Bigelow`s Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty

Bigelow’s Hurt Locker
and Zero Dark Thirty:
Virtue Ethics and the War on Terror
Zero Dark Thirty: The Controversy
• ZDT was criticized by many
for seeming to portray
“enhanced interrogation”
as crucial to the killing of
Bin Laden
• A factual question
• A moral question
• Glenn Greenwald:
• Premise A: The killing of Bin
Laden was “sacred,” cannot
be questioned
• Premise B: According to the
film, torture was necessary
to eventually kill Bin Laden
• Conclusion: Therefore, the
film glorifies torture
Reasons for Doubt
• “I think that it's a deeply moral
movie that questions the use of
force. It questions what was done
in the name of finding bin
Laden.“ – Kathryn Bigelow
• Criticisms of ZDT hinge on a
number of Hollywood clichés
• There are clear good guys and bad
• The good guys (almost) always do
the right thing
• If the good guys do the wrong thing,
it messes things up and they see the
errors of their ways
• The good guys win in the end
• ““Bigelow's movies don't work
that way.” – Jessica Winter and
Lily Rothman, Time
Quandary Ethics vs. Virtue Ethics
Difficult Situations
Everyday Life
The Single Moment (Pointillism)
“An ethic of virtue seeks to focus not only on such moments of great
anxiety and uncertainty in life but also on the continuities, the habits
of behavior which make us the persons we are.” – Gilbert Meilander
Key Concepts of Virtue Ethics
(Alasdair MacIntyre)
• Practice:
• Internal goods vs. external goods
(enjoying chess vs. playing for a
• A standard of excellence
• More than technical skill or
technique (a good cook vs. following
a recipe)
• Virtue:
• Excellence in life as a whole,
integrating many practices
• A practice can be unvirtuous if it
detracts from an integrated life
• Virtue includes right relationships
with others engaged in practices
• Narrative:
• My actions take place within the
larger narrative of my life
• My actions also take place within
the narrative of the communities to
which I belong, large and small
• Institutions
• Institutions are established to foster
practices and the external goods
necessary to maintain them (e.g., a
• Institutions can become overly
focused on external goods (money,
power, status) in the absence of
• Community
• Sets the context in which practices
and virtues either flourish or wither
• SFC William James and Maya
Lambert are practitioners
• “James is something else,
someone we recognize instantly
even if we have never seen
anyone quite like him before.
He is a connoisseur, a genius, an
artist.” – A.O. Scott, New York
• “One hundred percent, he’s
there. Okay fine, ninety-five
percent, because I know
certainty freaks you guys out;
but it’s a hundred!”
• James and Lambert are
contrasted with their peers
• “You think I got what it takes to
put on the suit?” “Hell, no.”
• “Pre-9/11 behavior”
• Both films explore the tension between
professional excellence and family
Both characters are pathetic, evoking pity,
because they lack virtue
Maya has “no existence outside of war.” –
Hannah Rosin, New Republic
• In HL, James’s excellence as a soldier is
linked to his failure as a husband and
“The older you get, the fewer things you
really love. By the time you get to my age,
maybe it’s only one or two things. With
me, I think it’s one.”
• Family life contributes to a lack of
excellence as a soldier
“I’m done. I want a son. I want a little boy,
Will.” – Sgt. Sanborn
James’s attachment to Beckham leads to
his erratic behavior
• In ZDT work substitutes for friends and
family for Lambert
“So no boyfriend. You got any friends at
“Look, I know Abu Ahmed is your baby,
but it's time to cut the umbilical cord.”
• ZDT also focuses on the tension
between excellence and
• Jessica, a CIA agent, fails because
of her excessive focus on success
• “The Director is in the loop. And I
wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't
update the President.”
• “Facilitators come and go, but one
thing you can count on in life is that
everyone wants money.”
• CIA officials in Washington
hesitate because of political fear
for their careers
• They want immediate action but
hesitate to act
• “I think she’s fucking smart.” “We’re
all smart, Jeremy.”
The Army as an Institution
• In the HL the Army clearly
fulfills the two roles of an
institution outlined by
• It enables a practitioner like
James to flourish
• “Well that’s just hot shit. You’re
a wild man, you know that?”
• The film portrays stewardship
as often hindering excellence
• Risk avoidance leads to failure
and death, risk taking leads to
• Lt. Col. Cambridge is ineffective
The American Context
• Only now can we look at
the ethical issues in the
• If James and Lambert are
the ones America needs to
fight the War on Terror, can
the war be just?
• How and why has our own
society failed James and
• Does civilian society’s
everyday concerns (family,
career) tragically lead our
nation to war?
• “A really good bad guy hides
out in the dark, right?”
Why Look for Ethics in Film?
• Film is well-suited to
explore issues of
• We make sense of
our own lives
through story
• A film does not
provide us answers,
it spurs discussion
and the telling of
Key Questions for the Army Profession
• HL and ZDT, through narrative, point out tensions in the Army ethic
• What tensions exist between developing military experts
(practitioners) and an integrated life? (e.g., risk, single-minded
• What tensions exist between promoting institutional stewardship
and professional competence?
• How does the Army maintain its ethic and character when civilian
authorities decide its ultimate objectives?
“I believe that was Kathryn's intention when she made the film — to
open a conversation. She ends it with an unanswered question, Where
do you want to go? She's asking the audience, Where have we been,
and where do we go from here?” – Jessica Chastain

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