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Stop-Loss Depicts Casualties Home and Abroad

Observer Scene | Friday, April 4, 2008

Commonly referred to as a “Back Door Draft,” stop-loss is a contractual loophole, in which the United States military, in times of war, can retain servicemen by involuntary extending their enlistment terms and refusing to let them retire. This is one of the subjects Kimberly Peirce, the director of the Academy Award winning “Boy’s Don’t Cry,” tackles in her latest film “Stop-Loss.”

Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) and a few of his comrades, Sgt. Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) and SPC Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), return from what should have been King and Shriver’s final tour in Iraq. However, upon turning in his gear, King learns that he’s been commissioned to ship back out to Iraq in less than a month. “You’ve been stop-lossed,” a military clerk tells him.

Feeling betrayed, he takes the issue up with his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Boot Miller (Timothy Olyphant), arguing with the Lieutenant that because the Iraq conflict has not been officially declared a war, the stop-loss clause invalid. His case falls on deaf ears, and when the Lieutenant threatens to put him in the stockade for insubordination, King starts a scuffle and flees the base.

However, there is more to King’s defiance than just betrayal. At the heart of King’s refusal to return to Iraq is a deep-rooted type of trauma. But to understand this we must retrace our steps to the first ten minutes of the film.

The movie opens in Tikrit, Iraq, where a car full of insurgents breach Sgt. King’s roadblock. He and his men pursue the insurgents into a back alley where the Iraqis ambush them from the rooftops. In the intense shootout that ensues, three of King’s men perish and another solider is critically wounded. Near the end of the skirmish, Sgt. Shriver charges into an apartment building and when King storms in to retrieve him, he ends up taking the lives of a number of Iraqi civilians.

Shortly afterward, the men return back to the United States. During the bus ride to the army base in King and Shriver’s hometown, their commanding officer, Lt. Col. Boot Miller (Timothy Olyphant) informs his men that they are not to drive drunk or get into fights with civilians. Upon their arrival the inhabitants of the small Texas town hail the returning soldiers as heroes. However, there is something destructive brewing inside these soldiers waiting to erupt. And it doesn’t take long.

Burgess starts the night off by getting into a bar fight with a man who mistakenly hits on his wife. Before the night is over, she gets upset over his drunkenness and throws him out, prompting him to drive drunk. Likewise Shriver, in a drunken haze, and hallucinating that he’s still in Iraq, hits his fiancé Michelle (Abbie Cornish) before digging a foxhole in her front lawn.

King, Shriver and Burgess decide escape to King’s family ranch to regroup. In a scene embodying of their struggle to readjust, they shoot-up all Burgess’ unopened wedding gifts. It is a disturbing portrait of the contrasting lifestyle soldiers returning home are forced to reintegrate into.

And their lives don’t get any easier when King is forced to flee town. Without their squadron leader, the lives of Shriver and Burgess really begin to fall apart.

Peirce’s film works itself in a circular fashion, bearing toward ending that is inevitable as the future it represents. The soldiers are all connected in their struggles to cope with the horrors they witnessed in Iraq and in their struggles to reenter American society.

There’s another scene later in “Stop-Loss,” where while traveling to Washington D.C. to sort out his problems, King’s car is vandalized. He tracks down the vandals and in a back alley fight nearly kills the men. After disarming them, he lines them up and begins screaming Iraqi ethnic slurs as if they were insurgents. It is a significant insight into the mind of a soldier who cannot differentiate home and peace from war.

“Stop-Loss” avoids judging the Iraq conflict directly, leaving that up to its viewers, but it is unwaveringly honest in its portrayals of pain and confusion. When King describes the Tikrit episode to Michelle, he tries to come to terms with the death of his men and the Iraqi civilians by relating just that confusion: “Everybody’s got a weapon. Nobody knows whose who.”

It is this kind of world where soldiers and civilians, both home and abroad, carry weapons, and it is this kind of world where the last person who knows whose who is the war-torn soldier, struggling to find a home.