In Book VI of the Iliad, Hector leaves the field of battle and returns to Troy. He seeks out his wife Andromache and their young son. Andromache, distraught at the possibility of Hectors’s death, clings to him and weeps, pleading with him not to return to battle. Hector explains that he must fight:
But I would die of shame to face the men of Troy
and the Trojan women trailing their long robes
if I would shrink from battle now, a coward.
Nor does the spirit urge me on that way.
I’ve learned it all too well. To stand up bravely,
always to fight in the front ranks of Trojan soldiers,
winning my father great glory, glory for myself.
Hector goes on to describe his horror at the thought of Andromoche being carried off by Argive conquerors. He holds their son and kisses him, and caresses his wife to comfort her. And as the women of Troy sing anticipatory dirges for him, he returns to war.
In the final scenes of The Hurt Locker, its protagonist, Will, has returned from war in Iraq. Like Hector, Will is at home with his beautiful wife and smiling young son. And like Hector, Will then chooses to return to war. But Will is not compelled to leave the city by fear for the safety of those he loves, or by the demands of honor. Rather he is drawn to the life he leads in conflict, allured by it. The activities of peace–shopping for groceries, cleaning the gutters, playing with his son–have a dullness for him, and he finds little joy in them. In contrast he thrills in his work as a soldier and loves it. Indeed, as he says to his son, that work has become the only thing he loves.
The tragedy of Hector’s situation consists in this: from love for life in the city and respect for its norms, he is driven outside its walls and ultimately cut off from it in death. The tragedy of Will’s situation is that having fought and survived, he is unable to enjoy life in the city for which he fought. And this is not because the horrors of war return to torment him at home. (That is a more familiar story, and the theme of some other recent films on the Iraq war.) On the contrary, it is his delight in battle that takes Will away from family and peace. His work as a solider is like a mistress he cannot give up.
While Hector’s situation is lamentable, his choice is coherent: given the circumstances and his devotion to the city, it makes sense to fight. The same cannot be said for Will. We go to war for the sake of peace, not vice versa. (The desire to reverse this order is the essence of Colonel Kurtz’s insanity in Apocalypse Now; a similar madness is proclaimed by the judge in Book XVII of Blood Meridian.) This teleological ordering of war and peace means that the task of soldiering is never fully intelligible on its own. If we have reason to go to war, there must be some other kind of life worth fighting for. The film highlights this with the on-screen device of counting down the days until the soldiers’ tour is over– days until they can do something else. Yet although Will might acknowledge the goodness of peacetime activities, he cannot actually embrace them. He simply can’t enjoy life within the city. This means that Will could scarcely wish the war to end, since he prefers the activity of war to any activity available to him in peacetime. He is like a physician who wishes more people will get sick so he can heal them. What such a physician hopes for– sickness– is the opposite of what he must aim at in his capacity as a physician– health.
The Hurt Locker invites us to ponder how Will has come to find himself in this unenviable position. One interpretation is suggested by the quote which opens the film, from journalist Christ Hedges: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” Perhaps, then, Will is a kind of adrenaline junkie who is addicted to the thrill of battle. But to stop with this would be a mistake, for Will’s actions must also be seen as expressing a type of virtue, and his character must itself be seen in light of the society in which he was formed. So in reflecting on Will’s character and choices, we must ultimately confront not only the dynamics of personal addiction, but tensions within American culture and democracy.
Winner of the 2009 Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director, The Hurt Locker takes place in Baghdad in 2004. The film follows a team of three soldiers tasked to defuse bombs planted by insurgents. In the opening scene, the team’s original leader is killed by an explosion; Will arrives as his replacement. From their first mission, Will shows himself to be both talented and fearless. He works with a focused mind and skilled hands. He chooses to defuse by hand what could be more safely done at a distance with a robot. He is calm when others are afraid.
Will’s swagger, ability to endure pain and smart one-liners make him a recognizable type of American cinematic hero: think of Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke or Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. As a silver-screen soldier, however, Will is somewhat unusual, since his main task is not to attack but to defend, preventing bombs from harming soldiers and civilians. This is one reason why we are inclined to like him so quickly.
Will’s courage is central to his character, and it elicits awe from those around him. After one of their missions, an amazed officer asks to shake Will’s hand:
Officer Reed: Well, that’s just hot shit. You’re a wildman, you know that?
Will: Yes, sir.
Officer Reed: [(to others] He’s a wildman, you know that? [to Will] I wanna shake your hand … What’s the best way to go about disarming one of these things?
Will: The way you don’t die, sir.
Officer Reed: That’s a good one. That’s spoken like a wildman. That’s good.
There is something so extreme about Will’s fearlessness that he seems almost inhuman. As Aristotle says, we don’t have a name for the person who is utterly fearless, but “if he feared nothing … he would be a sort of madman or insensible.”
Aristotle thinks such a madman actually lacks courage because he is excessively fearless when a measure of fear would be appropriate. And as The Hurt Locker unfolds, it becomes less clear that what Will possesses is actually a virtue, an admirable trait that disposes him to respond correctly to a given situation. The officer who praises Will has just murdered a wounded insurgent, so we have no reason to think him gifted with keen moral perception. Moreover, the film emphasizes that Will’s fearlessness leads him to take unnecessary risks, endangering himself and others without good reason. This recklessness culminates in an ill-conceived late-night hunt for insurgents, over the protests of his teammate Sanborn, that ends badly: the third member of the team, Eldridge, is captured by insurgents, and amid the confusion Will shoots him in the leg.
But if Will does not possess courage, neither is he a coward. He possesses what Aristotle calls natural as opposed to ethical courage. Having a full-blown ethical virtue requires “practical wisdom,” which entails an understanding of the shape of human life as a whole, and the relative place of various goods within it; to fully possess an ethical virtue requires possessing the other virtues as well. In contrast, the natural virtues can be found in individuals without practical wisdom, including even animals and small children. Some kids are naturally intrepid, running into danger, whereas others are instinctively timid and fearful. And there is no harmony between the natural virtues; natural courage or natural generosity are perfectly compatible with foolishness and injustice. In Will’s case, boldness goes hand in hand with an inability to cooperate. As Eldridge says to him during a night of drinking: “You’re not very good with people, are you sir?”
So The Hurt Locker presents Will as a paradigm of natural rather than ethical courage. In doing so, the film also brings out the natural virtues’ inherent limitation. Acting from natural virtue is compatible with a deep inarticulateness about the nature and ground of one’s actions. The natural generosity of a small child may issue in actions with an intelligible structure– “Look, she’s giving you her toy”– but this does not mean the child is able to articulate what she is doing and why. In contrast if the truly virtuous agent is pressed to explain why she is doing something, she can explain the considerations on which she acts, and why responding this way to such considerations is important in human life. This does not mean, of course, that such thoughts go “through her head” at the time of acting, or that she is able to give some philosophical defense of her way of life. But neither will she simply shrug and say “I dunno” when we ask her what she is doing and why. She can explain what she is doing in a way that brings out what is good in it. The contrast with Will is clear. When, late in the film, Sanborn asks him how he is able to risk his life, this is the moment we would expect the hero to say something to justify his team’s enterprise and to rouse their spirits– we are fighting to protect innocent lives, to defend freedom and democracy, because its our duty, etc. But Will says he doesn’t know why he is the way he is. His fearlessness is just a fact about him. As to why they are risking their lives, or what soldiering is good for, Will has nothing much to say.
If Will can’t see what is good in peacetime and why, it’s no surprise that he can’t enjoy life back at home. But Hurt Locker suggests more than that. When Will returns to America, the film depicts him in two situations that elicit very different responses in the audience. We first see him sluggishly pushing his empty cart through the vast, impersonal aisles of a gigantic grocery store, awash in harsh fluorescent light. He seems aimless and bored. When he meets his wife, her cart full of groceries, she gives him a mission: go get cereal. Will obeys and is then shown standing before a ridiculously long row of cereal boxes. Momentarily dumb-founded by the array of choices, he finally just picks one at random. In this scene we feel a jarring contrast between Will’s work in Iraq and the mission he is given back home. As a soldier his decisions are a matter of life and death. As a shopper his choices don’t really matter one way or another. In Iraq his tasks absorb him, requiring all his powers of skill and concentration. In the Mega Lo Mart, his task demands nothing of him, and he couldn’t be less interested. We are encouraged to blame his environment–he is stuck in a wasteland of mindless consumerism and vapid material excess.
Things are different in the next set of scenes, where Will is at home. Again Will is detached from what he is doing, but the problem now seems to be with him, not the situation. He is making dinner in the kitchen with his wife. The camera draws our attention to the simple loveliness of hands washing mushrooms and peeling carrots. This is the scene in which we might expect a soldier to smile with joy and thanksgiving, but for Will there is no delight in being at home, and he talks to his wife about the only thing he can think about: Iraq. In a later scene, Will plays jack-in-the-box with his toddler son, and he ponders his love for his work in Iraq.
What are we to make of Will’s dissatisfaction? We might call Will an addict whose love for peacetime life is crowded out by his need for the “fix” of battle. That fits with the quote from Hedges at the beginning of the film, and with Eldridge’s angry accusation of Will after the former has been shot by the later: “Fuck you, Will! Really, fuck you! Thanks for saving my life, but we didn’t have to go out looking for trouble to get your fuckin’ adrenaline fix, you fuck.” But the film makes it clear that the enjoyment Will finds in soldiering is not just the passive pleasure of a drug working its way through the system. It is the pleasure of being actively engaged in something that demands effort and rewards improvement. It is the pleasure of good work. And a person is rightto want good work. Good work, however, is precisely what Will lacks on the home front, as the scene in the grocery store brings out. He has no peacetime tasks that deeply engage him, nothing as challenging and significant as defusing bombs.
So what counts as “good work”? As a rough sketch, we can say that good work engages your human capacities for reasoning and creativity; it is something you can see as significant and worthwhile; it provides moments of pleasure, and not merely frustration and exertion; it connects you to others in relations of dignity, rather than isolating or degrading you. And we might add: good work is not so perfectly “safe” from all chance of failure as to be boring. As Simone Weil noted: “Risk is an essential need of the soul. The absence of risk produces a type of boredom which paralyses in a different way from fear, but almost as much.” (This quote is from Weil’s book The Need for Roots, written during World War Two as a proposal for how to rebuild European society after the end of hostilities. Full of remarkable insights, the book is largely a study of what good work requires, and how a culture can be arranged to provide good work for all its citizens.) All of these features of good work are seen in Will’s activity as a soldier. None are found in the grocery store.
This lack of good work makes it easier to understand not only why Will is drawn to battle but also why he displays only natural virtue once he gets there. For, as Aristotle says, a person acquires the ethical virtues by doing virtuous deeds, and that requires participating in a sufficient number of good human activities. But such activities– i.e. varieties of good work– are precisely what Will seems to lack at home. Thus it is no surprise that Will’s character has not been formed to manifest full virtue.
If this is right, then the tension in Will’s situation is ultimately rooted not in some personal idiosyncrasy or private addiction, but in features of the society on whose behalf Will is fighting. The Hurt Locker suggests that a lack of options for genuine work in American society has created a pathological situation in which war– done for the sake of life back home– has become a more attractive option for some citizens than that home life itself. That this is an unacceptable situation for a democracy is clear. For it means that some citizens are of use to the city, while being effectively excluded from the good of life within the city. A citizen-soldier in such a situation is only a step away from being a mercenary: he fights for the sake of a community in which he is not a full participant; he protects a world he cannot live in.
The Hurt Locker was selected the year’s best film at a time when our country is not only fighting two wars, but also facing the most severe economic crisis in decades. Many who appreciated the film saw it as making a comment about the destructive effects of war on soldiers–“look how troops get addicted and then can’t enjoy life at home.” While there is some truth in this interpretation, the film also forces us to consider matters more easily overlooked and harder to confront– the nature of good work, the interplay between work and moral character, and the structures of American society that make good work elusive for many of its citizens.