drug” remain on the black backdrop, a stark introduction to the direction of the film. Overall, the film focuses on the ambiguity of war while at the same time focusing in on the soldiers and their struggles. Very few times is terrorism mentioned, instead of terrorism being an issue they are constantly talking about, it is something that shapes their daily lives. If the film is about anything, it is about the soldier in the midst of war rather than how to combat terrorism.

The framing of Americans versus the “terrorists” is far from balanced, since the movie is almost entirely from the viewpoint of the American soldiers. They are framed as sympathetic characters, in constant dilemma with their role in the war and the struggle of living each day with the fear that it could easily be their last. “If you’re in Iraq, you’re dead.” Their missions are evident of “the paranoia, rage, and brutal recklessness of soldiers trapped in the downward death spiral of the Iraq war” (McKelvey). In addition to their constant fear that their death is impending is also the constant doubt in their fight against terrorism. The are constantly echoing their wishes to go home, with some of the soldiers even admitting that they don’t really know why they continue to fight. When the troop is investigating a post blast, the horror of the situation is exhibited on Eldridge’s face. Despite the fact that they are “fighting” against the Iraqis, the soldiers manage to retain their humanity and have sympathy for the struggle they are both enduring. At the same time, Bigelow interjects with a couple of scenes that revert back to the stereotype of the ugly American and the corrupt soldier. When William is caught trying to enter his base in civilian clothing, rather than facing punishment for his actions that could have gotten him killed, he strikes up a bargain with the arresting soldier in regards to a whorehouse. “If I let you go, will you tell me exactly where it is?” Even the Iraqi bootlegger, Beckham, has his own concept of the American soldier, and he finds William redefining how he sees the soldier. “You’re not like the stupid ones.”

But at the same time, William is viewed by his fellow soldiers as the most reckless of the group, constantly putting his troop in jeopardy and showing his expertise in disarming bombs by ignoring the protocol to wear certain equipment. His actions push certain soldiers so far that Sanborn even considers killing William and making it look accidental. While a dramatic plot for the movie, his actions are relatively inaccurate compared to real army life. “Our team leaders don’t have that kind of invincibility complex, and if they do, they aren’t allowed to operate” (Ford). They are constantly aware of the people that surround them and everyone is viewed as a threat. Each time a member of the troop is lost, it is usually due to a surprise attack.

The terrorists are framed ambiguously, which is appropriate for a film, which focuses on the portrayal of soldiers rather than the people they are fighting against. There is no clear definition of terrorism or who constitutes as a terrorist. As previously mentioned, the American soldiers are never certain of whom to attack and the IED’s usually arise from the most ordinary situations. “Innocence is conferred, rather than inherent, that innocence needs to be asserted; it is not unequivocally self-apparent” (Moeller 104). Part of Cambridge’s downfall is that he views the Iraqis with the cart as relatively harmless and the biggest obstacle he faces with them is ordering them to move away from the bombsite. Even when they are hyper-aware of their surroundings, their suspicions can prove to be wrong. In the case of the cameraman, the soldiers repeatedly emphasized his suspicious behavior and the threatening way in which he was pointing his camera. When William finds a dead boy that has had an IED surgically implanted in him, his identity is uncertain, but the soldiers believe he is Beckham, the boy that used to sell the soldiers DVD’s. When Eldridge questions the identity of the little boy, Sanborn merely replies, “They all look the same.”

Insurgents used IEDs in a diabolical fashion so that all Iraqis seemed complicit in the violence, particularly since many were aware of the location of the bombs. Yet the bystanders said nothing — most likely because they feared reprisals from the insurgent leaders — and, consequently, the American soldiers turned with a vengeance on the very people they had once attempted to liberate (McKelvey).

The only moment where there is a true framing of the state of terrorism in Iraq occurs when the soldiers are arresting a cab driver that drives aggressively in the middle of a danger zone. Although they are uncertain if he poses a threat, William exhibits no hesitation with killing him. When the cab driver finally lets his guard down and gets arrested by the troops, William remarks, “Well if he wasn’t an insurgent, he is now.” They continue to be challenged with the identity of the terrorist when in their last mission; they must save a man that does not want to be a suicide bomber. “Help this man, he’s not a bad man. He’s not a bad man?! He’s got a bomb strapped to him!” After the failed mission to disarm the bomb and the man has died, William’s sorrow over not being able to save the man continues to blur the lines between the definitions of a terrorist. The uncertain identity of the terrorists in the movie is resonant of the worldwide uncertainty of what terrorism is. Other than using the word “insurgent,” once, the movie never attempts to have terrorism defined, so there is no mention of it. Rather than focusing on terrorism, Bigelow prefers to concentrate on defining the daily life of the soldier. The mission of the film is clear when Sanborn and William discuss how fragile their lives are and how meaningless they are at the same time. “I’ll bleed out like a pig in the sand. Nobody will even give a shit.” “The characters in this film do not talk about “victory,” or “winning” or the politics of the situation in which they find themselves. Indeed, given the everyday situations these soldiers experience, notions of victory seem almost laughable” (Hunter). The soldiers’ treatment of their time in Iraq is so dispirited that any sense of hope is nearly impossible to conceive. Even when William returns home, the daily tasks of life are a struggle for him and he prefers to return to a life with uncertain consequences. His preference to being in the middle of war over staying at home with his son ends the movie with a heavy feeling of how other soldiers must feel similarly about their occupation in the War on Terror.

Since the movie is so heavily centered on the personal struggles of the soldier in the Iraq war, there is little focus on the issue of terrorism. Though the reason for their mission is to combat the “War on Terror” there is little regard to what terrorism actually is. The uncertainty that Bigelow frames in the movie stands as a commentary on the purpose of American soldiers being placed in these countries, when the presence of terrorism was muddled.

Works Cited

Ford, Matt. “Real Hurt Lockers in Iraq: Life is no movie.” Air Force Times. 8 Mar. 2010.

Hunter, Jack. “Why the Hurt Locker Hurts.” The American Conservative. 12 Mar 2010.

McKelvey, Tara. “The Hurt Locker as Propaganda.” The American Prospect. 17 Jul 2009.

Moeller, Susan D. Packaging Terrorism. United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.