By Gregg Zoroya, USA Today
Explosives specialists who disarm the roadside bombs of Iraq and Afghanistan say the mental zone they enter to defeat these devices is like a narcotic. They describe a state of heightened senses that comes only from death being just a detonating click away.
So it rings true, they say, when the words "war is a drug" flash on screen in the Academy Award-nominated Iraq war movie, The Hurt Locker.
"When you put on the bomb suit, your life's really simple - don't die," says Army Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Graham, 33, an explosive ordnance disposal, or EOD, specialist who has done three tours of combat in Iraq and disarmed more bombs than he can remember.
"Your sense of awareness of what's going on around you, and how clearly you focus on something is pretty extraordinary," Graham says. "That's what's addictive."
This war-is-drug premise animates the film's lead character, an EOD team leader who finds meaning only in the mission he loves: defeating bombs that can kill him in an instant. It is part of what movie reviewers have said makes The Hurt Locker a tour de force as a contemporary vision of combat.
Not so fast, say those who know about the fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They may turn out for the movie in droves - PX's around the world, including war zones, report the video selling out - and the adrenaline rush of combat may indeed be addicting.
But filmmakers took enough liberties with war reality to cause those who know better to either grin and bear it or dismiss the movie altogether.
"Enjoying a good war movie after you've been there, done that, requires a bit of finesse," writes Alex Horton, 24, a former Army infantryman who served in Iraq from 2006 to 2007, in a Hurt Locker review on his blog, armyofdude.com.
"The casual moviegoer doesn't watch closely for errors in rank, patches, vernacular or procedure," he says. "A veteran is tortured. ... Filmmakers must walk a tightrope to appease both sides."
Despite scoffing at such scenes as three lead characters driving around war-torn Baghdad, circa 2004, unescorted by other troops, Horton believes director Kathryn Bigelow nails the addiction-to-combat element and the urge by some to keep returning to war. "That's why it's a watershed film of the contemporary war genre," he says.
Respect and care
Aware that combat veterans are the movie's toughest critics, journalist and screenwriter Mark Boal, who wrote the script, says the low budget of $11 million limited the lavishness of battlefield re-creations.
"Yes, we did do things for dramatic effect to tell the story, and hopefully we made those decisions respectfully and carefully," Boal says, noting that The Hurt Locker is "a film that's hopefully a work of art. It's not a documentary."
Bigelow held Hurt Locker screening fundraisers for the EOD Memorial Foundation, raising $4,500 for scholarships for bomb-disposal technicians and their families, says Jim O'Neil, executive director.
The Army, for its part, did not support the movie because there were "elements that were not in line with Army values," says Lt. Col. Gregory Bishop, a spokesman, declining to elaborate.
Interviews with combat veterans show them falling largely into two camps of critics.
There are those who forgive what they see as excesses and embellishments, because they recognize themes and images that authentically portray their combat experiences to an American public untouched by these wars.
"I think everybody should watch it and see how things really are," says Marine Lance Cpl. Nate Knowles, 23, who lost his left leg in Afghanistan to an IED (improvised explosive device) in June and declares The Hurt Locker "amazing."
And there are those who cannot forgive, who say the movie is ruined by inaccuracies, ranging from the wrong shade of uniform to a scene in which three soldiers run through Baghdad alleyways alone looking for insurgents.
"(No one) would go down an alley in Iraq by himself in 2004 at night. No one, not ever," writes Troy Steward, 40, a retired Army veteran of Afghanistan and Desert Storm, who panned the movie in his popular military blog, bouhammer.com. "I was amazed that a movie so bad could get any kind of accolades."
Emotions run high in this crowd because they see public perception shaped so dramatically by film.
Army Sgt. Derrick Ford, wheeling himself through the lobby of a outpatient residence hotel at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., paused long enough to say he had no interest in seeing The Hurt Locker. "I don't like the way Hollywood cashes in on the troops," says Ford, 22, who lost his left leg to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan last summer.
Walking on artificial limbs just across the room is Army Spec. Christopher Levi, 26, who says he can't wait to see the movie.
A trailer he glimpsed gave hints of the dark and irreverent humor soldiers express in combat, and Levi wants to see more. He described his own reaction in 2008 when a roadside explosive device in Iraq burned a hole through the armored vehicle he was riding in and then sheared off his legs above the knees.
"I looked at the gooey stumps and I looked over at (the soldier sitting next to him) and went, 'I got no legs,' " Levi recalled. "It was funny."
Any movie, he says, that can help explain the unexplainable about war is a good thing.
A few residents at the hotel suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from their combat experience said they were not ready to watch a movie graphically depicting events that led to their wounds.
Others said it helped them.
"It was a therapeutic journey for me. It allowed my mind to process experiences that occurred over there," says Army Capt. Steve Scuba, 34, a nurse who served in Iraq for 15 months from 2007 to 2008 and suffered shrapnel wounds from the explosion of a bomb packed into a parked car.
He found authentic the soldiers' language, their camaraderie, the street scenes, even the silhouettes of Iraqis in the windows as U.S. troops pass by, never certain if they are friend or foe.
"Seeing that explosion going off and seeing that (American soldier) fly through the air - I'm identifying with that guy," Scuba says.
The movie is a hot item for those in the field. Robert Lopez, merchandise director for the Army & Air Force Exchange Service, which operates PX's worldwide, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, says about 4,800 copies of The Hurt Locker DVD sold in two weeks, nearly the entire stock.
"This title just took off. It did far better than we expected," Lopez says. "It always surprises me that these war movies do as well as they do over there because they're literally living it day in and day out."
Graham saw a bootleg version early last year while serving as an EOD platoon sergeant in Iraq. He watched it again in a theater in Austin after coming home.
He found the movie accurately reflected the emotions of his job. When Graham served in Mosul, Iraq, in 2006, he had exactly the same assignment - the team leader who does hands-on disarming of roadside explosives - as the movie's main character. Like the team in the movie, the soldiers averaged about one bomb-related incident a day.
He liked the movie very much and in fact identified with the lead character played by Jeremy Renner to critical acclaim and a best-actor Oscar nomination.
"There's a sense of belonging when you're in combat, like this is where you belong, this is what you should be doing with your life, this is what you've trained for," Graham says.
If anything, he adds, the movie isn't graphic enough in showing the human carnage that is the aftermath of an IED explosion. As accurately depicted in The Hurt Locker, part of an EOD team's role is investigating the aftermath of these events.
"That's the worst part," he says. "You ride these emotions from being incredibly angry that this stuff happened to being repulsed."
For every Hurt Locker scene that pushes reality's edge, combat veterans find others that resonate.
Retired special forces soldier Donald Hollenbaugh, who received a Distinguished Service Cross for heroism in Iraq in 2004, dismissed one scene in which an Iraqi drives through a military roadblock unharmed during an EOD operation. "They would have killed him, no ifs, ands or buts," says Hollenbaugh, 45. But the re-creation of explosions was spot-on, he says. "You actually see the earth move," he says.
Army Capt. Jason Hansa, 35, who has served a tour in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly identified with the lead character's uneasy transition home, standing in a grocery store aisle amid a dizzying array of cereal choices, before choosing one at random and throwing it in a cart.
"Very true to life was the disconnect he felt back home," says Hansa, who is married and the father of two boys. He saw the movie at an installation theater in South Korea, where he is stationed. "I remember going through that when I returned from Afghanistan. We'd just had a baby, and it seemed like my life was completely crazy."
'We're just human'
Army Spec. William Hampton, 30, shattered both of his legs when the armored vehicle he was riding in ran over an IED in Afghanistan last June. A soldier with him died. They were rolling out to the scene of another roadside blast in which three other soldiers were killed.
Over lunch at a restaurant near Walter Reed hospital, he recalled one scene in which two soldiers talk about the war. One has seen enough and wants to go home. The other wants to stay.
That happens, says Hampton.
"We're just human like everyone else. Some people want to go back. Some people don't want to go," he says. "They did what they said they were going to do, and that's it for them."
Hampton doesn't know how peers can get so exorcised about a movie like The Hurt Locker. He watched the DVD at the outpatient residence hotel.
"We got to remember, movies are meant for our entertainment," he says. "I'd watch it again. It was entertaining."