Monday, August 03, 2009

War is a Drug

We must care for its addicts

In the Hurt Locker, Jeremy Renner plays the role of Staff Sergeant William James, a bomb tech in the American army who displays a demonstrably reckless streak.

James has a habit of discarding his protective equipment and drawing his unit deeper into dangerous situations than they need to be. It quickly becomes apparent that if James doesn't have a full-out death wish that he's simply unable to control his own thrill-seeking adrenaline junkie tendencies, and even though he can actually be extremely selfless in the heat of battle, he may be more of a liability to his comrades than a valuable asset, despite the fact that he's successfully defused more than 800 roadside bombs.

The Hurt Locker stands as a warning about the effects that war has on those most poorly equipped psychologically to deal with it. Despite the fact that James has a girlfriend and son at home, he continually returns to battle, over and over again, merely using the army's need for bomb techs as a post-facto justification for his decision.

In Home of the Brave, Brian Presley plays Tommy Yates, a marine who returns home from Iraq to find that his old life no longer waits for him. Despite the fact that his employer is legally obligated to hold his job for him, he has no fulfilling prospects for employment.

To make matters worse his best friend Jamal Aiken (Curtis Jackson aka 50 Cent) shares Yates' affliction -- post-traumatic stress disorder -- and reacts to the shattered state of his life with guilt-inflected violence, and eventually dies in a hail of gunfire after taking his ex-girlfriend hostage.

In the film's conclusion Yates chooses to return to Iraq for another tour of duty. War has become the only stabilizing influence in his life, and with no real life to return home to, it remains his only real option.

Likewise, Hurt Locker's James has concluded that the adrenaline rush of defusing IEDs under the omnipresent threat of live gunfire is the one thing remaining in life that seems truly special to him. While every day with his girlfriend and child seems like the same old drudgery, every bomb he encounters is new and unique.

At the end of the film it seems that all James can bring himself to live for is the challenge of each new wiring configuration he encounters.

The Hurt Locker and Home of the Brave are very different films. One portrays the struggles of PTSD sufferers -- something NATO countries are experiencing an influx of stemming from ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The other simply deals with the potentially self-destructive behaviour of an adrenaline addict.

Each film presents a different breed of war addict, but both William James and Tommy Yates very much are addicts.

The "war is a drug" theme expressed at the onset of The Hurt Locker seems ever more appropriate in this particular vein.

In many ways, war is often medicine. In the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, war excised corrupt and vile political regimes from those countries and provided the citizens of those countries with the opportunity to build free and democratic societies.

While the Iraq war bears the unfortunate stigma of having been planned and carried out at an extremely bad time and under troubling and controversial circumstances, the fact is that a democratic Iraq will help bring much-needed stability to the Middle East, just as a democratic Afghanistan will help bring desperately needed stability to the Indo-Chinese peninsula.

But just as with many medicines, war also has dangerous side effects.

Many of those dangerous side effects are being borne by our own men and women in uniform, as they experience difficulty returning to their day-to-day lives after their experiences in war.

These side effects aren't merely limited to those who participate in wars on our behalf. As Romeo Dallaire -- himself a PTSD sufferer in the wake of his service as part of the peacekeeping mission in Rwanda -- would remind us, our society bears a pivotal responsibility to better care for those who are psychologically injured while serving our country abroad.

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