The Sound of War

Delta Winds cover 2011

Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College



The Sound of War

James Wilson

In December 2012 Senators Dianne Feinstein and John McCain opened fire from opposite ends of the political spectrum on Kathryn Bigelow for her unsparing portrait of CIA interrogators in Zero Dark Thirty, her new film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, but no one who saw her previous film should be surprised by the intensity of her approach, nor by her scrutiny of American tactics and values. The Hurt Locker (2008), for which Bigelow became the first woman ever to win the Academy Award for Best Director, focuses on a three-man American Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team in occupied Iraq. The film is noteworthy for the intensity of its mood, largely transmitted through its soundtrack. Indeed, sound effects in this film are so influential that they go beyond mood to meaning. And the meaning delivered to Americans viewing this film is to make us wonder what the hell we are doing in Iraq.

The Hurt Locker's opening bomb-defusing scene and its cacophony immediately put the viewers' "boots on the ground," and we quickly realize that this is not where we want to be. Sound mixer Ray Beckett combines authoritative and panicked Arabic with passing car horns, the bleating of goats, and other jolting sounds to put us into a state of heightened confusion. Like the American soldiers plopped into chaos and seeking dubious cover from whatever surface seems to offer a chance of it, we get the feeling that we could very well die in this hellhole, where the fine line between friend and foe is often blurred. Who can think straight in such a frenzied and otherworldly place?

The use of Arabic, prominent throughout the film, plays on the xenophobia within many viewers. We don't know what the locals are saying, but we do know they aren't wishing us a fine day. We assume the worst, adding to the general malaise of "What am I doing here?" When we hear the Islamic call to prayer, which fills the city, its tonality is extremely unsettling to the typical American ear. In Middle Eastern music, a different scale utilizes many more minor notes and sounds menacing to most Americans brought up listening to music based on major scales. These minor scales strike us as creepy and raise our level of paranoia: among the faithful Muslims being called to worship, how many are jihadists being called to blow themselves up in our midst? We don't want to stay to find out. We want to go home.

In contrast to the unsettling sounds of Baghdad, the conversation among the three, featured American soldiers, Sergeants James and Sanborn and Specialist Eldridge, in their barracks sends us back into our comfort zone. The casualness of their banter makes us feel right at home. We are grateful to hear them joking, cussing, and speaking in colloquialisms; we laugh with delight at their irreverent bravado when, even though their lives are constantly imperiled, they compare the EOD robot's arm to their genitalia. In a later scene, the tension of combat is broken by the chatter of an Iraqi boy who sells bootleg DVDs to the Americans on the base. Ironically, given the "moral grounds" upon which America went to war, we are put at ease when he speaks vulgarly, curses, or peddles pornography: it's much more familiar and infinitely more comfortable to us than hearing the Arabic call to prayer.

In its action scenes The Hurt Locker's soundtrack takes us into the "kill zone" with Sgt. James by putting us right inside his special protective suit. We can hear his breathing and heartbeat, and we are constantly wondering if he'll be breathing for long. Although James is calm in the face of death, it is hard for us to feel the same way. As he approaches danger, we hear the rubbing of the suit's material against itself, reminding us that although it provides some protection, it's really just a thick uniform, not a truly safe place to be. Besides, we've already seen suited Staff Sgt. Thompson, the engaging bomb tech from the first scene, killed by a detonation sixty feet away from him. We want no part of wearing that ineffectual suit, even if for James it's the only thing in life he truly loves.

The soundtrack enhances the impact of another critical scene after Sgt. James finishes his tour of duty. He is back home in the States, at a huge, uncrowded supermarket with his wife and infant son. The feeling of emptiness within James is communicated through the squeaking wheels of the shopping cart and the elevator music playing in the store. These peaceful domestic sounds make James feel out of place, reinforcing the disorientation he feels when confronted with a comically vast array of cereals, from which he eventually makes his selection in an exasperated random snatch. He is more comfortable facing imminent, violent death amid the cacophony of the battlefield than he is in the tranquility of the grocery aisles. One of the main themes of the movie is that war is a drug, and James is clearly addicted. He will not be happy on the home front, so he must go back to Iraq, forsaking his family for the adrenaline rush of war. He may never be a well-adjusted member of society again, thanks to his experiences inside the suit.

While The Hurt Locker is not on the surface an anti-war film, those who listen closely and gauge its overall impact will find it saying that unlike Sgt. James, most Americans don't want to be in Iraq, for the danger there is infinite and not worth the risk. It is not James but Specialist Eldridge, ultimately headed home with a femur shattered by friendly fire during one of James's beyond-the-call-of-duty adventures, who becomes the film's Everyman. Eldridge's physical wounds, however devastating, may heal in time, but it seems likely that he will carry in his head forever the sound of war. Haunted by his failure in the film's first scene to identify and eliminate Sgt. Thompson's cell phone-armed civilian killer, Eldridge points out to his naïve therapist Major Cambridge (who is soon to share in Thompson's grisly fate) that the difference between life and death in this conflict can be boiled down to the sound of a trigger pulled and the click of a hammer against the firing pin. In a war where we often can't see our enemy, or can't recognize him even when we can see him, it is impossible to tell which side of that hammer click we'll be on.