Zen and Hurt Locker’s Sgt. James
By Bernie Quigley
- For The Hill on 3/8/10
As it is described in Winston L. King’s classic, Zen and the Way of the Sword: Arming the Samurai Psyche, Zen is the art of doing things in the unconscious. Doing without thinking. Internalizing knowing to as close as can be got to the core of one’s being by practice, by doing the work again and again until the outer self virtually falls away. A good example was at the end of the Olympic hockey game when Canadian captain Sidney Crosby scored the winning goal in overtime: “I just hit it quick,” he said. “I didn’t even see the net.” In the original Star Wars movie, the beginner Jedi/Samurai is taught to fight blindfolded, so as to not even see the net, a page borrowed from Eugen Herrigel’s Zen and the Art of Archery. This is Sgt James, taking off the safety suit with eyes and mind for the ordinance only and with total disregard to his own safety. He is Master Chief. He is Zen Man. Worth understanding when viewing The Hurt Locker.
There is discussion about this by veterans and soldiers as some aspects of the movie – the uniforms and the informality of the marines, for example – are not true to the reality on the ground in Iraq. But this is a work of art by director Kathryn Bigelow, not a piece of reportage, and should be seen that way.
And what is enriching about this picture is that it does present Zen man at war without idealism, without patriotic indulgence, without interpretation, without propaganda, without bullshit. Sgt. James is the internalized warrior at the center of conflict. In Iraq, he is “the man at the center.” Like World War II era Sgt. Rock of comic book lore 50 years ago, he is in Zen terms the “common stone.” If he is not present in the conflict the conflict will not be won.
Ordinary men and women ride with him and become brave because he is there driving the humvee into fire. “I don’t even think about it,” he says. He brings transcendence to the others to do the common duty which must be done, but which most are not naturally prepared to do raised in a normal, happy environment. When I was in military 40 years ago I remember encounters with soldiers like Sgt. James. They seemed usually as common as I was or even less, and most, like James, were lifers of low rank and status. But when danger approached they became transformed and we became transformed as well just by staying in the jeep and riding to it with them.
That Bigelow’s film won so many awards in Hollywood is good karma. It means we have won or are winning the war on Iraq. Because in Zen the truth is always beneath and you can’t superimpose it from the outside. If you win the war you get Sgt. Rock and Sgt. James. If you lose you get a crippled, drug addicted, deranged or otherwise broken man (“betrayed by his own country”), as in so many novels and movies about Vietnam.
Because war is a young Masai throwing a spear at a lion. The spear either kills the lion and that determines a positive, fruitful and fertile future for the tribe or it doesn’t. And this failure or success pervades everything; how we dress, how we behave with our families and friends, the psycho music they pipe into supermarkets and how we will vote in 2010, 2012 and for decades thereafter.