The opening sequence of the new Iraq war film Stop-Loss portrays a U.S. Army squad caught in a terrifying firefight in the streets of Mosul. Where was this scene shot? I wondered as I watched. The answer turns out to be Morocco; and it may strike a viewer as eerie to be watching a fake firefight staged in an alley in Marrakech, while a thousand miles to the east, the real thing is happening. We live, however, in a culture of instantaneity, when any soldier with a cell phone and Internet hookup can cast pictures into our digital democracy. The director of Stop-Loss, Kimberly Peirce, has a brother who served in Iraq, and she prepped for her film by watching soldier-made videos. And the movie shows it, woven with jittery hand-held video shots taken by a squad of soldiers in Iraq and, later, back home in Texas.
Stop-Loss follows the agonized uncertainties of the squad’s sergeant, Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), whose crew has to blast its way out of a back-alley ambush, enduring and inflicting awful casualties in the process. Soon afterward, Brandon’s tour ends, and he and his best friend and fellow soldier, Steve (Channing Tatum), return to their small town in Texas, glad to have the nightmare of Iraq behind them. But when Brandon finds himself stop-lossed—the term refers to the notorious Bush-administration policy of extending a soldier’s tour against his wishes—he reacts with bitter rage, berating his commanding officer, then stealing a jeep and going AWOL. In a moment’s impulsive anger, the hero becomes a fugitive.
Among America’s wars, Vietnam holds the patent on soldiers’ returning-home stories, told and retold in films as diverse as Coming Home, Cutter’s Way, Taxi Driver, and Born on the Fourth of July. All these films testify to the way war’s inherent trauma was augmented by the toxic politics of Vietnam; returning soldiers were ignored or, worse, reviled, leading to bitterness, alienation, and instability so widespread that it earned a clinical name, post-Vietnam syndrome. In effect, Stop-Loss chronicles the opposite predicament. Today the nation is bent on patriotic hero-worship, yet Brandon and his men don’t feel like heroes. Tormented by doubt about his actions in Iraq, Brandon visits the family of one of his men who was killed. He himself is visited in turn by horrific images of two Iraqi women and a child killed by his men. “I screwed up,” he mutters in anguish when Steve tries to reassure him. But what else can a soldier do, Peirce asks, when a war itself is screwed up?
Crafted to address a personnel crisis faced by the military, the stop-loss policy reflects what happens when you send a volunteer army to fight a wildly unpopular war. Army recruiting ads today exude a video-game-like aesthetic that is alluring to many teenage males; the ads suggest that joining the military will be like playing the world’s greatest video game, while gaining job skills. Imagine being dropped into a cauldron of sectarian warfare—and, when you have managed to survive and come home, being told to pack up, ship out, and do it all over again.
Brandon’s outraged sense of betrayal echoes a literary theme traceable at least to World War I, when poets and memoirists vehemently renounced patriotic slogans and causes, indeed all abstractions, and sought to train our view on individuals and the grievous harm they suffer in war. Stop-Loss features a disturbing scene at a veterans’ hospital, where a maimed soldier shoots a game of pool with prosthetic legs and a prosthetic arm. It is reminiscent of the scene in William Wyler’s 1946 postwar film The Best Years of Our Lives, when Harold Russell lights a cigarette with his two hooks. Both scenes evoke an uneasy mix of fascination, horror, admiration, and pity, amplified by our knowledge that these are not professional actors, but real soldiers, who have actually lost their limbs in the war.
Kimberly Peirce’s previous film, Boys Don’t Cry, derived from a true-story account of a sexually confused young woman who cut her hair and passed herself off as a man in a hardscrabble Nebraska town, only to be brutalized by two of her low-life buddies when they found out. The movie was a deeply ambivalent exploration of maleness—what is to be coveted in it, and what is to be loathed and feared—and the same ambivalence powers her new movie. It’s obvious that Peirce is half in love with the personality type of the American macho: its bluff humor, its physical courage, its capacity for loyalty. But she possesses a clear-eyed view of the flip side, the capacity for brutality and violence. “You will not drink and drive,” the grinning C.O. tells his soldiers in the bus as they head home for leave. “You will not hit your wife. You will not fuck anyone underage. You will not kick your dog.” And yet, Brandon and the other good ole boys do pretty much all of the above. Their homecoming is a melee of binge drinking, bar fights, cars driven into telephone poles, and living rooms turned upside down in rage.
What makes it tragic is how perfectly American masculinity, especially the working-class rural variety that is Peirce’s purview, fits the warrior code. Doubt is a cause for shame, and anything resembling a vulnerable emotion must be stricken. Rising to speak before the cheering crowd, Brandon turns pensive, digressing into a rambling evocation of the beauties of rural Texas—only to have Steve step forward and rescue him, steering him away from the podium. “We’re killing ’em in Iraq, so we don’t have to kill ’em here in Texas!” Steve shouts as the crowd cheers. Brandon has violated the code, substituting doubt for bluster. He has revealed himself. He has almost committed poetry.
After Vietnam, American liberals learned a painful lesson in how patriotism (or the alleged lack of it) can be used against them; slowly but surely they learned to be cagier, purging their criticism of U.S. military policy of anything that might resemble contempt for soldiers themselves. Peirce’s film can be understood, politically, as the apotheosis of this strategy. I doubt she planned it that way. More likely she’s a natural; the sympathy she feels for these rowdy country boys, sent to a bewildering and dangerous war, couldn’t be plainer. She’s fascinated by masculinity—indeed, there’s hardly anyone in Stop-Loss who doesn’t conform to the rowdy macho. The only significant female character is Michele (Abbie Cornish), Steve’s fiancée and Brandon’s friend, who ends up accompanying him when he goes AWOL. But Michele is very much a guy’s gal. She wears a cowboy hat, knows her way around guns and fast cars, and belts down shots of tequila at the bar. There’s a buried erotic energy somewhere between Brandon and Michele, and we keep waiting for it to surface, yet it never does; Michele’s solicitude, or its expression at any rate, remains wholly within the male vernacular. This is, after all, Texas—in Peirce’s vision, the symbolic capital of violent masculinity, a place where the men are men and the women are men.
And so nothing in Stop-Loss summons the sorrowful loveliness of that moment in The Best Years of Our Lives when Wilma undresses Homer in his bedroom, her gesture of love forever dispelling his fear that the sight of his amputated arms will drive her away in disgust. Such tenderness remains absent from Stop-Loss, where the only love is the warrior’s love. Peirce puts her film in an interesting position, making it exemplify the very pathology she is anatomizing—scrupulously excising all softness and giving us a film that derives its power through this exclusion. Only in the very last scene, in the suddenly anguished face of a mother watching her son drive off to enlist, does Peirce let us see all that has been kept out. The revelation reminds us how radically war and the warrior’s code restrict and diminish our humanity, making a mother’s love unspeakable and all but unshowable. Stop-Loss works in a postmodern way, finally, measuring the toll war takes, and conveying it through a terrible sense of absence.