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Sunday Journal: 'The Hurt Locker' shows the essence of war in Iraq is disarming

Since the release of Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq war film The Hurt Locker, friends and family have been e-mailing and calling to ask what Jeremiah, my boyfriend of several years, thinks of it. Has he seen it yet? Is it realistic? I imagine them wondering: Do they really stuff roadside bombs into the body cavities of dead people?

Jeremiah, I explain, won't see the film, which from what we could tell of the trailer seemed to be about his life and the lives of all the Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians he knew. Jeremiah did two tours in Iraq with the Navy, the first one disarming IEDs (a.k.a. "improvised explosive devices") inside the Dora Market in southern Baghdad in 2006, and the second one sweeping for roadside bombs in the Al Anbar province. Explaining his job — and what exactly sailors were doing in the Iraqi desert — was always a challenge.

"In short," I'd tell people, "he disarms bombs." Navy EOD techs have the added benefit of knowing how to do this underwater, in scuba gear.

"Isn't that dangerous?" people would invariably respond. What are you supposed to say to that?

Last year, Jeremiah did not re-enlist, and so this movie is more about his past than our present. We heard about it a couple of months ago on an EOD message board. Mostly, he didn't want to see the film for a reason that I suspect follows many people who have been to war and who are later confronted with fictionalized versions.

"I don't want to see it because I've actually done it," he said — "it" meaning both war in general and the car bomb scene, in particular, snipped into the trailer. "I don't have a need to see someone else do it."

I wasn't planning to see it either until it occurred to me that all the people I know who have long been curious about Jeremiah will now base their understanding of him on this film. I wanted to know if it was faithful to his experience, as well as to mine in waiting for him to complete both tours. I had also initially assumed The Hurt Locker would be an ignorable dud, another unfortunate Hollywood war mash of heavy metal, buzz cuts and bad words. That everyone from Roger Ebert to NPR has called it quite the opposite — an immediate Oscar short-lister; the best film made yet about Iraq — suddenly made ignoring it impossible, for me at least.

So I went to a matinee by myself. For more than two hours, I felt short of breath. The film has few recuperative lulls: One on top of the other it piles on stories I have heard from Jeremiah — the car bomb, the roadside IED, the bombmaker's cache, the suicide bomber post-blast.

I recognized in the film an EOD sixth sense for details out of place: children where they should not be, cars parked at odd angles, rocks and debris strewn in unnatural order. EODs are always running through a game of I-Spy in which every benign object and stray dog takes on the look of a trigger. Training yourself to think this way is a blessing in the field and a curse that follows you home. I know this because many times Jeremiah and I have been hiking near our home in Georgia and he has pulled me aside from invisible spider webs.

"How did you see that?" I ask.

"Trip lines," he says.

I was later telling him about the movie's success at capturing what he calls back home his "paranoia."

"It definitely saves your life," he said, recalling a memory from his Dora Market days. "Over a period of four days, I watched this 50-pound bag of white rice move down the street. On a Tuesday, it was up against the wall, and every day I drove by, it got an inch closer to the road. On the fourth day, we're parked right by it."

When he sliced the bag open, it turned out to be full of homemade explosives, still waiting for a charge.

Now he wanted to know all about the film, although he still wasn't planning to see it. Did it show the bodies? Because most people think cutting wires is cool, but they don't think of the bodies.

I can't speak to the technical accuracy of the film (although I'm pretty sure it is never protocol to remove your bomb suit while handling a trunkload of mortar rounds because you would rather "die comfortable"). But the fundamental nature of the job — its total selflessness while chasing a high that is, in other ways, very selfish — seemed pitch-perfect. I have heard Jeremiah tell people many times that he went into EOD because he wanted to save lives instead of taking them. Director Kathryn Bigelow gets this.

In narrowing in on EOD techs, of all little-celebrated specialties in combat, the film also got what Jeremiah told me several years ago about Iraq: that the central battle there is not between infantrymen and insurgents, but between the bombmakers and the soldiers who disarm them, over and over again, in a cyclical game that turns cell phones into weapons and children into suspects, rendering every lesson of conventional warfare useless.

Listening to me talk about the movie, Jeremiah admitted to another reason for not wanting to see it: "It might make me want to go back."

Emily Badger is a freelance writer in Atlanta; "The Hurt Locker" is showing at Regal Cinemas Hollywood 20 in Sarasota. Call (941) 954-5768 for show times.

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Sunday Journal: 'The Hurt Locker' shows the essence of war in Iraq is disarming 07/25/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 25, 2009 5:30am]

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