The Hurt Locker: We Need a New Ritual

The Hurt Locker tells the story of an American bomb disposal technician in Iraq. Jeremy Renner, who plays the lead role of William James, was nominated for an Oscar, and it’s a movie well worth seeing. As insanely dangerous as his job is, James loves it, as the film makes clear by opening with a quote from Chris Hedges’s book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”

James Hillman covered the same ground in his earlier book A Terrible Love of War. For many men, war makes them feel that their life has importance, says Hillman. He quotes men who have found being under fire exhilarating, thrilling, beautiful, even joyful, like the war correspondent in Bosnia who said that “There can be few instants in life that a man is lucky enough to feel so at one with his time and place” as on the eve of battle.  “To be close to death,” Hillman says, “is to be close to immortality.” Every time James walks up to a bomb, he smiles with that joy.

Being in battle can also evoke a tremendous sense of love for one’s fellows. “An unsurpassing love opens in the heart of war,” says Hillman, and quotes Kipling’s view that the comradeship of fellow soldiers has an intensity that goes far beyond that of a man’s love for a woman, followed by the story of a French soldier who recalled his tour of duty as “the most tender human experience that he had ever enjoyed.” Soldiers willingly risk and sacrifice their lives for their buddies, and the bonds forged under fire survive for life. James returns for another tour after hearing about a bomb that killed several soldiers, a bomb that he thinks he might have been able to defuse. While playing with his infant son, he admits out loud to himself that there is really only one thing he loves any more, and it’s not his son.

So how do we combat this addiction? How do we take such men and integrate them back into their families and communities? I have watched many films on men at war and many films on the problems soldiers have when they come home again. The only one that comes close to suggesting an answer is The Best Years of Our Lives, which came out after the end of World War II.  The lead character, an Air Force captain, has no skills that can help him in civilian life;  he descends from his dangerous and important role as a bombardier to being a soda jerk at the local drugstore – hardly a job that grips the mind and soul. Like so many veterans, he drinks too much and gets into fights and drives his wife away. He doesn’t have James’s option to re-enlist. In the end he is saved by two things: he lands a job in the up-and-coming aircraft industry, and he meets a woman who understands what he has been through and patiently bears with his nightmares and moodiness.

But he’s lucky. Many veterans are not, like the man from my state, recently returned from Iraq, who took a semi-automatic rifle up to Mount Rainier National Park, gunned down a park ranger, and took off into the wilderness. Unfortunately his desert training did not equip him for survival in deep snow, and he froze to death there within a day.

When we send people off to war, we put them through an extended ritual called boot camp. There they are stripped of their old clothing and given warrior’s clothing instead; they are stripped of their names and become only “Private”; they are given weapons and taught how to use them; and they are subjected to a constant discipline designed to rid them of old habits of thinking and turn them into soldiers. They are trained to war, a process that takes months, and then they are sent to war for a year or longer.

But there is no corresponding ritual at the end of their service to turn them back into civilians. They are simply dumped back into their old lives, which no longer fit them, and expected to cope. Maybe the family or the town holds a celebration for them for a day, but that’s the most they can expect.

I have spent quite a bit of time lately imagining the ritual for reintegrating soldiers into their families and communities. Here’s what I have so far:

Divestiture: as soon as they return, the soldiers are stripped of their uniforms and weapons and given civilian clothing to wear. No one calls them by their rank any more, but by their full names.

Celebration: the returning soldiers are greeted by members of their families, old friends, and people from their hometowns. Their courage and sacrifices are acknowledged, the community mourns with them over the loss of their comrades, and then there’s a huge party where pretty much everyone tries to dance with them or at least shake hands and hug them. Touching is extremely important, for it releases oxytocin, the hormone that makes us feel connected to each other and behave in a moral manner.

Support: the returning soldiers are provided with all the services we know will help them deal with the psychological effects of war. Counseling and support groups led by ex-soldiers who know from war are vital. I’d also like to see dreamwork classes where the returning vets are taught how to manage and work with their dreams so that they can control and move through their nightmares.

Retraining: It’s essential that we provide the same intensive training that new soldiers received, but in reverse. We need to outfit these people – many of whom went into the service because they didn’t have other options – with skills that are needed by the community. For instance, how about sending a cadre of Iraqi veterans into the national parks of the southwest to build or fix trails and patrol the backcountry? They’re used to the climate and hard work, and they might relish the dangers of snakes and scorpions and the challenges of getting a Jeep over a pile of rocks to go rescue an injured hiker. It’s an approach that has been used in my state to deal with former loggers who are out of work; because they’re used to danger and heavy equipment, they make great construction workers and long-haul truckers.

I realize that all this would take money we don’t have in this economy. But I hope we all wake up one day and realize that any military budget should include the same amount for “untraining” soldiers as we now spend training them, for the sake of their and our futures.

If there had been such a program for Sgt. James, I can imagine him attached to a S.W.A.T. team or NCIS or some such organization, continuing to defuse bombs, but able at last to go home in the evening to his little son and feel love for him too.

One thought on “The Hurt Locker: We Need a New Ritual

  1. Great review and analysis. I remember a conversation we had about this movie back when it first came out. I hadn’t realized, at that time, that you hadn’t seen it yet. If you don’t recall that conversation (at a message board we both visit), it might be worth doing a search for it. I think I linked to a extensive radio report prepared by Minnesota Public Radio that tapped into a lot of this same stuff.

    cheers, Magpie

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