Rummaging in “The Hurt Locker” for a Moral Equivalent of War

Culture Watch

James Livingston is Professor of History at Rutgers University. His latest book is The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009). He blogs at

Now that The Hurt Locker has won the Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards—now that we all have to go see it (again)—we’re going to be hearing about how amazing it is that this small-budget movie about the Iraq war broke through, when all those other ambitious, pretentious, heartbreaking movies about the same conflict bombed.              

But it’s no big mystery.  The Hurt Locker broke through because Iraq is not framed as the issue on any level except as a location, a backlot, an incentive to film-making (in Jordan).  So the debates about the politics of this movie—for example, was it pro-war or anti-war?—are pretty much beside the point.  It’s a film about war, to be sure, at least as this kind of organized violence has determined what manhood means; but it’s neither for nor against this war, the one still being waged in Iraq.  Instead, it abstains from the obvious political questions that other, less successful movies about this war have raised.

And that studied abstention validates the banality of the slogan you see on all those infuriating yellow ribbons:  Support Our Troops.  In other words, the movie presents itself as a pro-warrior movie—as you might have gathered from Kathryn Bigelow’s repeated thanks on Oscar night to all the men and women in the American military.  It’s the inevitable result of embedding journalists like Mark Boal, the screenwriter, with the troops.  How could he not identify with his comrades in arms?

But the debates about this movie have also ignored the obvious question:  why is the warrior at the heart of the story named Will James?  In watching him become the hero of the story, for better and worse, are we supposed to recall the arguments of the pragmatist philosopher William James—whose most effective intervention as a public intellectual was a 1909 lecture entitled “The Moral Equivalent of War”?  When a famous philosopher told me that he’d recently had dinner with Boal, I asked him this question.  The response was emphatic: “Absolutely.  He chose the name very carefully.”

So who was William James, and what did he try to tell us—about war and manhood, among other things?  And what are Boal and Bigelow telling us about the same things, by way of this talismanic name and its strange connotations?

James was one of the first “public intellectuals” on the modern American scene, someone who went on the lecture circuit and risked his professional standing by opposing the Spanish-American War, by identifying with a “socialistic equilibrium”—he was a big fan of John Stuart Mill, whose idea of a “stationary state” was just that, a socialistic equilibrium—and finally by opposing war as such, even as he explained why its proponents still had the better of the argument.

James’s most influential philosophical work was his contribution to pragmatism, which is an anti-metaphysical way of settling philosophical questions.  It was an intellectual scandal in its time because it insisted that the worth of an idea was to be measured by its consequences, not its logical coherence; because it claimed that every truth is contingent and contextual; and because it demonstrated that the modern individual was a social construction—selfhood was an unnatural product of being in the world with others, the pragmatists claimed, not something to be taken for granted.

In his time, William James was often compared to Friedrich Nietzsche—by Emile Durkheim and Bertrand Russell, for example—because their arguments allowed for a new kind of relativism, and maybe even a resolute nihilism.  The comparison isn’t far-fetched, pragmatism does in fact sound like what we now call post-structuralism and/or postmodernism.  My favorite demonstration of this uncanny resemblance is a passage Russell cited to convict James of a dangerous indifference to transcendent Truth:  “Day follows day, and its contents are simply added.  The new contents are not themselves true, they simply come and are.  The truth is what we say about them.”

That’s pretty out there, semiotically speaking.  There’s no external, non-human truth—the world, including Nature itself, is a fable waiting for our stories to make sense of it?  Get Alan Sokal on the line.  What about those laws of motion, what about the external reality that’s supposed to exist independently of what we think about it?

James’s ideas about war and manhood raise even more disturbing questions.  In “The Moral Equivalent” essay, an impassioned defense and indictment of war as such, he made three moves that are at least unsettling.  First, the “manly virtues” hitherto bred in the theaters of war and work were now at risk because war was impossible—it would turn the whole world into a charnel house—and real, character-building work was unavailable.  The moral equivalent of war, in this sense, had once upon a time been work, but now, with the advent of “pacific cosmopolitan industrialism” and the reduction of every task to paperwork—a “pain economy” had given way to a “pleasure economy”—the lessons of a job well done would be lost on young men. 

Second, James equated this pacific, cosmopolitan stage of civilization with the feminization of modern life.  He declared, with no little irony, that for most men, the horrors of war “are a cheap price to pay for rescue from the only alternative supposed, of a world of clerks and teachers, of co-education and zoophily [sic], of ‘consumers’ leagues’ and ‘associated charities,’ of industrialism unlimited, and feminism unabashed” (the use of the word “feminism” here is probably the first recorded instance in the US).

Third, James ridiculed the “socialistic peace advocates” of his time for their failure to understand that the “romance of war” would continue to captivate the minds of men insofar as the hard work of necessary labor could not function as the setting in which character was achieved through everyday performance: “So long as anti-militarists propose no substitute for war’s disciplinary function, no moral equivalent of war analogous, as one might say, to the mechanical equivalent of heat, so long they fail.”

James proposed a kind of domestic Peace Corps project to reintroduce real, character-building work to the enervated youth of his time.  He knew that the burden of necessary labor fell on people less fortunate than himself, and he wanted to redistribute that burden.  His idea was to even out an unjust asymmetry of toil and pain by conscripting the “whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature.”  By putting every teenager to work at a job sponsored, presumably, by the government, he aimed to teach all young people something about the “military ideals of hardihood and discipline.”

That was William James’s moral equivalent of war.  It doesn’t sound very romantic these days, when young men join the Army to get their teeth fixed or find health insurance that will cover their wives and kids.  But that was his point.  The romance of war was an insanely dangerous indulgence when the whole world would be implicated in mortal combat, and the romance of meaningful work—the end of alienated labor—had become an intellectual indulgence under the regime of “industrialism unlimited.”   

Let us now rummage in The Hurt Locker, to see if it enunciates any moral equivalent of war.  It begins with an overheated epigraph from Chris Hedges—“war is a drug”—which immediately suggests that war is exactly what William James said it was, an insanely dangerous indulgence.  And as these words dissolve, we’re introduced to the signature movement of Bigelow’s style, the jittery, jangled camera angles and lengths a stranger’s city at war deserves.  The movie opens from an ordnance robot’s point of view, bumping along next to a railroad track in Baghdad, on its way to the IED that will kill Thompson, the bomb tech who, when he realizes the machine can’t get the job done, walks down that same road to defuse the thing.  Welcome to the war on terror, John Henry, hope you brought your tools. 

The camera never stops jumping except outside the city, in the desert, where long, still shots of distant assailants corroborate the perspective of Will James, the new tech, the man who spots the targets through his telescope—and in the “operating rooms” where this same new tech plies his delicate, surgical, dexterous trade with his gloved hands (there is one late scene in which Will must remove a bomb from the guts of a young man, and here the surgical metaphor becomes material and manifest, and gruesomely beautiful).  This schizophrenic style is not distracting, in fact the camera’s movement and angles let us feel the fear, the speed, the sound, the color, and the thrill of the moment when your life itself is at stake.

But the moral voiceover finally becomes unbearable—and I do mean voiceover, the moral of the story is imposed from outside the cinematic frame of the staccato camera movement, from outside the pure experience of war, in the repose of the Humvee’s interior, when Sanford, “Blaster Mike,” the first mate, the bomb technician’s backup, and he’s the black guy, tells us that “they all look alike, anyway,” or that he wants a son like Will’s to verify his precarious, maybe even meaningless existence—or in the door of the evac helicopter, when Eldridge the specialist with the shattered femur tells Will that he can go fuck himself for putting everyone in harm’s way because he needed another adrenaline rush—or in the baby’s room, back in the world, where Will tells his wordless son that as you get older you care about fewer and fewer things, so that in the end there’s just one thing, and then he’s reupped again, he’s once more in hand-to-hand combat with IEDs.

Narrative retrospect on pure experience is the only truth we have, according to William James the philosopher, the pragmatist, so these periodic removals from the scene of the camera’s low angle on the profuse and filthy details of life—life now brightened and magnified by the constant threat of death—bring a necessary, useful lull to the rush of otherwise deadly events.  But is this particular retrospect adequate to the details on view?  Is it so profound to suggest that fatherhood is harder than doing your more limited duty in a theater of war?  Is it so amazing to discover that moral clarity is elusive in a war zone, when collaboration with the enemy may well mean more than social death? 

Is it so satisfying to say that being at war, at risk, is the only meaningful work men can find?

Sanford finally identifies with Will James when he says he, too, wants a son, a personal testament to the worth of his own life, but there is a perfect moment played out earlier, in the barracks, after a long, harrowing episode with a car bomb outside the UN compound (when Will, of course, sheds the heavy, impersonal, protective costume of the bomb tech and says “If I’m gonna die, I’m at least gonna die comfortable”).  James and Sanford have been beating each other up, masochistic male bonding at its purest, and then the third party, young blond specialist Eldridge, discovers the hurt locker, the plastic bin where Will keeps the memorable evidence of the 873 bombs he’s disarmed—detonators, mainly, all with wires dangling, leading toward the stories of each device, except the battery that would have set off today’s bomb.

“What’s this shit?” Sanford asks, now he’s suspicious, and Will takes out the detonator he removed from the car, admires it, and says, referring to the whole lot, “This is what would have killed me,” he’s ready to finger those wires and launch into the story of every piece of hardware.  Sanford stops him—he picks up the battery, turns it in his hand, and says, “This is Radio Shack, man,” and throws it back into the hurt locker.

This is mass-produced, he means, it wasn’t meant for you and it’s not about you, Will.  So get over the idea that you can take it personally.  Get over the idea that either hands-on know-how, or artisanal dedication to your surgical craft—or raw courage—will change the course of this conflict, or prove to me that you’re a man.  When you treat war as if it’s work, as if it remains the only theater in which manhood gets created, you won’t notice and you can’t devise any moral equivalents.

It’s worth noticing now that the kind of work William James the philosopher recommended as the antidote to both war and “a world of clerks and teachers” was not the skilled, quasi-surgical, artisanal labor advertised in The Hurt Locker as the obvious alternative to an enervated world of consumer culture.  When Will James the bomb tech goes home, we see him first in the produce aisle of an upscale grocery store, where he’s confused by the mass-produced choices—he’s chastened and bemused by the colors and the quiet, he’s clearly out of his element in this silent, invasive world of consumer goods.  He wants to go back to work, back to war, where his skills make him special and, in his own way, productive.  He wants to return to that ideal zone of use value where he’s face to face with the raw materials of real life, which means the instant field of the present, an existence unmediated by anything except the actuality of death.  

But just as William James the philosopher wouldn’t indulge the romance of war—even as he explained it—so he wouldn’t indulge the romance of meaningful work as it is depicted in The Hurt Locker.  Here is how he described what he had in mind for the youth of his day: “To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dish-washing, clothes-washing, and window-washing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers..."

This is alienated labor, it’s the grinding, invisible, underpaid, and unskilled work most of us don’t want, for good reason.  It’s not artisanal work that you can take personally as your very own inscription on the world.  It’s not craftsmanship—it’s hard labor.  So William James the philosopher is on Sanford’s side in the barracks debate on the contents of the hurt locker.

If Sanford holds out against the “romance of war” as Will James the bomb tech embodies it, the voiceover remains ambiguous, and some moral equivalents of war might appear to inform our narrative retrospect on this movie.   But he doesn’t.  He finally identifies with Will’s artisanal urge to take it personally, to be his own man, and to commemorate his life by impregnating a woman.  Only the pathetic specialist with the shattered femur removes himself from the moral ambit Will has created by putting everyone in harm’s way.  The rest of the boys eventually say “hot shit,” along with the colonel who asks the new tech how many of those devices he’s disarmed.

It is this foreclosure of the complicated moral choices that come with modern war—not in spite, but because of its increasing impersonality—that should give us pause, or at any rate should make us ask whether Will James’s artisanal urge is a moral equivalent of war that makes any sense:  Is war the last frontier of real work for real men?

My own answers derive from a look at military training, both the basic kind (“boot camp”) and the more intensive kind that has prepared soldiers and Marines for the theater of war in Iraq (Full disclosure: my son is a Marine who served in Iraq).  In both settings, young men and women are taught to step outside themselves, to leave their origins behind and become something they’re not.  In basic training, for example, the three drill instructors for each platoon play different roles—distant patriarch, wise uncle, big brother—and in doing so, they make it clear that in the next training class, each will be playing a different role.  They’re trading these roles in a deadly serious parody of repertory theater, and they teach the recruits to do the same, to play their parts, not themselves.

This abstraction from themselves continues on the stage of 29 Palms, the California base where recruits go to train for Iraq.  Here they learn to improvise their lines, to speak in the baroque, bureaucratic style of police reports, as they engage with professional actors who impersonate Iraqis of every age, class, station, and ideology.  But they are not relinquishing their humanity as their former identities now give way to the roles they must play in a dangerous theater of war.  By becoming better actors, they become better soldiers and Marines, but they also become better human beings because they can begin to see the world from standpoints that weren’t theirs to begin with.  They become less authentic as individuals with deep roots in a real life back home, and, to the same extent, they become more worldly, more capable of accomplishing their mission and returning home unscathed.

These abstractions from the heat of the moment, the cognitive distance supplied by the role-playing all trainees undergo, these allow for the making of more careful moral choices in battle, regardless of the phenomenological density—the fog of war—these warriors will experience in battle.  For with the impersonality of modern war comes the image-repertoire, the narrative resources, of a complex story in which everyone is cast as a supporting player, not the main character or worse, the tragic hero doomed, like Will James, by his own outrageous excellence, his radical individuality. 

With those narrative resources, you can quickly, reflexively step back and understand it’s not about you, it’s about a much larger, still unfolding drama.  You’re not the author of this text—you’re not the artisan.  You don’t have to take it personally, your manhood is not at stake, and so the authentic emotional manifold you bring to bear back home, in domestic squabbles, say, is not necessarily mobilized for the task at hand, and in fact, if your training was effective, it’s moot.

The men and women who have fought in Iraq have been taught to be inauthentic representations of a personality that isn’t theirs—they know they’re playing a part in a drama they didn’t write.  They also know that to step outside of what they were back home, to play their parts in this new setting, is to realize an honorable purpose that they understand and embrace.  To reassert a radical individuality in that setting—to be authentic, “the real you”—is to put everyone at risk. 

In this sense, TheHurtLocker is anything but an endorsement of the inane slogan, “Support Our Troops,” that now unites Left and Right.  Indeed the movie is a fundamental betrayal of those troops, who know that war is not a drug and that lonely heroes like Will James the bomb tech are a nostalgic, pathetic, even dangerous rendition of manhood.  In the same sense, the movie is anything but a truthful account of what soldiers and Marines actually experience in the theater of war:  it is a lie, as I said in answer to a question from Eric Alterman at a conference last November, who then accused me, in The Nation, of purveying dangerously post-modern ideas about historical fact (you can read the exchange between us here).

The movie is also a fundamental betrayal of William James the philosopher, who knew better than to search for an ideal zone of use value on the outskirts of alienated labor, in the suburbs of artisanal excellence—and who knew better than to assume manhood was impossible in the absence of war.  He always referred to pragmatism as a woman who would stay “on the street,” who would “unstiffen our theories,” and show us how to live more easily with the idiocies and uncertainty that come with everyday life. 

The Hurt Locker defines manhood as a possibility that appears only in the ideal, existential zone of mortal combat, and only in the absence of women (and children): it is at war with the idiocies and uncertainty of everyday life.  And so it is also at war with pragmatism.

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James Livingston - 4/20/2010

I don't expect agreement from you, and that, too, is a good thing.

The soldiers you know who served in Iraq are verifying the impressions and experiences of a journalist--Mark Boal--who was embedded with troops there. His account of the fog of war is, however, fictional. It's not journalism, it's not the meaningless sequence of real events as they unfold in real time, it's a story. It's a fabrication.

That is not a bad thing. But you defend the movie by saying it's accurate according to the soldiers you know: "They would know. They did it."

I have to ask you, really? What do they know because they did it? The fog of war is a tricky condition. And no experience, however extreme, can make sense to anyone until it's narrated, retold in retrospect.

Those soldiers know something about what they did NOT because they did it but because they have tried to put what they did into words. This movie does that for them, and brilliantly so--but it ultimately betrays them because the fog of war foregrounded in "The Hurt Locker" is not an immediate experience to be savored or suffered. It is always already mediated by the prior training that tells them they can't take it personally.

J M McDonough - 4/19/2010

We totally disagree. I stand by what I said. I hope you find peace with your son as well. We are fine here.

And helping support soldiers and Marines in combat is a good thing. Nothing inane about it at all. So find a local FRG and maybe you can get that yellow ribbon. Or send a carebox to a soldier in one of the war zones. Or a Marine.

The soldiers I know who were in this situation say this is the most accurate portrayal they have seen in a film of this job in the war zone. They would know. They did it.

James Livingston - 4/19/2010

I do not want to speak for my son or through him. My purpose here was to say, in the plainest way, that Mark Boal got the training for and the experience of war wrong.

In other words, I hope no one ever makes a movie that captures my son's personal experience in a war zone--mind you, I can't and won't tell you it was a searing experience--because if that happened, I would know that his training let him down.

I know it sounds paradoxical, but I am trying to honor the services of our military by explaining how and why soldiers and Marines can abstract from their personal experiences. Your son has done so by identifying with people he could not possibly know--actors playing their parts on a screen that is two dimensional--and that is a good thing.

I hope that makes sense to you, and I hope you and your son find peace.

J M McDonough - 4/19/2010

Unfortunately, you and your son can not speak for all soldiers or Marines who participated in the events of the Iraq War. And, please don't.
My son lived this task in Anbar for 16 months as a soldier. His impression of the film, The Hurt Locker, was that it was the ONLY realistic film he has seen that has been made about this war and his experience in it. He related, he believed as Will did, and he wept telling me about it. He never weeps about the war. For him, he felt by watching this film he had a release and did not apologize for the tears. He felt justification for them.

He owns it now(I purchased it for him when I heard how it gave him comfort and a reason)and he can put it on whenever he needs to "validate the moment" again. He currently works in a federal/military capacity and the experience of living the war as he did in Anbar had never been completely validated post War until he experienced this film.

There is a reason the film was made as it was. Someday, maybe someone will make a film about your son's personal experience, and if he tells you about it in his terms you can speak with more authority about what it meant to him.

This following exerpt from your HNN entry is off the mark. War CAN be like a drug, and yes they are trained for this. The previous recounting of glimpses of the film are fairly non-biased and upfront. Sometimes, one can over-philosophize and Mr. Livingston, I think you have done so in this long review.
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In this sense, The Hurt Locker is anything but an endorsement of the inane slogan, “Support Our Troops,” that now unites Left and Right. Indeed the movie is a fundamental betrayal of those troops, who know that war is not a drug and that lonely heroes like Will James the bomb tech are a nostalgic, pathetic, even dangerous rendition of manhood. In the same sense, the movie is anything but a truthful account of what soldiers and Marines actually experience in the theater of war: it is a lie, as I said in answer to a question from Eric Alterman at a conference last November, who then accused me, in The Nation, of purveying dangerously post-modern ideas about historical fact (you can read the exchange between us here).