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.