It begins with a quote from a journalist that war is a drug. He, much like the person who wrote the screenplay, followed, studied and bonded with the soldiers and reached the aforementioned conclusion. He is correct.
But there is another level. The level that explains why many take drugs in the first place.
Sergeant William James is in an ill-defined, but nevertheless seemingly content, relationship and has a son, “the one thing.” He has much to live for.
Yet, he chooses to serve not one but two (and possibly additional) terms in Iraq, defusing improvised explosive devices (IEDs). He even commences the latter term with a smile on his face.
Sure, just as “The Hurt Locker” intends to communicate, James is addicted to the adrenaline rush of ever-present, yet often increasing danger. Unlike so many cliché reckless action heroes, however, he does not delight in the fact that he very likely might die. The threat, no matter how much it screams, seems to have little effect on him. Similarly, he seeks not medals or accolades to make up for some esteem deficiency.
James is a masochist.
He continues working to defuse a car bomb when there is hardly any point. He puts himself at risk by taking too much time attempting to free an unwilling suicide bomber even when he knows it is impossible. He coats the area around one IED with tear gas, effectively making his job more difficult and panicking his fellow team members.
This is his greatest flaw. This is the masochist’s greatest flaw.
The pain so desired winds up afflicting those who care about and rely on them, which serve as logical consequences for a way of life rooted so deeply in selfishness.
If James had not insisted on pursuing those responsible for the fire in the Green Zone, his team member would not have been in as much danger and would have gone home with a healthy femur.
It is understandable why James would want to do something. With so much insanity surrounding him, wanting to be the person who does something just seems only right. Unfortunately, his penchant for suicide missions means that those associated with him are pulled into the same risk.
James cannot see the threat he poses to those around him. He is constantly looking myopically outward through his own inward lens. Not self-absorbed so much as self-volunteering, James chooses to be the man most at-risk because he does not like himself, thus is the best candidate to be put in danger of death.
He walks with a cocky stride, yes. Knowingly toward that which many wish upon those who do – comeuppance.
His confidence comes in assurance that death is no deterrent.
By the end of his first term, this near-nihilism has infected once-cautious Sergeant J.T. Sanborn. The team member, like most young men thrust into war, is experiencing an existential crisis. He cannot see the point in living, particularly with no offspring to depend on his continued survival. James’ masochism damages another. Again.
He returns to America only to be confused in a supermarket. His partner will not listen to his experiences. And his son is still too young for deep connection. So James ventures back to his real home, the service.
Like most with his condition, James will continue to hurt others and experience the aftermath of guilt, still stuck in the same cycle of self-inflicted pain. An indirect cycle with plenty of collateral damage.