The Great Divide: The Disconnect Between American Soldiers and Civilians

September 11, 2001 is a day that will forever live in the minds of the Americans who were alive to witness the terrorism displayed, and the repercussions of that day will reverberate for years and generations to come. On the evening of September 11, President George W. Bush addressed the nation and stated, “our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack.”[1] America had been eternally changed. As a result of this pivotal day in the history of the United States, President Bush declared a “war on terror,” targeting the radical terrorist group Al Qaeda concentrated in Afghanistan. Over the next several years, American soldiers flooded into the Middle East trying to stabilize a situation where our help was not wanted or welcome. Around 2004, the film industry started producing films that tried to explain the conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan with movies such as the documentary Control Room and Jarhead. However it is the 2008 Best Motion Picture of the Year Oscar winner The Hurt Locker that most enraptures audiences due to its emotional depth and intensity. However it is not only the film industry taking the opportunity to try to enlighten the public on the goings on in Iraq. Novels such as Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk show the disconnect between the American public’s view of the war, and the actual combat going on abroad. Both The Hurt Locker and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk inform the public that American civilians, as hard as they try, cannot understand what is happening abroad and there is a divide between their understanding and reality.

Director Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker opens with a quote by Chris Hedges stating, “war is a drug.”[2] Just as not all of the world’s population uses drugs, not all soldiers become addicted to the drug of mortal combat. The Hurt Locker’s Sergeant William James, played by actor Jeremy Renner, is one of the limited few. Sgt. James is a bomb specialist that diffuses I.E.D.s, short for an improvised explosive device. Throughout the film, Sgt. James is put in many treacherous situations that the other men do not envy, however Sgt. James seems impervious to the sensation of danger. He knows that he is the best at what he does, and in his mind he is unstoppable, not even the ever-present threat of death can keep him from doing his job. His counterpart, Sergeant Sanborn, is the exact opposite. Sanborn does his duty by the book, never stepping out of line, because one toe out of line can mean death, and the fact that James disregards the rules most of the time drives him nearly to murder. However by the end of the movie, James and Sanborn have come to learn each other’s ways and are closer than friends, they are more of brothers.

The movie itself is a countdown to how many days are left in Delta Company’s tour, meaning how many days the men have until they can return home to the United States. As the clock approaches zero, the men become more and more excited as their survival seems more decided. However, Specialist Eldridge, played by Brian Geraghty, knows how the smallest details and decisions can mean life or death. For him, one shot at a suspicious man with a detonator, masked as a cell phone, could have saved his friends life. At the end of the film and Delta Company’s tour, Sgt. James returns home to his girlfriend and baby boy and is not satisfied. James cannot adjust back to life as an American civilian after what he has been through in the Middle East. He tells his girlfriend what was happening in Baghdad with a sense of duty, knowing that he must return because he is the best of the best at his craft. In this sense, Chris Hedges is right; war is a drug. Sgt. James had become addicted to the adrenaline of diffusing bombs as well as his sense of duty to his country, and the mundane life of a civilian could no longer hold the same appeal it once did. However, Sgt. James was not aware of the bigger picture of the war, he only did his part, and did not ask questions, similar to the men in Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

            Bravo Company of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk has just returned to America for their Victory Tour for their outstanding service at the Al-Ansakar Canal. They returned home as heroes, and were treated as such from city of city along the tour. What the public did not know, however, is that their favorite American heroes had to go back. This small yet poignant fact leads to the greater discussion of the disconnect between the soldiers fighting in the Middle East and the American civilian public. Throughout the novel, Fountain places segments of words that are out of order, misspelled, or in other ways jumbled. For example, the phrase “nina leven” is commonly used in the place of nine-eleven, for the day that Al Qaeda attacked America. These idioms are only said by civilians, giving the reader the idea that the person saying the words does not know their real meaning. Many times throughout the story, the soldiers of Bravo Company are asked how America is doing over there. And each time the soldiers do not know and do not give straightforward answers. Just like the men of Delta Company in The Hurt Locker, the men of Bravo Company do their job, not knowing what the other moving pieces are doing or even the goal of the big picture. They simply are told an order, and follow through according to their training. Billy is often asked how he was brave enough to do what he did in leading the attack, and he responds that it was a reflex; he acted as he had been trained to act in under those circumstances. The civilians that Bravo Company encounters on the Victory Tour seem to want to know the very details of what happened in the Middle East, but Fountain projects the idea that they will never fully know or understand. Even as Bravo Company spills the details as best they can, no one can ever fully comprehend what they have seen and been through.

When Sergeant Dime is asked how America is doing in the Middle East he responds, “All I can tell you with any certainty is that the exchange of force with intent to kill, that is truly a mind-altering experience, sir.”[3] This theme is present in both works. In Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, Sgt. William James is forever changed by his involvement in Baghdad. He has become addicted to the drug identified by Chris Hedges as war. The adrenaline and sense of duty keeps him coming back for more even after he finishes his first tour. Sgt. Billy Lynn in Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk becomes more of a man. He returns home to Stovall, Texas more mature and with a different outlook on life. Both groups of men have seen and maybe even done terrible deeds and no matter how accurately recounted to the civilian population, no one will ever fully understand the goings on in the Middle East except the men that fought there.

[1] George W. Bush, “9/11 Address to the Nation” (Oval Office, Washington, D.C., September 11, 2001).

[2] Chris Hedges, The Hurt Locker, quote, directed by Kathryn Bigelow (2008; Los Angeles; Voltage Pictures; 2009.) DVD.

[3] Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (New York: Harper Collins Publications, 2012), 65.

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