Green Berets with a Human Face

Slavoj Žižek · 'The Hurt Locker'

The victory at the Oscars of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker over James Cameron’s Avatar was generally perceived as a good sign of the state of things in Hollywood: a low-budget, independent film overcomes a superproduction whose technical brilliance cannot cover up the flat simplicity of its story. So Hollywood is not just a blockbuster machine, but still knows how to appreciate marginal creative efforts. Well, maybe. But it’s also the case that, with all its mystifications, Avatar clearly takes the side of those who oppose the global military-industrial complex, while The Hurt Locker presents the US army in a way which is much more finely attuned to its own public image in our time of humanitarian interventions and militaristic pacifism.

The film largely ignores the debate about the US military intervention in Iraq, and instead focuses on the daily ordeals, on and off duty, of ordinary soldiers forced to deal with danger and destruction. In pseudo-documentary style, it tells the story – or rather, a series of vignettes – of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) squad. This choice is deeply symptomatic: although soldiers, they do not kill, but risk their lives dismantling terrorist bombs destined to kill civilians – can there be anything more sympathetic to our liberal eyes? Are our armies in the ongoing War on Terror, even when they bomb and destroy, ultimately not just such EOD squads, patiently dismantling terrorist networks in order to make the lives of civilians everywhere safer?

But there is more to the film. The Hurt Locker brought back to Hollywood the trend which also accounts for the success of two recent Israeli films about the 1982 Lebanon war, Ari Folman’s animated documentary Waltz With Bashir and Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon. Lebanon draws on Maoz’s memories of being a young soldier; most of the action claustrophobically takes place inside a tank. The movie follows four inexperienced soldiers dispatched to ‘mop up’ enemies in a Lebanese town that has already been bombarded by the Israeli air force. Interviewed at the 2009 Venice festival, Yoav Donat, one of the actors, said: ‘This is not a movie that makes you think: “I’ve just been to a movie.” This is a movie that makes you feel like you’ve been to war.’ Maoz has said his film is not a condemnation of Israel’s policies, but a personal account of what he went through: ‘The mistake I made is to call the film Lebanon because the Lebanon war is no different in its essence from any other war and for me any attempt to be political would have flattened the film.’ This is ideology at its purest: the focus on the perpetrator’s traumatic experience enables us to obliterate the entire ethico-political background of the conflict.

 The Hurt Locker’s depictions of the daily horror and traumatic impact of serving in a war zone seems to put it miles apart from such sentimental celebrations of the US army’s humanitarian role as John Wayne’s infamous Green Berets. However, we should bear in mind that the terse-realistic presentation of the absurdities of war in The Hurt Locker obfuscates and thus makes acceptable the fact that its heroes are doing exactly the same job as the heroes of The Green Berets. In its very invisibility, ideology is here, more than ever: we are there, with our boys, identifying with their fear and anguish instead of questioning what they are doing there.


  • 23 March 2010 at 5:53pm
    Michael Zunenshine says:
    The fact that the film uses the experiences of individual soldiers as opposed to a larger exposition of militaristic campaigns means that as viewers, we (The Academy) are still locked in the Imaginary stage of direct identification. Instead of confronting the causes and effects of the war as interpreted by the 'global community' (the Symbolic order), we can safely reside within the innocent perspective of a soldier who is spared answering the question of 'why' (causes of war, expected outcome of the war, etc.), as he must concentrate all his efforts on the more pragmatic 'how' (to disarm bombs, to save lives, etc.).

  • 23 March 2010 at 6:58pm
    Eric says:
    There was a moment in the film where one of the soldiers who was being loaded into a helicopter after having been shot in the leg berated the sergeant who apparently shot him the night before by saying, "Yeah, you saved me, but we didn't have to go looking for trouble." That was the one moment in the film that could be taken as a vaguely anti-war message.

  • 24 March 2010 at 12:30am
    Muhammad Idrees Ahmad says:
    There was also a moment in the film where an Iraqi, a polyglot, greets the American intruder in his home saying: 'I love to have the CIA in my house'. The only other decent Iraqi was the kid, 'Beckham', but without an innocent native for our hero to be kind to, how could we distinguish our good from evil?

    After his terrible review of Avatar, Zizek has redeemed himself with this one.

    • 24 March 2010 at 3:30am
      glenntwo says: @ Muhammad Idrees Ahmad
      I don't think Zizek is completely wrong here, but I also don't think he's completely right. I think the film is pretty careful to ward off the idea that these men are representative of the military as a whole, let alone the nation. They're isolated from other soldiers, seen as weird and a little crazy, and the three of them are divided internally as well. I think the scene where the main character--who is the best of the bunch at the bomb-defusing job, but is also clearly psychotic and hated by the younger, more "innocent" soldier (and, oddly, is named William James)--goes back to the US at the end is crucial (even if it's one of the weaker scenes in the film): he's alienated from his family, from consumer culture, from the nation itself. As James says in the monologue to his baby, there's only one thing he cares about any more, and it's the addictive rush of war. In short, I think the politics of the film are roughly those of Chris Hedges, whose quotation serves as the film's epigraph, and who wrote the book War Is A Force that Gives Us Meaning. It's not a fundamentally antiwar film, to be sure, but I don't think the structure of identification it produces for its viewer is anything like that of The Green Berets.

      As for two bits mentioned by Idrees: aren't we meant to take the Iraqi professor's love for the CIA ironically, or at the very least as something he says because he's terrified? In other words, isn't the point of that scene that even those few who did seem to be greeting the American invasion with flowers probably didn't really feel that way? And isn't that reading confirmed by the fact that his wife attacks James immediately thereafter? And as for "Beckham," yes, James sees him precisely as the innocent native to be kind to, but isn't that cliche pretty thoroughly undercut by the whole narrative of misrecognition and then refusal of recognition (in which the American first misrecognizes the dead body of a boy who has been boobytrapped with a bomb as Beckham's, and then when he sees Beckham still alive, refuses to acknowledge his existence).

      If there's anyone who could analyze this complex drama of misrecognition, it's Zizek!

    • 24 March 2010 at 9:48am
      Muhammad Idrees Ahmad says: @ glenntwo
      That’s a pretty generous reading of the film. Surely the film could have managed at least one Iraqi character who happens to be both decent and educated, yet isn’t thrilled to see the CIA intruding in his home. And I don’t see how I could take the professors love for CIA ironically when the film provides me with no visual clue that I should. That is, he was shown as being anything but terrified.

      Zizek is right. It was precisely in not speaking about the politics that the film made its political statement (and if we had any doubts here, they should have been dispelled by Bigelow’s shout out to ‘our troops’ at the Oscars, not to the nice Iraqis). The context itself is thoroughly political. By not addressing it, she affirms the status quo. At any given time a lot is happening in occupied Iraq. The decision by which you choose to focus on the bomb disposal unit is also the decision by which you exclude so much else, perhaps more significant. This, as Zizek notes, already betrays the film’s ideological tilt.

      And of course, the reason why this film was chosen over Avatar was itself a political one.

  • 25 March 2010 at 7:52am
    Imperialist says:
    It’s interesting that Zizek and Daniel Mendelsohn reached approximately the same conclusion in simultaneous reviews of Avatar, each in characteristic style. Zizek’s critique ( was thoroughly Zizekian (“his subjective position is what Jacques Lacan, with regard to de Sade, called le dupe de son fantasme”) while Mendelsohn’s ( was fundamentally camp (there’s no place like home).

  • 29 March 2010 at 9:24pm
    mjsirois says:
    While agreeing on the whole with the notion that not to comment on something so controversial is, in fact, to comment favorably, I have to state the obvious: it's just not a very good film.

  • 15 June 2012 at 8:48pm
    latifa safoui says:
    As usual ,with his penetrating insight and probing analysis of ''the surface structure ''of the film,zizek spells out the hidden ,the untold and the deliberatly intended mistification of the real underlying intentions of the film .That of diverting the viewers attention from asking the right questions by numbing them through well worked hypnotical scenes .This brings to mind the famous saying of Jack Beaudrillard ''the loss of the real''.Reality is completely obscured, made and unreachable .What is then the overall message of the film?simply and plainly deluding the viewer into thinking that what he sees is pure reality ;reality on the ground .This is another instance of Gramsci's notion of hegemony .The film emerges as another soldier recruited to consolidate the hegemony of super powers who continue unabashedly to tell us lies and make up stories so third world people (lebanon/palestine /Iraq)can never get themselves snatched out of the imperialist devil jaws.

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