How Iraq Changed Everything: From ‘The Hurt Locker’ To ‘The Marine,’ The Rise Of Soldiers In Pop Culture

As the tenth anniversary of the war in Iraq approaches, many of my colleagues who write about policy have been looking back on their past prognostications to see who was right, who was wrong, and who believed what information on what basis. It’s an interesting exercise, considering how many reputations were made and broken on those assessments, but I’m interested in looking backwards for something different. During the decade of America’s involvement in Iraq, Hollywood’s responded with a huge array of movies, television shows, and miniseries that offer a fascinating, and in many ways disturbing window into our desire to support and honor the people who have served in the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. But despite the profusion of these movies, and of soldiers as heroes even in movies that aren’t specifically about these wars, pop culture tells us as much about our attitudes to Iraq in what movies and television largely leave out: the reasons we sent soldiers to Iraq in the first place and kept them there for so long; the rising number of female veterans who are homeless, even as the Obama administration welcomed servicewomen officially into combat; and what medical recovery from combat injury really looks like. Too often, Hollywood products reflect a public desire to support the troops without recognizing what kind of support would actually be useful. And too often, sympathy for veterans substitutes for grappling with the reasons that we asked them to do things that have left them physically or psychologically injured.

As was the case in the Vietnam War, something I’ve written about at some length before, many of the movies about our involvement in Iraq are set not there, but back in the United States after soldiers return home. It’s a setting that allows audiences to mediate their experiences with veterans, and to consider encountering them as people, rather than as symbolic and inert yellow ribbons. And telling coming-home stories allow movies to engage with small parts of the military support experience. Sometimes it’s the families who stay behind, and in some cases are left behind forever when a soldier dies, as is the case in the John Cusack-starring drama Grace Is Gone, or In The Valley Of Elah, which featured Tommy Lee Jones as a father searching for his veteran son, who is eventually found murdered. Other movies deal with at least some of the bureaucracy of the military and the toll of the war in Iraq, as is the case with The Messenger, which follows Casualty Notification Officers as they deliver the news that soldiers have been killed overseas to their families at home.

Not all movies focus on families: others move closer, foregrounding the experiences of soldiers themselves when they try to reckon with reintegration into civilian life, or the impossibility of doing so. Two of the best moves in this class, Kimberley Pierce’s Stop-Loss and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, intriguingly, are both made by women, who convincingly convey an alienation from mainstream American culture that’s very different from that experienced by Vietnam veterans a generation ago. Where Vietnam veterans had to deal with a certain amount of disdain for those who had served in the war, Stop-Loss and The Hurt Locker confront different societal challenges: the former is about a soldier, played by Ryan Phillipe, who believes he’s home safe with the war only to find that his contract has been reupped without his consent under the military’s anti-attrition policies, and faces disbelief from his friends when he goes on the lam to attempt to have the decision appealed so he can stay home. Ultimately, he’s unwilling to flee to Canada and forfeit his life in America to avoid another term of duty. An anti-war movement that might have supported him is a long way away: the idea of honoring service is so deeply entrenched that the people around this young man can’t necessarily acknowledge that he might have given enough, that the best way to recognize his devotion to duty would be to let him return to civilian life. In The Hurt Locker, the main character, a bomb defuser, voluntarily decides to return to his dangerous work in Iraq after finding himself overwhelmed and disengaged by the prosperity he encounters on his return to the United States.

And soldiers have become stock figures in all sorts of genre movies, even those that don’t purport to deal directly with war or the soldiering experience as their primary subject—and soldiering roles have become a key way for actors to attempt to rebrand themselves as serious mainstream players. Zac Efron, as part of his attempts to present himself as something other than a teen idol, played a Marine who served three tours of duty in Iraq in an adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks weepie The Lucky One. Professional wrestler John Cena played a Marine who was discharged for overzealousness in the fight against terrorism in Iraq, and who has trouble adapting to civilian life until his skills become necessary in tracking down a violent band of criminals who have kidnapped his girlfriend in The Marine. The remake of The A-Team, which put a jokey spin on the Iraqi insurgency, was part of Bradley Cooper’s move up from goofy supporting player to star, and an attempt to make South African actor Sharlto Copley a mainstream American movie actor after the success of District 9. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra was a silly stop for both Channing Tatum, who between this and Stop-Loss has benefitted perhaps more than any other single actor from the fad for soldier characters, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but it did demonstrate that they were both credible participants in action franchises.

But as powerful as the best of stories, and those that are actually focused on the war rather than simply surfing on pro-soldier sentiment, can be, they operate at a kind of remove from the action. If they’re set at home, these movies focus on trauma without devoting significant screen time to the events that might have caused veterans to experience PTSD, or the tactics that caused them to be injured. Often, as is the case in The Lucky One and Stop-Loss, a combat sequence appears towards the beginning of the movie or in flashbacks, but the film then spends more time with a veteran’s reaction, rather than on the acts civilians at home have asked soldiers to carry out for us.

The war in Iraq has spawned many, many action movies, from Matt Damon vehicle Green Zone to thrillers like The Kingdom, about terrorist spillover into Saudi Arabia. But action pictures operate at something of a remove—to see a Hollywood explosion is not to see a woman dead at the steering wheel of her car when she was accidentally shot at a checkpoint. The Hurt Locker is rare in that it spends the majority of the film in Iraq and actually requires audiences to look at the destroyed bodies of Iraqis. That’s something of a hallmark for Mark Boal, who has become perhaps the signature writer behind Hollywood’s interpretation of the War on Terrorism, given his work on the article that became In The Valley Of Elah, and on the screenplays for The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty: his movies show us the dead and the tortured, rather than simply the people who are coping with the aftereffects of that death and torture.

But even Boal prioritizes emotions and individual reactions over policy. Sometimes this is appropriate: Zero Dark Thirty restores moral horror to its proper place in the debate over the use of torture, our revulsion swamping legal justifications for the use of so-called enhanced interrogation and debates over whether torture works. But it’s hard to think of a single movie about the war in Iraq that actually addresses why soldiers were sent there in the first place, even the ones with serious ambitions. Armando Iannucci’s biting satire In the Loop examines how misstatements and diplomatic gaffes can be manipulated to whip up public opinion, but doesn’t quite get to the dark and murky depths of the misinformation that contributed to our going to war in Iraq. And of the few movies that address policy or bureaucracy that govern who serves, for how long, how they’re treated when they’re in Iraq, and what resources are available to them when they come back, most can tackle only one issue at a time, rather than recognizing the matrix of cultural and organizational factors that shape the veteran experience.

And it’s amazing how many factors—and faces—are missing from these stories. With the exception of Grace Is Gone, I can’t think of a single Iraq-era story about a female servicemember—and that movie focused on the family devastated by her death, not her own experiences. Hollywood is familiar with and practiced at telling the stories of men in war, but has next to no experience with women in the same position. And the movie and television industries may not want to look directly at the experiences of female veterans, who are the fastest-growing segment of America’s homeless population, and many of whose experiences are magnified by rape or sexual assault they experienced during their terms of service. The overwhelming majority of soldiers depicted in Hollywood stories about the war in Iraq are white, despite the fact that 29 percent of men in the armed forces were of color, per a 2011 Pew Research report. And Hollywood has shied away from many of the non-fatal results of the war in Iraq, including an epidemic of traumatic brain injury, the use of more sophisticated prosthetics, the question of whether PTSD is contagious, and alcohol and drug addiction.

Some of this is a challenge of form. Ninety-minute movies will never be able to tackle as many issues as novels or television, and they’re inherently biased towards conflicts that viewers will be familiar with: the defeat of a particular foe, which is one of the reasons movies like The A-Team focus on manageable groups of insurgents rather than an overall war in which there can be no victory; a short period around a singular homecoming; the defusing of a particularly difficult bomb. But some of it is also a question of timidity and what the market will accept. The Unit, created for CBS by an increasingly conservative David Mamet, was one of the only television shows to deal with the War on Terrorism in a sustained way during its 2006-2009 run, and to address both the obligations placed on women at home as well as men in the field. But it was an action show that sent members of an elite military unit all around the world to deal with terrorist threats that were portrayed as both competent and global, rather than focusing on the decision to engage in a specific conflict, an idea that would be echoed on 24, the most successful network show about the intelligence side of the War on Terror. HBO devoted seven episodes to its Iraq invasion miniseries Generation Kill, but otherwise it’s spent more time on wars past in miniseries like The Pacific, and Parade’s End than on our current entanglements. Soldiering, whatever the message about war, seems to have been deemed less compelling a television subject than it once was.

Given these limitations and assessments of the market, perhaps it’s not surprising that the best story about soldiering life has come in a form where readers already knew the characters, the artist involved has what seems to be complete creative freedom, and where an open-ended form allowed for an exploration of not just why we went to war, but what it means to come home physically and emotionally changed, how civilians treat veterans, and even the subject of military sexual trauma, which is rendered so invisible on screen outside of Kirby Dick’s Oscar-nominated documentary The Invisible War. Given the way it handled everything from AIDS to the tech bubble, is it really any surprise that Doonesbury has turned in one of the funniest, most piercing ongoing storylines about soldiering since B.D. lost his leg—and his signature football helmet—in 2004? From B.D.’s high-tech prosthetic leg, to his friend Ray Hightower’s PTSD, to Melissa, the combat rape survivor B.D. meets in therapy in part through his counselor Elias, to Toggle, the veteran with aphasia who marries Alex, the MIT science whiz, and along the way teaches her to slow down and see life more clearly, Doonesbury is interested less in action than in exploring a full range of soldiers’ experiences, and how they interact with each other. That’s hardly the strip’s only interest in Iraq, where Uncle Duke managed to se himself up as the mayor of Al Amok, or in the larger War on Terrorism, where the strip chronicled the rise of contractor Jack Overkill and the way Jeff Redfern talked himself into the Central Intelligence Agency.

It’s no mistake that Jeff, after his stints as a contractor and in government service, has made a fortune selling fiction about the Red Rascal, an anti-Taliban fighter who made his most recent appearance in the strip on horseback, along with a woman who looks like his editor in what appears to be a metal bra. Even in the comics, it turns out, there’s a steady market for pop culture consumers are looking to substitute fantasies of America’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan for the real thing.