"The Hurt Locker": Too Many Choices

We watched “The Hurt Locker” last week and with all the harrowing suspense scenes, the scene that resonated most for me was the “cereal aisle” scene towards the end of the movie. It's a scene that a traveler just back from a long trip can relate to. Sergeant First Class William James is back from his Iraq bomb squad tour of duty and he’s trying to cope with normality back home. His wife Connie asks him “Do you wanna get some cereal and I’ll meet you at the checkout stand?” Her patient smile tells us that William’s re-entry has been just as much of a challenge for her as it has been for him. William says “Okay, cereal,” and walks a few paces and says “Where…?” then keeps walking. We cut to William standing in the cereal aisle looking at the myriad of choices in front of him. I paused the frame and counted seven different types of Cheerios/Toasted Oats varieties alone.

(For the record: Multi-Grain Cheerios, Honey-Nut Cheerios, Toasted O’s, Whole Grain Cheerios, Cheerios, Honey Nut Toasted O’s and Apple Cinnamon Cheerios)

I loved the image of a macho bomb squad dude who thrives on pressure and adrenaline, who always knows what to do, yet is completely befuddled by the most mundane scenario imaginable. My wife and I had a similar feeling when we were in Los Angeles over the New Year’s holiday after having been in South America for 6 months. While I’m in no way comparing traveling in South America to being on a tour of duty in Iraq, there are similarities. Being in a completely foreign environment for an extended time provides you with “instant perspective” upon your return, a perspective that is quickly dulled the longer you are there. I’m sure that if William had stayed in suburbia long enough, he’d start seeing the plethora of options in the cereal aisle as normal.

While traveling through South America, one is not confronted with an array of choices that we have in the United States. In restaurants, there is the menú, the set meal of the day that everyone orders and usually all they have to drink is Coke or Sprite. In the supermarkets there is some variety in the produce, grain and meat sections, but there are usually one or two brands of tea, jam, beer, yogurt, milk, bread and yes, breakfast cereal.

With our week in Los Angeles, we had a long shopping list of things to buy: swim suits, hiking sandals, a new laptop-friendly backpack, safari shirts, mosquito repellent, quality sunscreen and many other things that were hard to find in South America. After a few days of shopping we were completely bewildered: we had too many options. There were always dozens of choices and the time needed to weigh the pros and cons of those options was considerable. I think it was shopping for food in a Marina Del Rey supermarket when we realized that we’d had enough. A dozen types of bagged salad, hundreds of wine brands, two dozen brands of artisan breads…ugh. This is the experience that flashes in my mind when I watch William in “The Hurt Locker.”

In the end, William prefers the shrapnel waiting inside a bomb to the processed corn shrapnel inside the cereal boxes; he signs up for another tour of duty. Even though we only had a week in Los Angeles, we were ready to continue our tour of duty.


  1. I don't know where in South America you have been, but I disagree we don't have choices there. Go to any decent restaurant and you'll have plenty of choice. What choice do you have at McDonald's? Just burgers "that everybody orders". Sure, you can choose between fries or onion rings. Big deal. And we also have McDonald's, if that means a restaurant with all that much of "choice" for you. You can't find a laptop-friendly backpack in South America? Give me a break. I kind of understand your feeling of being away from home and not understanding the language. I am living abroad myself. I am Brazilian living in Italy. I just don't blame Italy for me feeling homesick. And I do feel so. All the time. No offense man. I also love that scene in the movie. Searching for that is how I found your blog. I just don't see your comparison or even "similarities" with South America as fair at all.

    Best regards.

  2. Hey Leonardo,
    Thanks for commenting.
    My post was meant to emphasize that the U.S. has too many choices, not that South America had too little. We spent most of our time in Peru (6 months in Cusco) and also Bolivia and Ecuador. (I honestly could not find a laptop-friendly bag in those Andean countries (Although if I had plenty of time to search, I'm pretty sure I could have found one in Lima).
    You mention that you don't see the comparison...the comparison is not between places -- South America or anywhere else. The comparison comes from being in an environment with a "normal" range of options, to one with "way too many" options, thus inducing the overwhelming feeling experienced by William in "The Hurt Locker."

  3. Great blog entry! The grocery store scene is also the most memorable for me as well.

  4. I'd posit that the problem faced by the SSG is less that there are too many choices, and more that there are not enough distinguishing characteristics among the choices. My mental lockup was trying to pick out fruit snacks after 2 years as an ETT in Afghanistan. There are like 60 brands, and they are all functionally identical in terms of ingredients and taste. Spend long enough where every decision is life or death, and it gets impossible to make mundane decisions.

    The takeaway? Gushers fruit snacks. Or fruit by the foot. Because they are distinctive. If they are out of stock, go somewhere else.