On the night gold dust fell on the stars in Hollywood, millions of men and women were putting their lives on the line in Iraq merely by casting a vote. Hollywood nervously measured the size of the television audience for its Academy Awards ceremony while a different statistic was measured in Iraq, where 62 percent of the eligible voters demonstrated courage at the polls.
Accepting his Oscar for writing the best original screenplay, Mark Boal said he tried, in writing "Hurt Locker," to capture the essence of the experience of "men on the front lines of an unpopular war." He was a journalist embedded with American soldiers before he was a screenwriter, and his story reflected his true-life experiences with the men assigned to the grim and fearful task of dismantling the roadside bombs that have killed dozens of Americans.
To earn its gold, the Hollywood Reporter observed, "Hurt Locker" had to break "the Iraq War Curse." This was a war that had failed to find an audience, and it's a delicious irony that "Hurt Locker," with its celebration of the American soldier, beat out "Avatar," a stale tale of an imperialist America exploiting innocents on another planet.
Neither should we lose sight of the irony that the curse was broken at the moment Iraqis of rival religious sects and political parties defied the terrorists in their midst. The violence continued -- more than three dozen Iraqis were killed on election day. But the elections were nevertheless a triumph of the spirit and the will of the people to satisfy their hunger for freedom.
If the popular culture is a footnote to history, democratic elections are the text, the real thing and the right stuff. No matter how Americans felt, and feel, about the Iraq War, only the most cynical partisans now refuse to share the celebration of the triumph of the Iraqi people. Preserving the democratic way of life is always messy business, wherever it takes place, and it's particularly difficult in the Middle East, where the seeds of democracy are just now taking root in a garden of evil.
Belaboring ire against George W. Bush for going to war in Iraq no longer serves anyone -- including Barack Obama -- well. The surge worked. American soldiers are still there to guard the peace, and the results of the election will determine whether they can be withdrawn according to the ambitious timetable set by Obama.
This is a fragile time, as the Iraqi winners attempt to build coalitions for the hard work of governing. There's no George Washington ready to fight for the right, no John Adams to impart stubborn New England values for the right, no Thomas Jefferson to give voice to the inalienable rights for which our Revolution was fought.
But who cannot relish the electoral victory to which we bear witness in a country we hope will continue to grow as an ally of America? Many critics of the United States, ever eager to sow envy, doubt and mistrust, cast us as both arrogantly aggressive and stupidly naive in using military might to topple a dictator, and then foolishly believing we can help the despot's prey to build a participatory democracy. Violent insurgents have for the past seven years taken advantage of both caricatures.
Nevertheless, this fledgling democracy may turn out to be a flashpoint of change in the Middle East, the beginning of a new appreciation for Abraham Lincoln's "last great hope of mankind." A theme of "Hurt Locker" is the tense relationship between American soldiers and the Iraqi people. Deep suspicions are depicted on both sides. But in one dramatic scene, the difference between two cultures is writ plain in tragedy. An Iraqi father appears in the town square with explosives strapped to his body, a suicide bomber who has changed his mind and pleads for someone to save him.
An American soldier tries, but the Iraqi father is imprisoned in straps and wires. The soldier is driven with sympathy for the man cruelly exploited by terrorists contemptuous of all human life except their own. The soldier works until only 30 seconds remain before the bomb is timed to detonate. The drama is a powerful metaphor.
The Iraqi bystanders show appreciation for the American's efforts -- no Iraqi watching the drama unfold can be blind to the difference between the two cultures. The Iraqi is exploited by a culture of death, the soldier by a culture of life. The future of their country will be determined by those Iraqis who crave the culture of life. The men and women who risked their lives to cast their ballots, like the soldier who risked his to save the life of an adversary, cast two votes for life.