The James Clayton Column: How I learned to stop worrying thanks to the bomb

As he catches up with The Hurt Locker, James wonders if it's time to enlist...

“War! Uh-huh! Yeah! What is it good for?”

Apart from providing subject matter for several classic movies, I’m inclined to agree with the Edwin Starr song and say: “absolutely nothing”.

If “War is a drug”, as the quote that opens The Hurt Locker claims, then it’s not the sort of drug that brings pleasant psychedelic dreams or sends you tripping across rainbow-streaked marmalade skies on the back of a unicorn. War would probably be worst-grade, cut-down heroin, most likely injected through a needle that’s been rusting since the early-eighteenth century. War, just like heroin, drains life away and reduces humanity to an emaciated state of hollow-eyed horror.

Admittedly, I haven’t fought in battle or lived in a conflict zone, but the impression I’ve got from the news and numerous films is that war is hell. Movies like Paths Of Glory make this point quite clearly: war begets pain, suffering, injustice and death. The powerful poster image for Platoon with Willem Dafoe down on his knees, howling out helplessly to the sky above sums it all up for me.

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Being a peace dove with such bleeding-heart beliefs, I guess I’d identify myself as being an ‘anti-military’ guy. The movies (the source of absolute understanding and wisdom in the Universe) have never given me a good reason to change my views and shift from a pacifist stance towards something a bit more belligerent.

Join the armed forces and you either end up dead, dismembered or a dehumanised shell of a person with insurmountable mental health problems. Look at Vincent D’Onofrio’s Private Gomer Pyle in Full Metal Jacket or Christopher Walken’s Nick in The Deer Hunter. Did military service do them any good? Quite frankly, I can do without the boot camp torment and bullying and the post-conflict career as a traumatised veteran on the Russian roulette circuit of South East Asia’s dingiest drinking holes.

With all this is mind, I eagerly went in to watch The Hurt Locker expecting my anti-war outlook to be affirmed and my unenthusiastic attitude to the military reinforced. To my surprise, I left more susceptible to the idea of enlisting than ever before. I didn’t just find Kathryn Bigelow’s latest feature to be a brilliant movie of gripping intensity with great acting performances, but for possibly the first time in my life found myself thinking: “Should I join the army?”

Suffice to say, the idea has now pretty much died and I wasn’t turned from a liberal, free love-spouting hippy to a war hawk over the course of two-and-a-half hours, but The Hurt Locker gave me something to think on. Having never had any ambition to enlist in the armed forces, after watching I’d decided that being a bomb disposal technician in the military would be very cool indeed.

“Why on earth would you want to play with fuse-wires and tinker with terrifying devices that could blow you to smithereens?” you may be asking. There are safer ways of earning a living, for sure, but for adrenalising, exciting work I’m not sure that working in explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) can be topped. Forget the tedium of numbing nine-to-five jobs and unfulfilling, ‘normal’ careers: what I really want is stimulating challenges, the promise of adventure and a feeling that I’m serving a greater good. In what other vocation are you absolutely certain of feeling glad to be alive when you clock off for the day?

I’m also convinced that this kind of activity makes for an ideal fantasy occupation on the basis that the main man in The Hurt Locker, Sgt. William James, is a badass. He’s a bomb-defusing demon who exists on the silver ledge of life and death, totally indifferent to danger and confidently capable when it comes to getting the job done. Superbly played by Jeremy Renner, even though James is reckless and better at relating to bombs than human beings, I consider him an admirable role model.

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Whereas his companions cautiously send in the ‘bomb-bot’ first and get neurotic about wearing the bombproof suit, James just goes in with an appealing devil-may-care attitude. In the face of death, he shrugs his shoulders. In the end, his OED team colleagues come off as a grouchy whinger (Sgt. J.T. Sanborn) and a wuss (Specialist Owen Eldridge). James is, ultimately, a hardcore hazard-beater who stands firm as the rock-solid centre of the film.

It’s because it concentrates on the compelling figure and personality of Sgt. James as opposed to getting dragged down in the politics of the Iraq conflict that The Hurt Locker is such a strong movie. Like Mickey Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” in The Wrestler, Renner’s character is fascinating to follow as a semi-tragic loner who can’t function in the ‘regular world’. Death for him is trawling around the supermarkets of suburbia. He needs the adrenaline and high-octane lifestyle of armed service or else he just atrophies.

Faced with 21st century consumer cosiness, I reckon we could all do with observing Sgt. James’s outlook; there’s a soul-stirring comfort in the idea of perpetually existing on the thin line between life and death. With an ever-present awareness of your own mortality and a constant primal sense of what it is to be alive, hopefully you end up living for the moment more and, resultantly, being happier and healthier.

There’s a self-help book or spiritual doctrine in here for sure. It could be called ‘How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Life Thanks to the Bomb’. Acolytes could adopt the ‘Zen Path of the Baghdad Disarmament Tech’. Even if followers die in a fiery blaze of shrapnel, they’ll still have lived to the best of their ability, free from petty troubles having adopted a more volatile version of carpe diem as their credo.

I don’t even need to enlist to adopt the disarmament doctrine and get the adrenaline kick that I crave; I could always defuse bombs outside of warzones and operate as a civilian minesweeper. Mimicking Keanu Reeves in Speed, I could feasibly work on the domestic front constantly racing against the clock to stop The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three-type scenarios exploding all over innocent people.

Until some old age pensioner is pushed over the edge by the ever-increasing price of a bus pass, I’d say that such public transport terrorism is unlikely in my neck of the woods. At least in Sgt. James’s grab-the-bomb-by-the-charge-wires attitude I have something deep, existentialist and life affirming to appreciate. Seize the day: see The Hurt Locker.

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James’ previous column can be found here.