Oxford University’s student newspaper Cherwell published this interview (here) ahead of my 20 May talk in Wadham College. My dinner with interviewer and Oxford Oriental Studies scholar Jessica Kelly and two of her fellow Oxonians was fun and memorable. While we discussed Hollywood’s portrayal of Iraq and America’s mission in the Middle East, it became clear that one of the party, recently awarded a first class degree in Arabic, was able to take a heated part in the debate without even having seen the film. Now that’s an Oxford education …
The Real Hurt Locker
by| 20:22 GMT, Thu 20 May 2010
I meet Hugh Pope for the first time when I am stuck in the lift leading to his sixth floor flat on Istanbul’s main drag, Istiklal Caddesi. I couldn’t read the sign that read in Turkish, ‘Danger: lift faulty’, and the lift stopped between the third and fourth floor. Through the chink of light between the floors I hear Pope say, ‘Ah yes. The lift doesn’t work. There is a sign…’
This isn’t an ideal start to an interview with a man for whom the ability to speak Turkish is an occupational prerequisite. Finally easing the lift doors open, we retreat to Pope’s local restaurant. First topic of conversation is the film ‘The Hurt Locker’. He wants to be clear that every scene in the film conveys a mesage that is entirely anti-Arab and neo-conservative.
Later Pope explains that if a degree in Arabic taught him anything, it was that he must never become an ‘Orientalist’. He was determined to discover ‘the real Middle East’ and so a month after leaving Wadham he set off to Damascus to become a writer.
He worked his way up from fixer to stringer to correspondent for the Independent, the BBC and the Los Angeles Times before settling at the Wall Street Journal. But Pope soon realised that not much of what he wrote about ‘the real Middle East’ would make the final edit; “About 20% of the story would normally be missing, because it was considered too discomforting for the American reader”. When referring to the 3 million Palestinians living outside of pre-1948 Palestine as “refugees, barred from return” he would be told to change this to “original refugees and their descendants”.
With each of these omissions or white lies, he writes in his new book, Dining with al Qaeda, “we laid another brick in the great wall of misconception that now separates America and the Middle East.” He characterizes this misconception as the tendency to view the Islamic world as a monolithic bloc. All this, he says, is one of the reasons that the US stumbled into the war in Iraq and is finding it so difficult to get out of Afghanistan. Pope belives that if the media had not given such a sanitized version of what America was doing in the Middle East, their foreign policy might have turned out differently.
I ask about the title of his book, an effort to compete with ‘Tea with Hezbollah’ or ‘Recipes from the Axis of Evil’ (both recently published titles), perhaps? Pope tells me that it’s meant to grab people’s attention, “but it does also specifically refer to the time I went for a Chinese meal in Riyadh with a missionary from one of al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan camps.” The missionary began by asking Pope why he shouldn’t kill him. “I persuaded him that my invitation into the country was legitimate and that it would be ‘un-Islamic’ to harm a guest, especially an innocent journalist just trying to present al-Qaeda’s side of the story.” The missionary calmed down and then began to tell Pope all sorts of secrets about the system of recruitment in al-Qaeda’s training camps.
But secrets they remained; Pope explains that “back at the office of the Wall Street Journal the story was tossed aside. Much too provocative.” He’s certainly tetchy about this issue and quickly moves back to our first topic, ‘The Hurt Locker’.
“Have you ever seen such an absurd load of militarist nonsense? It clashes with almost every aspect of my experiences of Iraq, war zones and American soldiers…Although it’s shot with no overt politics there is a clear agenda behind all those brilliantly filmed slow-mo pressure waves, sinister improvised explosive devices and the cocky gait of Sgt. James as he lopes into action in his bomb suit.”
He points out that one by one Iraqis are portrayed as cowardly, poor, inadequate, base, stupid, treacherous, and threatening. “The only half-positive character is a cheeky DVD-selling boy who pretty soon is killed off by a booby-trap planted in his stomach by his fellow Iraqis.”
In 2007 Pope decided to leave journalism behind; the situation in Iraq and the realisation that what he wrote wasn’t having any impact on American public opinion forced him to seek other outlets. He became director of the Turkish branch of the International Crisis Group. This position, he says, has given him more freedom to ‘bridge gaps’ than journalism ever could have done.
Pope is optimistic about the future; he believes that an upside of the Middle Eastern ‘brain-drain’ is that more and more Middle Easteners are now writing for American papers. This means that the grossly misinformed Western public are now increasingly exposed to hitherto hidden truths.
Hugh Pope’s new book ‘Dining with al-Qaeda’ (Published by Thomas Dunne Books) is now available. RRP: £18.99.
Having persuaded myself that America under President Obama is becoming more sophisticated in its approach to the Middle East — opening its eyes to the complications of Afghanistan and Iraq, questioning its blanket support for Israel, renouncing the legacy of the neocons — watching the film ‘The Hurt Locker’ was an unexpected reality check of how slowly some things change.
Within minutes, I was believing nothing that I was seeing. By half way, I was wondering why some intelligent friends could like a movie that seemed so absurd to me, and why there was such unanimity among top film critics to love it — “one of the great war films” (Time), an “unqualified triumph” (the Los Angeles Times) and uniquely “honest” (amazon.com). By the time the credits started rolling, I was furiously puzzling about why Hollywood granted six Oscars to what seemed to be a screenplay more suited for retooling as a clever parody of B movie war films. ‘The Hurt Locker’ clashes with almost all aspects of my experiences of Iraq, war zones and American soldiers, and, I believe, has an insidiously militarist subtext.
Take the opening sequence: it is unthinkable that an Iraqi would casually come up to an American unit engaged in high-tension bomb disposal to exchange peculiar pleasantries about California. A middle-aged man appears at a butcher’s shop fiddling clumsily with a cellphone. If he’s deliberately triggering the bomb, why does he come outside where he will be seen and is in direct range of the blast? Or if he is an idiotic butcher trying to make a call, which coincidentally triggers the bomb, then any cellphone could set off an explosion. Every house in that street would have had people busily phoning each other.
It gets worse when the hero, war junkie Sgt. James, appears on the scene. The first confrontation is again totally implausible: no Baghdad taxi driver would ever speed into an obvious area of tension and large-scale U.S. military operations. After that we are shown an Iraqi behind a balcony grill watching Sgt. James drag up seven booby-trapped 155mm shells with one hand (wish I could do that – that’s about 300kg, the weight of three big men). The implication is that this Iraqi laid the trap. If so, why doesn’t he detonate the blast? And when he comes face to face with Sgt. James, bomb-maker meeting bomb-defuser, why does Sgt. James, the wild man who has just shot up an apparently innocent taxi, do nothing except impotently wave the detonator in his face?
Then comes an emergency after a suspicious-looking car is abandoned at a UN building. Apparently, this is all about a suicide bombing that’s been aborted. I suppose this because Sgt. James finds a detonating switch next to the steering wheel, and an insurgent tries to blow up the car with a desperate shot from a balcony. This is an assumption, since the mumbled dialogue reveals little about the details of what we’re watching. A statue-like man menacingly films the action. Is he an insurgent readying a video for YouTube, as the soldiers plausibly debate? But that’s impossible, too. He’s too close and would have been incinerated in any blast, with his camera. A group of three middle-aged men, apparently co-conspirators, make obscure signals to the cameraman – from the balcony on top of a nearby minaret, exactly where no conspirators would have stood in full view of the Americans and in range of the massive bomb. And even if they were part of the plot, as the soldiers say they believe, why don’t they shoot them?
After Sgt. James has finished his dramatically mad bomb disposal, a senior officer appears. The commander’s crescendo of praise seems to be setting Sgt. James up to be slapped down for reckless behaviour, as would certainly have happened in real life. But no! The commander seems to be congratulating Sgt. James for 873 successful bomb disposals. The scene ends with a whimper of Sgt. James’ homespun wisdom that the trick of the game is all about not getting killed. Yet all we have seen so far is evidence that Sgt. James must have used up his nine lives ninety times.
Then comes the scene in the desert. Ah, the burning desert! We must be in Iraq, Arabia, the evil, hostile otherland. For some unlikely and unexplained reason, our heroes are out there all alone in this heart of desertness. Another amazement: they stumble across an SUV that has been carrying four fully armed Englishmen, who, by an extraordinary coincidence, not only have a seriously big machine gun in the trunk but have just that day captured two former top officials of Saddam Hussein’s regime! And they’re all alone too! They have a punctured tyre, but their wrench is out of action because one of them “threw it at someone”. Say again please?
No time to puzzle out this latest improbability: out of nowhere, the insurgents attack! An Englishman breaks cover to charge across open ground — where the unseen enemy has already shot dead one of his men — just to take pot shots at his two escaping captives. They’ve had a long time to get away, but he drops them nevertheless. Just as well, because this gives him the chance to hack away ruminatively at more of the wooden screenplay: “I forgot … it’s 500,000 quid dead or alive.” In the end the insurgents shoot dead three of the Anglo-US party, even though the film makes clear that they are 850 meters away and only have primitive equipment. Few trained snipers would be able to achieve such a result, even on a rifle range.
I’ve gone on long enough without even starting on Sgt. James’s impossibly bizarre solo mission into the back streets of Baghdad. Real veterans of the Iraq War have already taken issue with such details (here in the Atlantic, for instance). Of course the film is fiction, as it states. But it does everything to make us believe it is representing reality. The script, the film’s hype often boasts, resulted from work by an embedded freelancer who wanted to show the soldiers’ war. The shaky camerawork is supposed to make us feel that we are watching an edgy documentary. The extras are real Iraqi refugees, being filmed in Jordan, sometimes as close as possible to the Iraqi border.
This brings me to a point I try to make about journalism in Dining with al-Qaeda. Having an audience believe in the reality of a story is critical to triggering a strong emotional response. It’s the same whether telling stories round a camp fire or writing for the New York Times. And this is where the ‘The Hurt Locker’ does a real disservice to Americans. Although the film is shot with no overt politics or discussion among the soldiers about why they are in Iraq, there is a clear agenda behind all those brilliantly filmed slo-mo pressure waves, sinister improvised explosive devices and the jaunty, hips-thrust-forward gait of Sgt. James as he cockily lopes into action in his bomb suit.
Take the film’s portrayal of Iraqis, for instance. I can accept that ordinary American soldiers don’t have the access to ordinary people that I was lucky to have as an Arabic-speaking civilian, and I too witnessed some of the soldiers’ frustrated interactions with the ‘hajjis’. But nothing justifies the film’s total negativity towards the inhabitants of the country, and it does not match my experience of the overall U.S. military work with Iraqis. One by one, ‘The Hurt Locker’ portrays Iraqis as cowardly, poor, inadequate, base, stupid, treacherous, dangerous, wild, wily, living in filthy cities or most commonly just blank-faced and threatening. The only half-positive character is a cheeky DVD-selling boy on the base who is befriended by Sgt. James (note to casting director: when developing world kids pick up perfect jive-talk, they pick up perfectly fluent accents too). But other Iraqis, those inhuman nihilists, murder the boy or someone like him and then booby-trap his body.
Having thoroughly transferred this most primitive view of Iraqis to the audience, the film also trashes the idea that they understand anything other than the language of force. The vehicle for this is the unit psychiatrist, portrayed as an other-worldly ivy-league man who means oh-so-well but is utterly out of his depth. This ‘doc’ rides along with the disposal squad on a mission and is somehow left in the wasteland outside, mocked by the locals and the scriptwriter as he says absurdly ‘I love it here. This is a beautiful place.’ (Another military disconnect: never would four lone soldiers take on a vast, newly discovered insurgent base and bomb-making factory.) His naïve and wimpish approach no doubt represents the ideas of silly liberals like me who believe that engagement is better than the use of force. It earns him the right, immediately granted by the director, to be blown away by the very people he’s been foolish enough to try to be friendly to.
For any who think I’ve been touched by too much of the real Middle Eastern sun, read on. The scene with the suicide bomber clinches it. Here, the forces of jihadi darkness have encased an man in a bomb jacket and he’s begging to be defused, since, as he says, he’s a decent family man with children and just wants to go home. The good American, Sgt. James, decides to risk his own life to free him from his fate. For those uninitiated in the doctrines of American Middle East militarists, this is the gloss: at great cost to ourselves, we are ready to liberate you from Saddam Hussein, we are idealistically struggling to bring you democracy, we want to free you from the cage of your tyrannical and/or Islamofascist regimes. But here’s the problem: this Iraqi is locked into his bomb, and even Sgt. James’s miracles can’t release him. So on to the next step of the doctrine: ultimately, it’s all the Middle East’s fault. America has done its best to help, but the region is incurable. The bomb obliterates the Iraqi.
To ram home the point that violence is the only way to deal with the Middle Eastern labyrinth, the film then sacrifices the only credible main character, the African-American Sgt. Sanborn. Having rightly resisted and criticized Sgt. James’s antics for most of the film, Sgt. James’s act of lunatic bravery with the suicide bomber inexplicably flips Sgt. Sanborn from being the common-sense foil into the accomplice. The subtext here is the shared ground between war-hungry Republican neocons and Democrat hawks — the conceit that they are liberals “mugged by reality”. It’s the Bernard Lewis doctrine again: ‘hit those Muslims hard and they’ll soon obey’. This message also lies behind by the early scene where Sgt. James’s willpower and readiness to fire his pistol is all that forces a supposedly stubborn Iraqi to back down from a confrontation.
It’s possible that the film-makers have no agenda and were just mugged by common American prejudices about the Middle East’s troubles. These are the same misconceptions about the traumas of ordinary peoples trapped in extraordinary circumstances which, from my corner, I go to some lengths to try to defuse in Dining with al-Qaeda. The reason I find an innocent explanation of ‘The Hurt Locker’ hard to accept is that the reality that is doing the mugging here is so artificial. I have rarely seen a more undignified and unbelievable character progression as when the sensible Sgt. Sanborn suddenly salutes Sgt. James’s lethally mad “courage”. To add insult to injury, the director forces the face of the previously focused, four-square Sgt. Sanborn into an expression of dog-like devotion.
This is of course a film told from the point of view of the ordinary soldier, to whom the situation in Iraq did seem pretty baffling. There are moments where the film does ring a faint bell, when we see the hesitant team specialist’s terrors, or Sgt. James’s sudden kindnesses to his companions under extreme pressure. But that doesn’t go anywhere near justifying all the other distortions. And the film fails utterly as a story: the crazy and mostly repetitive events of the film work no change in the hero, his family’s needs do not melt him and he just goes back to the war. So the film ends more or less where it started, with Sgt. James doing his trademark I’m-the-king-of-the-hill walk, somewhere between keep on truckin’ and fuck-’em-all.
That’s because the film’s principal theme is that “war is a drug”, as journalist Chris Hedges put it in a compelling and self-critical book on his addiction to war reporting. Almost as if the director suspects that viewers won’t get the point, the quote is spelled out not once but twice right after the opening credits. Friends whose views I respect say that this exciting representation of a war junkie is what keeps them thrilled to the end. They dismiss as unimportant the idea that the Middle Eastern context is distractingly misrepresented, and wave away my argument that a similar dice-with-death film could never have won such praise if it was filmed against an unrealistic American backdrop. But even on these narrow terms, I question the artistic value of a continuum of unchanging illustrations of Sgt. James’s recklessness. There’s no subtlety about it. The director seems to feel this weakness towards the end. When the film’s quiet, nervous third main person is injured due to Sgt. James’s folly, the film suddenly has him scream super-sophisticated blame of the danger-seeker’s motives: “Looking for trouble to get your fucking adrenaline fix, you fuck!” That’s character development?
If this film is really going to be studied in 20 years time as “a classic of tension, fear and bravery”, as the New Yorker suggests, I hope the emphasis will be on finding out why film-directors, movie-goers and war-makers all seem to fall for such nonsense so easily.
If you enjoyed this rant, have a look at this splendid deconstruction of Katherine Bigelow’s subsequent film Zero Dark Thirty in the blog The Feminist Wire, where writer Sophia Azeb points out that the faceless brown hordes of Pakistan are often made to speak not their native Urdu, but Arabic.