“Edward Said … helped to create the new field of Colonial and Post-Colonial studies” (Rivkin 1112). A major thesis of his is that “the “Orient,” as the East was called, was depicted in necessarily stereotypical ways in Western academic discourse, and that discourse often underwrote colonial policy and licensed further imperial undertakings” (Rivkin 1112). The stereotyping of a foreign society can only lead to an unrealistic perception of that society, ultimately making it look confused, ignorant, or wrong. This is especially true of negative stereotypes, which are wrought throughout colonialist ideology, but even positive stereotypes may be harmful. For example, African Americans perceived to be good at sports may be marginalized in other ways that do not fit that stereotype, such as their intellectual capacity.
This idea that stereotypes may be used to make a society look inferior, thus reinforcing the necessity of imperialism in the name of 'progress' is wrought throughout The Hurt Locker. Iraq is stereotyped as dangerous, vicious, and dirty – everything that makes Americans cringe. The three main characters in this movie are a USA army bomb disarming team, who have a tendency to encounter the worst case scenario of improvised bombs. A ways through the film one member of the team is mistakenly stranded in an Iraqi village, and he is horrified by the sights. He can't take his eyes off the man hauling a cow's corpse into a shop right off the street. And he is constantly being given suspicious looks by the many people loitering on and in the crowded, dirty streets. Presumably any one of them could be a terrorist. He covers his face and runs. The horrific setting is reinforced by the frenzied cinematography. Frightened, quick clips are taken of the cow's corpse, people's judging looks, and the USA troop member's worried reaction. Clearly this place is no good. However, if we review the scene, it seems that these are immense stereotypes. Surely there are not always cow carcasses being hauled around Iraq streets, and furthermore the same thing happens in the USA except all the dirty work is simply done behind the scenes. In a way, the cow's corpse is more realistic than the prepackaged, neutralized 'cow' we pick up in supermarkets. And of course people will be suspicious what an American man in army fatigues is doing in an Iraqi village. It doesn't make them necessarily terrorists. Truly, most of those people shouldn't be terrorists, as they are loitering in a bustling marketplace where Americans are not likely to be found. Perhaps it's going too far to say the movie presumes these people might be terrorists, but surely the movie made them look like possible criminals. This all makes Iraq look like a bad place that needs these USA troops there to help them become a safer, cleaner place, like Edward Said's explanation of imperialist justification.
One criticism of this idea that the stereotypes in The Hurt Locker propagate USA's Iraq war may be that the USA is not literally colonialist any longer – they do not seek any colony in Iraq, thus their work in Iraq must be intrinsically good.
“Whereas earlier colonialisms were pre-capitalist, modern colonialism was established alongside capitalism in Western Europe. … Modern colonialism did more than extract tribute, goods and wealth from the countries that it conquered – it restructured the economies of the latter, drawing them into a complex relationship with their own, so that there was a flow of human and natural resources between colonised and colonial countries” (Loomba 1101).
We may live in a post-colonial time, but alike colonialism, the economic reforms that Western powers enforce upon others control land and goods. We have shed to blatantly oppressive appearance of physical colonies, yet the legacy of the colonies – controlling resources – is continued on under the guise of 'progress' internationally. The East may not have USA colonies, but it certainly is colonized by McDonalds, which may be no better. Either way there is oppression of local culture and allocation of resources to the USA. It may not be as literally deadly as the harsh realities of colonialism, but modern capitalist colonialism – neo-colonialism – is even more dangerous because it is a threat in the guise of a benefit.
“Within the US, with the vanishing of international communism as a rationale for militarism, new enemies will be found: the drug war, international 'terrorism,' Japan, feminists ...” (McClintock 1195). The Cold War was a major point for the spread of military enforced Western capitalism under the justification of protecting people from the 'evils of communism.' The fall of the Soviet Union marked the end of such justification, but the capitalists would find other ways. Terrorism is the major campaign justifying the necessity of social and political reform in the middle east – neo-colonialism through capitalism. Ex-President Bush's 'War on Terror' is possibly the most ingenious call for capitalist reform in history because it makes what we do not know a threat, and not what we do know, thus it is self-propagating as long as the military has any imagination. This is especially poignant for creative media that glorify the war, such as The Hurt Locker, because of their intense dependence on imagination.
The events of the film The Hurt Locker are a microcosm of the macro-ideology of the 'War on Terror.' When the main characters of the bomb squad get to their second mission, there is a giant, elaborate improvised bomb that has been placed in a car – the infamous idea of the 'car bomb' that the media has latched onto. What is important here is the relationship between the citizens of the area and the bomb squad. Citizens gather all around the bomb squad on balconies, in windows, on rooftops, and even on towers. One citizen is even filming the bomb squad's actions on a video cam. Any individual citizen is perceived by the bomb squad as possibly being friendly (or at least neutral), a terrorist who may be involved with the car bomb, or even a terrorist sympathizer. The Iraq villager who is filming the squad may want to simply put a clip on the internet, or he could be giving the real terrorists the location of the bomb squad. The intense possibilities of the unknown circumstances of the situation are the major hurdles for the bomb squad to overcome, causing much tension between characters. However, in the end they defuse the bomb without any explosions, shots fired, or encounters with armed people. It was only the sheer possibility of some terrorist encounter that manifested deep psychological fear in the squad to perceive Iraq citizens as enemies. This is the ideology of the 'War on Terror' – the possibility of the threat of the USA calls for action. However, the USA is always under the possibility of threat, both outside and inside of the nation. This way, terrorism calls for an endless cycle of reform until the entire world is Western and controlled, thus allowing any threat may be directly controlled by the USA without being impeded. The world would be the West's neo-colony through the machines of capitalism and 'democracy,' which ironically go hand-in-hand. And because the Iraq threat is unrealistic, it is a negative stereotype.
Furthermore, to reinforce neo-colonialism are the many destabilization campaigns abroad:
“Now reviled in the Western press as one of history's most venal leaders of a postcolonial state, Mobotu was enthroned in Zaire by the Americans following the 1963 murder of Patrice Lumumba, the first post-Belgian prime minister of the country, whom the West considered a communist. Thrice in the following three decades, American and French governments employed ruthless military force to crush attempts by the Congolese people to overthrow the vainglorious and corrupt Western puppet” (Okonkwo 1199).
The formulated destabilization of the Congo through the use of the dictator Mobotu allows Western capitalist enterprise. Likewise, USA's Iraq war is formulated in the same destabilizing way, subtly captured in the film The Hurt Locker. William James, the bomb squad's bomb defusing expert, befriends an young Iraq boy who sells bootleg movies. It is supposed that the terrorists catch onto this and turn the boy into a so-called 'body bomb.' The squad comes upon the boy deceased on an improvised operation table, a bomb sewn inside of his chest. William James then ignores other Iraq boys. Although this is clearly an exaggeration, it represents the real anti-West mentality of 'terrorists.' Osama Bin Laden, the superficial leader of the 'terrorists,' set the standard by saying that he wanted the Western influence out of the middle east. And how does the USA respond to this? Much how William James responded to it – trying to influence it according to his own sense of justice, helping the Iraq boy, ultimately leading to his demise, further justifying his mission in Iraq. Likewise, the USA responds to Iraq's anti-Westernism by influencing it according to its own sense of justice, leading a war to help Iraq become more Westernized. This is a direct contradiction. Iraq is anti-Western influence, and because of this the West must influence Iraq further by force. This will destabilize Iraq by putting its already threatened culture into an even further pin enforced by militarism. The terrorist attacks that the bomb squad encounters naturally escalate to the point of the Iraq boy's body bomb because of William James trying to influence the boy, just as terrorist attacks have escalated in reality with the beginning of militarism in Iraq. Here we may see the forced retaliation of Iraq 'terrorists' due to the West's unwavering intent on Westernizing the reluctant Iraq. Iraq's retaliation has always been seen negatively, sponsored by the vast pro-West capitalist “total control of the production and dissemination of information” (Rivkin 1199) thus creating another endless cycle of neo-colonial justification. USA's war in Iraq propagates the war itself by irritating the already anti-Western sentiment in Iraq, causing more drastic responses, such as the boy body bomb in The Hurt Locker, that make Iraq seem to be in need of a world power to step in and create reform.
The positive stereotyping of USA's troops in The Hurt Locker also reinforces the neo-colonizing of Iraq. This point is most illustrated by posters for this movie, where text overlaying a picture of William James engaging an artfully placed series of bombs in the sand says “You don't have to be a hero to do this job. But it helps.” The events of The Hurt Locker itself are not as blatant as the poster, as the movie tries to foster some realistic perspectives on war in the middle east. In fact, most of the bomb squad is quite dissatisfied with their time in the squad. Only William James is seen at the end of the movie to be the last remaining person in the original squad out of choice. This is where he says that only a couple things in his life are worth living for, implying that his job as a bomb defusing expert is one of those things worth living for. Right when he stops talking they cue the moderate American rock music as he walks off, clearly trying to present James as a heroic figure. However, William James' heroic entourage of 'cool' music is contrasted to the rather sadistic events he propagates. He has helped kill Iraq citizens in their own country who simply want him and his social-political influence out of their country. He is the reason one innocent Iraq boy is dead. And he represents the US army, who have done much more heinous jobs in Iraq. The Hurt Locker thus correlates disregard for the Iraq people's perspective and killing Iraq people who resist Westernization to heroism. This might be the most black and white representation of neo-colonialism there is – the literal killing off of another culture perceived to be inferior to Western culture.
Not only are the events of The Hurt Locker justifying to the causes of USA's wars in the middle east, but the allowance of Western domination is also justified in Iraq people. One scene in the film is where the bomb squad encounters a man who has had a bomb strapped and locked onto him. He apologizes and claims to not be a bad man, pleading for help. The bomb squad tries to help him but inevitably they must leave him to explode because the locks are too strong and too numerous. In this scene we see Iraqi people pitted against the 'terrorists.' The Iraqi people are seen as the victims of the terrorists, who are of their own people. Again Iraq is stereotyped as a bad place where its own people cannot live peacefully among the terrorists. This again reinforces the neo-colonialist ideology of the wars, but also it reinforces the allowance and acceptance of Western domination among the Iraq people. The bomb-man pleads for the American support, heeding their every word. Again we see a major polarized colonialist view – the Eastern native is inferior to the Western foreigner who the native must depend on. This depicts the neo-colonialist relationship as one of intrinsic good – the bomb squad is there to help. However, as we have learned, the intrinsic goodness of neo-colonialism is not realistic.
In conclusion, the 2008 film The Hurt Locker stereotypes Iraq in numerous ways, making it looks like a vicious, dirty, bad place. This is the same stereotyping that was used to propagate imperialism in colonial times. We live in post-colonial times, but the West still seeks to control power – not though direct control, but indirectly through the mechanism of capitalism, which I call neo-colonialism. 'Terrorists' are the perfect targets to realize the neo-colonialist justification because successful terrorism depends on the element of surprise, thus the terrorist threat could happen at any second. This creates an infinite cycle of fear and preparation against terrorism, to the point that the entire world is controlled under the West in the name of 'safety, freedom, and progress.' There are numerous examples of this infinite cycle in the film The Hurt Locker, which manifests in the threat of both USA and Iraqi people's lives. Showing an exaggerated dangerousness of Iraq justifies both the wars for social-political reform in Iraq, and the allowance of such reform on the part of the Iraq people who are supposedly threatened by terrorism just as much as the rest of the world. To be a hero is, for both West and East, defined in The Hurt Locker as being necessarily anti-Iraq.
Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Foreword: Edward Said's Jane Austen and Empire. Edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology Second Edition.
Loomba, Ania. Situating Colonial and Postcolonial Studies. Edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology Second Edition.
McClintock, Anne. The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term 'Post-colonialism.' Edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology Second Edition.
Okonkwo, Chidi. Casualties of Freedom. Edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology Second Edition.