Boredom: Groundhog Day as Metaphor for Iraq
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter explores the meaning of the film Groundhog Day relative to social-psychological elements of boredom. The chapter presents the popular film Groundhog Day featuring actor Bill Murray as a metaphor for American soldiers’ experiences in Iraq. American soldiers and others in Iraq referred to their experience as akin to the film. Groundhog Day is a spatio-temporal displacement film, a comedic love story featuring personal redemption in order for the main character to successfully transform. Groundhog Day—the day—has spiritual and nature roots and represents the transition to springtime. All religions find utility in the film’s leitmotif, and Bill Murray represents a character regularly cast in transitional roles. The chapter highlights direct references to the film from those with experience in Iraq and presents some interpretations of the film itself that are illustrative of the American experience in Iraq. The chapter concludes with some future directions for research by social psychologists and applications for practitioners interested in soldiering, film, and boredom.
All of us are just sitting around bored out of our minds, waiting for the Colonel to send us out. I guess being shot at is better than boredom.
—SGT Seth Connors (2007)
In the Iraq War, American soldiers referred to their daily missions—indeed their daily existence in Iraq—as akin to Groundhog Day (Albert & Ramis, 1993) starring Bill Murray. The Groundhog Day film provided a cogent reference to describe in a nutshell the day-to-day existence of soldiers in Iraq. In this sense, there was routine, monotony, and boredom in their activities. Each day was similar to the day before—sometimes off the Forward Operating Base (FOB) but always on, with an unbearable heat, tan-colored vehicles, similar meals, the same people, and predictable, and hopefully uneventful, days. (p. 312) In this chapter, I use the film Groundhog Day as a metaphor for boredom in the day-to-day living and working of many soldiers in Iraq. The film not only signifies the life-world of Iraq for American soldiers as Groundhog Day-ish—it also dramatizes themes that transcend the mundaneness of everyday existence there and captures dimensions of the broader socio-political missions. The film Groundhog Day is a metaphor for assisting soldiers, their families, significant others, and various publics to understand the experience of Iraq through an analogous film made, not after the war, but prior to it. Furthermore, researchers interested in the day-to-day experiences of people on the ground in a military theater of operations should gain insights from the simulated experiential medium—film.
Films provide insight into experiences of the military, but often after the fact. Thousands of films have portrayed and re-portrayed the experiences of soldiers in American wars (Anderegg, 1991; Doherty, 1993; Suid, 2002). Charles Moskos (1970) began his book about soldiers in Vietnam—The American Enlisted Man—with a chapter on films that fictionalize service members and their experiences. More recently, Bård Mæland and Paul Brunstad (2009) used the 2005 film about the first Gulf War—Jarhead (Fisher, Wick, & Mendes, 2005)—to highlight the force of boredom in the military. Indeed, visual representations help define, describe, and now represent the mission of soldiers in past wars—particularly World War II and Vietnam (Malo & Williams, 1994; Shull & Wilt, 1996). In a less explicit way, this chapter implicitly uses Groundhog Day as one analogy for why and how we “fight” in Iraq.
I visited Iraq in the summer of 2004 with a small group of military officers. In addition to consulting with Iraqi researchers to establish social and behavioral science research centers and conduct research on the Iraqi population (Carlton-Ford, Ender, & Tabatabai, 2008), I carried out a separate study of the American soldiers in Iraq (Ender, 2009). I conducted survey research and observed the day-to-day lives of soldiers in Iraq from their vantage point, including going on patrols in and around Baghdad, called “deep hanging out” (Madison, 2005). One uses insider knowledge, intuition, and one’s skills as a sociologist to interpret the context and culture of a particular subculture. Insider knowledge is used appropriately to ground findings in the previous work of scholars. There is a long history of sociologists and social psychologists conducting qualitative research in forward-deployed military contexts dating back to World War II (see Ender, 2009, for a review).
This chapter channels the spirit of film. In this spirit, it implies that we often use the drama of film in conversation to describe, represent, and compare social realities. People bring film into play as a metaphor for their experiences, especially extreme events, with comments such as, “I felt like I was in a movie.” Thus, we share films because they are collectivist, common, and dramatic. Social experiences become analogous to film. In The Cinematic Society, sociologist Norman Denzin (1995) argues even more persuasively that cinema plays a profound role in our lives, and film images essentially have an impact on the reality of the self, others, and society. We have a cinematic self defined as “… that larger-than-life self that gazed back from the theatre’s screen” (p. 28). The everyday self interplays with the cinematic self in gendered representations and shapes, produces, and reinforces our perceptions of self. Viewing film is not a solitary experience. It is an event as well, wherein we have a common, collective, and popular cultural product that is socially experienced—many times by an entire generation (Bulman, 2005). This hyper-reality is transferable to the military. Herr (1977) observed that American soldiers in Vietnam were raised on a steady diet of post–World War II war films featuring the likes of John Wayne and Audie Murphy and carried those screen images in their social consciousness into combat.
This chapter is not about a literal connection between the war in Iraq and the film Groundhog Day. However, the qualitative significance and the ongoing connection between them can be instructive—especially for understanding the film’s leitmotif of boredom. The chapter begins with a social-psychological discussion of boredom more generally. Next, elements of Groundhog Day are examined in some detail, including a synopsis of the film (Albert & Ramis, 1993), a review of the day itself, perspectives on the film, a discussion of Bill Murray as a transformative character actor, the broader significance of the film, and finally, a metaphorical connection between the film and soldiers in Iraq. The conclusion features some future directions of research for social psychologists interested in boredom more generally, and at the intersection of soldiering and film.
In his reflections on boredom from a sociological perspective, Conrad (1997) links the social history of the Western self with increased leisure and (p. 313) boredom. Today, boredom is both social and psychological and involves an absence of flow of human experience, no future, and unmet social expectations. Boredom is a social construction. It is clearly a negative social milieu and a negative psychological condition. Furthermore, dimensions of boredom include repetition, lack of interaction, and minimal variation. Boredom is also constructed in time and space. Most significantly, Conrad concludes that a feeling of entrapment may intensify the feelings and context of the boredom experience. Undergraduates identify under-stimulation and disconnection as the dominant forms of boredom they experience (Conrad, 1997).
In his extensive analysis of boredom and “overload,” Klapp (1986) locates boredom and overload on a continuum between two extremes—redundancy and noise. Even an advanced society can become, despite the extensive and detailed forms of information and entertainment available, bored. Boredom is simply defined by Klapp as “a deficit in the quality of life” (p. 127). Klapp further holds that an information-oriented society degrades the sense of meaning. “Noise” is defined as “any signal or stimulus that increases the receiver’s uncertainty about a state of affairs because it interferes with (competes with, distracts from, blurs, or confuses)—hence precludes—better information that receiver wants; that is, information in one context is perfectly capable of acting as noise in another” (p. 127). Redundancy comes, according to Klapp, in two relative forms—good and bad. Good redundancy (GR) is “warm and meaningful, and absolutely essential for personal identity and social life” (p. 71). GR includes the past, enthusiasm for souvenirs, heirlooms, antiques, and genealogical roots. GR is functional, provides continuity, aids in communication, provides identity, and has social resonance. Ritual forms and language serve to preserve social continuity. GR aids in communication, and the resonance creates warm human relations.
Bad redundancy (BR) weakens and disrupts social and personal continuity. BR hinders communication, weakens identity, and dampens resonance. BR makes “experience insipid and the environment an emotional flatland” (p. 71). Boredom is akin to satiation, habituation, and desensitization. Essentially, information overload and boredom are linked. Boredom has both a psychological and a sociological dimension—something inherent in individuals and in social structures. Boredom is mostly characterized as stemming from a kind of “underload”—monotony, restriction, sensory deprivation, isolation, repression, insufficient complexity, disappointment in expectations, or a lack of meaning. As societies become more complex, they move from underload to overload. There is a shift in information from scarcity to overload as modern media systems generate more information than people can assign meaning to. Examples are underload, overload of redundancy, and overload of variety—taciturnity, repeating a few cliché views, and rambling trivia. Klapp asserts that the “media system has helped bring about this imbalance in which people listen more than they talk or sing; the load from the media is so heavy that it is stifling human expression while overwhelming our ears; it denies us a voice. Boredom is a symptom of such a condition, and also a tactic—one of the means by which we fend off excessive information” (1986, pp. 50–51).
Thus, the twenty-first-century world thus far, according to Friedman (2005), is flat. Media overload creates a sense of sameness that is overcoming the world. The speed of information transmission around the world is creating a “creeping banality” where cultural banality is the norm rather than the exception. This creates cultural homogenization and ultimately, cultural ethnocide. People need “flow”—the opposite of mass media that make people passive, where everything is taken in and nothing is put out. Where is significance in the world of creeping sameness? Bad rather than good redundancy creates monotonous repetition, a banality. The variety of good redundancy becomes the noise of bad redundancy. Loss of communication (no news) on both ends produces boredom. According to Klapp, “the average person may feel well informed, with news media keeping him posted hourly about world events, advertisers pumping sales pitches at him, junk mail piling at the door, and magazines and books in drugstores and supermarkets as well as libraries and schools. But the feeling may be an illusion if most of the information is so poor in quality and so random as to be noiselike and very little is an answer to any question asked” (p. 84). Pseudo-information is the result. It “purports to tell something but in fact tells nothing” (p. 95). Meaning arrives late. It takes time. Klapp (1986) defines a “meaning gap” as “an inability of people in the same society to agree on larger patterns, purposes, and values, even when they share the same factual information, which is piling up at a rate faster than they can agree on purposes and values, and may lead to a sense of absurdity (p. 110). Meaning comes from thinking, pondering, (p. 314) wondering, dreaming, discussion, talk, rumor, brainstorming, counseling, chat, ritual, ceremony, and vicarious experience—what we might call emotional hitchhiking on the experiences of others.
According to Klapp, there are two motivating forces working in boredom: (1) people are searching for meaning (where boredom creates an existential vacuum); and (2) entropy works constantly toward disorder and meaninglessness—boredom occurs when we go too far in either direction (Klapp, 1986, pp. 119–121). Groundhog Day depicts this boredom, or at least the perception of boredom, when the actor Bill Murray perceives sameness through noise in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.
Bård Mæland and Paul Brunstad (2009) provide the most comprehensive study to date on military boredom. In their book Enduring Military Boredom: From 1750 to Present, the authors first mine references to military boredom by walking through the history of wars via memoirs, biographies, and accounts of soldiers’ and sailors’ boredom—what they call a fragmented review of boredom in military history. Most notably they utilize the more general theoretical work of boredom by sociologists Orrin Klapp (1986) and Martin Doehlemann (1992)1 as the framework for explaining boredom in a military context. Furthermore, they provide three separate full descriptions of boredom among Norwegian soldiers in Afghanistan, Norwegian naval academy cadets at sea, and Norwegian submarine commanders, via triangulating qualitative methods such as interviews, participant observation, and diaries. Finally, Mæland and Brunstad offer social strategies such as familiar and popular entertainment and psychological strategies such as resiliency and hardiness for coping with boredom.
Mæland and Brunstad define military boredom as “the enduring inner enemy of soldiers at all times” (2009, p. 1)—a form of “barracks sickness” (p. 2). Boredom has, they argue, both social and psychological dimensions that can reduce, distort, and pervert both situational and ego awareness for soldiers. Potential links with boredom and military training include mission success, morale, cohesion, loneliness, deprivation, discipline, and operational tempos. Taking a lead from Klapp, Doehlemann, and others, they highlight many forms of boredom in a military context including “simple boredom,” “hyperboredom,” “superficial boredom,” “situational boredom,” “existential boredom,” “creative boredom,” “intolerable boredom,” and “public boredom.”
More recently, I identified five forms of relative boredom in Iraq (Ender, 2009). Building on the boredom factor of previous research from peacekeeping missions and the first Gulf War (see Segal & Harris, 1985), the elements include lack of privacy, underutilization, cultural deprivation, isolation, and loss of spatio-temporal reality. Boredom in the military has popularly been conceived as “la cafard”2 in Vietnam as discussed by Mæland and Brunstad (2009) and labeled “Creeping Bedouin Syndrome” during peacekeeping missions in the 1980s. Soldiers and others in Iraq have come to characterize boredom there through the popular film Groundhog Day.
The film Groundhog Day (Albert & Ramis, 1993) is a romantic comedy—at least on the surface—that takes place in real time, across three days— February 1 through 3. Film historian Kristin Thompson (1999) offers the perfect 25-word description of the Groundhog Day film: “An obnoxious weatherman finds himself living the same unpleasant Groundhog Day repeatedly until he improves enough to be worthy of the sexy woman he idolizes” (p. 154). The film stars actor Bill Murray as Phil Connors. He plays a weatherman for a local Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, television station, and has become bored, cynical, and frustrated over the years with having to report on mundane events such as Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on February 2.3 After covering the story with his producer, Rita Hanson (played by Andie MacDowell) and his cameraman Larry (played by Chris Elliott), they drive toward Pittsburgh in the media van but are turned back to Punxsutawney at the edge of town by a police officer. They are stuck in Punxsutawney for at least the evening because of a snowstorm that Phil, coincidently and ironically, failed to predict. Phil returns to his bed and breakfast inn and is awakened the next day at 6:00 a.m. by the radio deejay and the opening lyrics from a popular Sonny and Cher song from the 1960s. This is the beginning of a replaying of the previous Groundhog Day. He will relive this day over and over throughout the film, and only he realizes it. By the film’s end, he has become selfless through the performance of good deeds, wins the woman’s heart, and only then does time progress forward to the next day.4 Repetition is the main subject matter of Groundhog Day: Klapp (1986) would call it extreme redundancy. Descriptors of the Groundhog Day film by many reviews include “brilliant,” “moral fable of love,” and “living in the (p. 315) moment.” It clearly reflects destiny, identity, and moral seriousness.
Groundhog Day: The Day
“Punxsutawney Phil” is the name of the groundhog in Pennsylvania’s official celebration of Groundhog Day, which first began on February 2, 1886, with a proclamation in the local newspaper The Punxsutawney Spirit—the hometown of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, considered the “Weather Capital of the World” (Stormfax, 2006). Groundhog Day is February 2 and is not a U.S. federal holiday. German immigrants known as the Pennsylvania Dutch brought the tradition to America in the eighteenth century. They imported the Candlemas traditions to the United States, commemorating the ritual purification of Mary 40 days after the birth of Jesus. Candlemas is one of the four “cross-quarters” of the year, occurring halfway between the first day of winter and the first day of spring. In this sense, Groundhog Day has spiritual roots. The four quarters of Candlemas morphed into one period with a badger as the sign of the change from winter to spring, and eventually became a groundhog. Indeed, some reviewers have argued that the groundhog in the Groundhog Day film represents Jesus (see Bronski; cited in Goldberg, 2005, p. 35).
Groundhog Day: The Film
The original screenplay for Groundhog Day (Albert & Ramis, 1993) had prepared for Phil’s redemption through undergoing Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of death and dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (Gilbey, 2004). Others continue to refer to Phil’s transformation by conjuring Kübler-Ross’s conceptualizations (Daughton, 1996). This would be consistent with Kristin Thompson’s analysis of the film that there are four sections to the film—The set-up, the complicating action, the development, and finally the climax and epilogue (Thompson, 1999, p. 154). The set-up more or less corresponds to the five stages of dying, but it is somewhat connected with the four seasons of the environment as well.5 In essence, Groundhog Day is a time and space dilemma (Howe, 1993).6 In terms of time, Thompson (1999, p. 154) argues that the film covers 42 days—filling out the six weeks of remaining winter.7
Groundhog Day Transformative Character: Bill Murray
In the 1980’s popular film Stripes (Goldberg & Reitman, 1981), Bill Murray plays an earlier incarnation of the transformation role that he later brings to Phil Connors in Groundhog Day.8 Phil in Groundhog Day is called a “rat” early in the film, linking him to rodents. Phil Connors, the character, shares his name with Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog. Furthermore, his initials are P.C., short for “political correctness,” a popular and self-mockery term coined by progressives in the 1980s promoting a socially enforced alteration of language and behavior in response to past injustices and discrimination of traditionally marginalized groups in society. In this sense, Phil represents and exposes the white male’s masculine identity decline so prevalent in the 1990s (Davies, 1995). In the film, Phil Connors is non-P.C., and the film is about his conversion to the P.C. ideal envisioned by many during the period but more importantly by Rita—the female lead. Phil’s language and behavior insults and excludes groups and individuals such as women, rural Americans, the aged and the young, the poor, and people with questionable ability. His change is a transformation to a throwback form of masculinity, out of touch with modernity—to a sensitive, considerate, and somewhat de-masculinized male who now appreciates, validates, and legitimizes others.
The Significance of Groundhog Day
Groundhog Day continues to be examined, referenced, and analyzed years after being released (Bacha, 1998). Professor Stanley Fish (2009) lists Groundhog Day among the top 10 best American films ever made. The film has had pedagogical utility in a number of academic disciplines around the country, from philosophy (Voeltz, 1998), to film studies (Thompson, 1999), to theology (Kuczynski, 2003). A 2008 Google search combining the terms “syllabus” and “Groundhog Day” yielded 3,940 hits. Examples of course titles adopting the Groundhog Day film include “Agony and Ecstasy: Spirituality through Film and Literature” (Duke University); “Language and Culture” (Florida International University); “Ancient Cultures of Middle America” (University of Minnesota); “Romanticism and Buddhism” (University of Michigan); “Introduction to Ethics” (Tufts University); “Time, Space, and Society” (University of Wyoming); and “Introduction to Psychology” (Rockhurst University). The Museum of Modern Art in New York City had a special exhibit on film and faith and featured Groundhog Day as the headliner film (Kuczynski, 2003).9 Virtually all of the approximately 95 online reviews of Groundhog (p. 316) Day consolidated on the Rotten Tomatoes website are positive (http://www.rottentomatoes.com/). Goldberg (2005) says Groundhog Day is the best “cinematic moral allegory popular culture has produced in decades—perhaps ever” (p. 36). In his Washington Post online review, Hinson (1993) refers to Groundhog Day as a film in “the great tradition of American trash surrealism.” Gilbey (2004, p. 84) considers it “a commercial hit, but it has also quickly emerged as one of the most broadly influential films in modern cinema.” Finally, the popular online website Wikipedia (2010) links Groundhog Day to the military. Using references in descriptions of the film, it notes, “In the military, referring to unpleasant, unchanging, repetitive situations as ‘Groundhog Day’ was widespread very soon after the movie’s release in February 1993.” Used by soldiers, sailors, and even former U.S. president Bill Clinton, the film is traceable back to American involvement in Somalia, Bosnia, and Iraq.
Groundhog Day and Soldiers
Content analysis is a methodology used by social scientists and humanities scholars to analyze the content of communication. “Googling” is a recent and popular term for using the Google search engine (or others) on the Internet to locate specific information. Googling provides a crude first-step technique for summarizing information content. In the present case, I used the “exact phrase” option in the advanced search feature of Google. In September 2006, I linked two key and disparate statements— “Groundhog Day” and “soldiers in Iraq” yielding over 13,000 hits. The hits included news articles, blogs, letters home from soldiers, and the like.
Below is a sampling of some select web text equating the day-to-day life of American soldiers in Iraq with the film. One article about soldier experiences in Baghdad includes the film among a list of terms representing the language used by Americans in Iraq to describe their existence (KFI, no date): “Groundhog Day—A term referring to the repetitive and often frustrating nature of daily operations in Iraq. Refers to the movie where a TV weatherman character played by Bill Murray lives one day over and over.”
In a National Review re-review of the film, the critic notes that soldiers in Iraq use “Groundhog Day” as shorthand for and translated fittingly to “same stuff, different day” (Goldberg, 2005). “Troops in Iraq regularly use it as a rough synonym for ‘SNAFU,’ which also translated fittingly to ‘situation normal: all fouled-up.’”
Soldiers interviewed for articles and writing their own on-line diaries liken their experience to Groundhog Day. An American soldier in Iraq from Nakoosa, Wisconsin, writing for the Wisconsin Rapid Daily Tribune (Moody, 2005) newspaper penned: “As for my daily routine, it’s like the movie ‘Groundhog Day.’ It’s the same routine day-in and day-out. Before you know it, another week has gone by! At this pace, I’ll be home soon, at least in my mind.” Another soldier quoted in a San Antonio Express-News newspaper article captures the time-space dilemma, observing (Christianson, 2004): “‘The world keeps turning back home in the States, but here we’re stuck in Groundhog Day,’ referring to a film in which actor Bill Murray’s character keeps reliving the same day.” A soldier quoted in The Stars and Stripes newspaper shares (Jontz, 2003): “More importantly, tankers try to stay sharp even when the doldrums of repetition could dull them. ‘When it’s not Groundhog Day, it’s wonderful,’ joked tank commander Staff Sgt. Phillip Johnson, 31, referring to a movie in which the lead character relives the same day over and over.” An Army nurse interviewed on the CBS television newsmagazine 60 Minutes related her experience in Iraq, commingling two films to describe her experience (CBS News, 2005): “‘I felt like I was in a ‘M*A*S*H’ movie with Groundhog Day over and over again since February,’ says Raymond. ‘I mean, I still can’t believe that this volume of patients is still here and it’s gone on as long as it has.’”
In their writings, reporters refer to Iraq as a Groundhog Day experience. Thomas Friedman (2004) titled an editorial piece in the New York Times “Groundhog Day in Iraq.” In the article he compares a battle and a war—the 2004 liberation of Fallujah in Iraq by U.S. Marines and the “liberation” of all of Iraq in 2003, noting, “But the ‘déjà vu all over again’ battle for Fallujah only reminds me that I still have the same questions I had before the Iraq war started.”
Most writings on Groundhog Day appear to be apolitical. Other writings on the web use the film Groundhog Day in a political context as Friedman had, and range from both the right and left political wings. For example, Buzz Patterson (2005) declares: “The same plight has befallen the Democratic Party. Every day, instead of Groundhog Day, is Tuesday, April 22, 1971. For liberals, Murray’s Groundhog Day is the day John Kerry delivered his infamous testimony to the overtly dovish Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.” A counter to the right-wing rhetoric above is a more left-wing use of Groundhog (p. 317) Day, stating (Levinson, 2004): “It feels a bit more like Groundhog’s Day than Hanukkah. Last Wednesday, the Bush Administration peered it’s [sic] head out of it’s [sic] hole, saw that it had a shadow, and went back in, only to return next election cycle, probably. Perhaps you know what I mean.”
Reporters reflecting on their own experiences coupled with soldier comments confirmed references to experiences in Iraq and Kuwait as like Groundhog Day. In his Christian Science Monitor dispatches from Iraq, Ben Arnoldy (2003) communicates: “In the desert, the landscape was simple, repetitive, and boundless. And so was time. I frequently lost track of the day of the week. ‘Every day is Groundhog Day here,’ I heard several soldiers say. Over in Kuwait and Iraq, there were no scheduling conflicts, just the conflict.”
Even the military leadership recognizes the analogy, and uses Groundhog Day as a metaphor for the day-to-day events. A U.S. Army chaplain writing a blog from Iraq with an American audience in mind states (Lewis, 2005):
It could be called several very appropriate names. The most popular of which is unquestionably, “The Global War on Terrorism” or GWOT. It’s a good name. After all, we are here to fight terror. Peace loving people from many nations are dead because of terror. And the goal is to defeat the scourge of terror around the world. It’s a good name and a good goal. It could also be called “Groundhog Day.” Each day is a near carbon copy of the day before. In fact, it can be outright boring. Sure there are the occasional heart-stopping experiences that seem to come out of nowhere, but the mundane, everyday stuff is nothing to write home about.
Finally, in an open letter to military families of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Major General David Patraeus (no date) stated: “But we’re all working to make life as livable as possible for our Soldiers, to provide them an occasional break from what inevitably is a ‘groundhog day’ existence, and to ensure that there are opportunities to relax in reasonable surroundings during downtime.”
Groundhog Day in Iraq
The above section provides a content analysis of select websites that link the Groundhog Day film and American soldiers in Iraq. It highlights some direct connections via writers experienced in Iraq and their view of the film in relation to Iraq. The next section offers an interpretative analysis and presents some playful metaphoric links between the content of Groundhog Day and American soldier experiences in Iraq. It peels back layers of the 101 minute movie to expose why soldiers might find utility in having it represent their experience in Iraq. Reviews of the military film literature are abundant and available elsewhere (see Anderegg, 1991; Doherty, 1993; Ender, 2005; Malo & Williams, 1994; Shull & Wilt, 1996; Suid, 1996; 2002).
First, there are indirect connections to the military and Groundhog Day. Frank Capra directed the black and white holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946), which is often compared to Groundhog Day (Albert & Ramis, 1993). In that film, James Stewart plays George Bailey—the main character, who sacrificed larger dreams in faraway places and worked his whole life to make good in a small town, only at midlife to feel he has failed. He considers taking his own life but is distracted from his own suicide by Clarence, the angel, jumping into the river. Roles reverse and he saves his guardian angel from drowning. The angel then flashes him back across his life to show how his family and community would have been without him. Resembling It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946), Groundhog Day is a fantasy displacement film (Thompson, 1999), involving the transformation of a male lead character. Similarly, the film A Christmas Carol (Hurst, 1951) depicts a male character—Scrooge—transformed through his displacement experiences facilitated by a collection of spirits.10
Frank Capra was also the director of the seven-part Why We Fight (Capra, 1943–1945) film series of World War II. Using archival footage and a host of other sources, Capra weaves a seven-part film series designed to shift attitudes and motivate—to win the hearts and minds of Americans—both service members and the American public—to rally behind the war efforts. It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946) was his first film on the heels of the Why We Fight series.
In Stripes (Goldberg & Reitman, 1981), both Bill Murray and Harold Ramis star as wayward men lacking job opportunities or rent, and are physically unfit. They enlist in the U.S. Army for selfish reasons but transform throughout the film to become selfless heroes, having saved their comrades. Ramis also has writing credits on Stripes.
Another military connection in Groundhog Day involves Phil Connor’s love interest, Rita (actress Andie MacDowell), who quotes a poem by Sir Walter Scott. It is notable that Scott’s work deals with culture wars and military wars. His most famous works include Rob Roy (Scott, 1817), (p. 318) Ivanhoe (Scott, 1819), and The Talisman (Scott, 1825) which are about conflict between Christians and Muslims.11
Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, could represent Baghdad, Iraq, in Groundhog Day. First, the weather plays a significant role in terms of its extremity—while unlike the very dry heat of Southwest Asia, Punxsutawney is cold. The heat of hell in Iraq has essentially frozen over. The connection to heat comes with a comment by Phil the weatherman during his report in the first scene of the film. He says the nation’s hotspot is where he would like to be—Elko, Nevada—a place where the terrain and weather are fairly similar to Iraq’s. Extreme weather immobilizes the social situation. Iraq represents hell and purgatory for many soldiers and many Americans, similar to small rural towns, where people want to escape the doldrums of winter in their small towns filled with simplicity, dullness, boredom, and repetition. Furthermore, since Phil does see his shadow, the cold will continue for six weeks. This is not dissimilar to soldiers and families receiving news that the redeployment home date has been extended and they will need to remain in Iraq another six to twelve weeks (Burns, 2006).12
Missions were not accomplished both in Iraq and Punxsutawney. Phil and his weather crew of producer Rita and cameraman and driver Larry head out of Punxsutawney after the Groundhog Day festivities. They believe they have essentially completed their mission. The mission is however only almost over, as they encounter some snowfall and a police blockade. In the scene, a large tractor-trailer has jackknifed and blocked the traffic. The trailer has “American” written on the side of it in large, bold letters. Phil exits the van with no jacket, shivering, and walks up to the officer and blocking vehicle. He asks the police officer, with teeth chattering from the cold, “Hey commander, what’s going on?” The officer says the highways are closed and Phil will need to go “back to Punxsutawney or freeze to death. It’s your choice. What’s it gonna be?” The impending blizzard that Phil failed to predict is moving across Pennsylvania. Phil responds, “I’m thinkin’,” but does return to the van and Punxsutawney. They must remain in Punxsutawney for at least one night.
The blizzard in Groundhog Day signifies the coming insurgency in Iraq after the end of major hostilities in May 2003. On May 1, 2003, from aboard the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, President Bush declared that the major combat operations in Iraq were over. The police officer in the movie represents the senior leadership—Commander-in-Chief George W. Bush. Phil uncharacteristically calls the police officer “commander” as he stands on the roadside without the proper cover. Phil is exposed to the insurgency blizzard without a jacket (Kevlar or armor) and is presented with a life-or-death situation by the commander. Ironically, by the end of the film, Phil, who despises the cold weather and wanted to leave Punxsutawney—indeed, was even considering risking death rather than going back, had aspirations to leave Pittsburgh and “make it” in an even larger city, with a bigger network—decides to remain in Punxsutawney, a place he initially despised. Similarly, success in Iraq—from the perspective of Americans—will exist when soldiers desire a tour there similar to the popularity of being stationed in Korea, England, Germany, and Italy during the Cold War. Notably, while recruitment was a problem in the mid-2000s, thousands of soldiers have reenlisted in Iraq. They appear to be keen on the mission.
Bill Murray thus represents the American soldier. In the opening scene of Groundhog Day (Albert & Ramis, 1993), weatherman Phil Connors is prognosticating the weather on the evening local Pittsburgh news station using typical Doppler weather tracking imagery from television news programs. He painfully fails at predicting the impact of a huge storm that is clearly approaching Pennsylvania from the Midwest. Again, the storm can be a metaphor for the Iraqi insurgency, and the civilian leadership on behalf of soldiers grossly underestimated its potential. Similarly, when Phil walks over to the female news-anchor at the anchor desk to conclude the weather with some transitional chat, she underestimates the number of times he has covered Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney—thinking it was three when it was actually four. This exchange signifies the coming crisis of multiple deployments and repeated tours to come for American troops returning to Iraq. Furthermore, much of the film is about poor prognosticating and not quite understanding the future—often resting our hopes on unscientific resources, inexperience, and ideology. However, later in the film, neither a medical doctor nor a psychiatrist can ultimately help Phil with his time-displacement experience—so even science cannot account for the future. At this writing, the future of Iraq is unclear.
So what of the infamous improvised explosive devices (IEDs)?13 On his first day in Punxsutawney, Phil walks to the town square to report on the day’s activities. He walks with conceit and carries (p. 319) nothing—no accoutrements from his profession. On the first occasion of his walking across a street, Phil steps into an above-the-knee, deep puddle of slushwater and muck, just off the curb. A weatherman who can’t see water! Ned Ryerson (played brilliantly by Stephen Tobolowsky), the insurance salesman Phil consistently and rudely cuts-off from speaking, tells him, laughing, “Watch out for that first step, it’s a doozy!” The puddle might correspond to the roadside bombs encountered by coalition forces in Iraq.
Phil Connors, whose initials are P.C., for “politically correct,” is hopelessly not. Again, his character is selfish, self-centered, hedonistic, egotistical, and dismissive of others. He calls his co-anchor “Hairdo.” She tells him to “have fun in Punxsutawney, Phil” equating him with a groundhog—a rodent. Larry, his cameraman, twice refers to P.C. as a prima donna. On the ride to Punxsutawney, Phil states: “Someday, somebody is going to see me interview a groundhog and think I don’t have a future.” He belittles and dehumanizes the locals in Punxsutawney, calling them “hicks” and “morons.” He refuses to stay in the same hotel with his team—requiring the more sophisticated quarters of a local bed-and-breakfast for the evening. He later dismisses an elderly beggar, a fellow guest at the hotel, the bed-and-breakfast matron, and a high school chum turned life insurance salesman, referring to him as “a giant leech.” Phil believes he actually “makes the weather”—a blasphemous statement suggesting he is God. He calls his office in Pittsburgh thinking he should have freedom to pass other cars on the snowed-in highways because he’s a “celebrity.” He refers to the groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, which he shares a name with, as a “rat”—again, the rodent connection.
On his third Groundhog Day, Phil begins to embrace the time displacement and manipulates it for selfish reasons. He drives recklessly, shows no respect for police officers, goes to jail, eats, drinks alcohol, and smokes indiscriminately, robs an armored car, seduces a woman using information from the previous day, engages in conspicuous consumption, and commits statutory rape. He even refers to himself as “Godlike.”
Phil develops an interest in Rita and begins a campaign of seduction using previous Groundhog Day knowledge to win her heart. But she claims, “Phil Connors only loves himself,” and he responds, “That’s not true, I don’t even like myself.” She continually rejects him because by the end of each day she sees through his campaign to seduce her. Frustrated, Phil becomes completely self-absorbed and kidnaps Phil—the groundhog. In the chase scene, both the Phils plummet over a cliff, with the human Phil trying to kill himself and perceiving Phil—the groundhog—as Jesus. If he can sacrifice “Jesus” he might save himself. However, he only wakes up again at 6:00 a.m. on Groundhog Day. This begins a series of scenes of suicide attempts, including electrocution, jumping in front of a truck, and throwing himself off a building, among many other ways—only to continually awaken the next day.
Again, P.C. comes to believe he’s godlike and develops a born-again perspective as he realizes he does love Rita. Note that in ancient Hinduism, Rita is the name for the proper order of a sacrifice, cosmic law, moral order, and truth. Sacrifices performed for the gods or devas are crucial in order for humans to obtain material benefits from the gods. Sacrifices must be performed in the proper order to have efficacy or power (brahman). Rita is a key concept in the Indian worldview.
Phil comes to realize death is not an option for him, and his future is eternity. He gives up on his destiny. He says to Rita, “I’ve killed myself so many times I don’t even exist anymore.” He makes the first attempt to reconnect with someone—to allow someone onto his island, and it is Rita. She agrees to spend the day and the night with him to see how he turns out. He shares his love with her while she sleeps—indicating to the viewer that he is true, honest, and sincere. It is the first sacrifice. He makes amends. Because he has spoken to someone who cannot reply (she’s asleep)—the feelings are portrayed as authentic.
The next day is Groundhog Day (again) but Phil is “a new man, he’s got a whole new plan” (according to the commentary voiceover provided by director Harold Ramis on the DVD). Phil begins to read more. He has a new lot in life. He learns to play piano and sculpt ice, touches people with an emotionally stirring report of Groundhog Day, catches a young boy falling from a tree, changes a tire for an elderly couple, saves a choker with the Heimlich maneuver, lights a woman’s cigarette, plays piano at a party, helps a couple marry and gives them prized Wrestlemania tickets, tries to save an old man from dying, fixes a guy’s back, buys all of Ned’s life-insurance policies, allows himself to be sold at auction, and finally, carves an ice-sculpture of an angelic replica of Rita. Ultimately he gets the girl, all the while being humble about his accomplishments. He becomes P.C.—he has lived up to his (p. 320) name—he is transformed and saved from living the Groundhog Day existence.
Akin to Phil, American soldiers in Iraq moved from being insufferable warriors and preoccupied invaders to the politically corrected and occupying foreign guests in a relatively sovereign nation. American soldiers became peacekeepers and conducted missions where the rules of engagement require politically correct reactions rather than a guns-blazing mentality. Phil Connors is only successful when he accepts the P.C. nature of his existence—he is no longer stuck in the past as a relic of a bygone era. Similarly, American soldiers in Iraq adapted to a postmodern era that required sensibilities that are positive and respectful of the people of Iraq. In this sense, the mission and the attitudes of soldiers have been transformative. They have gone from relatively xenophobic to culturally relative. For example, the young boy falling from the tree in Groundhog Day represents Iraqi children. The homeless man Phil tries to save represents the elder Iraqis. Initially, during the invasion, America was perceived as the aggressor. With time, Americans on the ground came to realize success for them involved good deeds in their everyday experiences. While the larger war and its purpose seemed vague, soldiers found meaning and significance in their daily tasks. So they built soccer fields, mosques, homes, and developed numerous civic projects not regularly lauded in the press.14
Very early in the film, Phil refers to the local people as hicks and morons. Similarly, American soldiers have historically demeaned local peoples. Germans were “Krauts” and the Japanese “Japs” during World War II. During Vietnam, the locals were “Gooks.” In the first Gulf War, Muslims were called “towelheads.” While few, if any, negative terms were used in Iraq, with the exception of the affectionately labeled “Hajji”—in reference to people who have completed the once-in-a lifetime Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia—there are few negative names or labels that are used (Moskos, 2006). By the end of the film, Phil begins to show some general sensitivity towards the local inhabitants of Punxsutawney. Phil gets to know them on a personal level and understands, appreciates, and even comes to value them. When all American soldiers (and American citizens) acclimatize to a cultural relativist position, they too will begin to make significant inroads into the character of Iraqis. We will befriend them and then win their hearts and minds. Such a position is not unlike Americans’ experiences in other places such as Germany, Italy, Japan, and Korea—nations that have embraced and adored American soldiers (and American ideals) for decades.
Time-displacement is a major theme in the film Groundhog Day. Indeed, it is the theme of the film. Similarly, soldiers in Iraq quickly experience a displacement of time and space after a few days on the ground in Iraq. This time and space sensory deprivation is known as “Creeping Bedouin Syndrome” in previous U.S. deployments in deserts (Ender, 2009). It involves feelings of dislocation and disorientation. The open spaces, sometimes even a feeling of lost-in-a-desert orientation, and lack of weekly rhythms in Iraq, remind soldiers of the film Groundhog Day. Examples of repetition in the film include the movie Heidi II on the city movie marquee (referring to remakes of films—of course, Heidi II has not been made). Also, in the opening sequence of the film, clouds move very quickly, the Sonny and Cher song repeats ad nauseam, the character Ned Ryerson says “right” over and over again, and the Bill Murray character lives the same day over and over again. Soldiers in Iraq awoke every day to the sameness—the terrain, weather, colleagues, tan vehicles, and food—in essence, the extreme lack of variety and diversity many soldiers are accustomed to back home in the United States was missing.
The multiple suicides in the film Groundhog Day (Albert & Ramis, 1993) are evident in Iraq. American suicides were higher than normal early in the war.15 Many suicides are unique because they are committed in the workplace rather than at home—peers and leaders discover the victims. As one former company commander told me—”I held her while she died just after she shot herself.” By committing suicide, soldiers lose their resolve. It is the ultimate selfless act. We have asked too much of them. Some have rejected themselves and their heroic status—they go too far. Indeed, Iraqis initially viewed the Americans in their up-armored vehicles and full-battle rattle with Kevlar vests, Wiley-X sunglasses, and night vision goggles mounts on their helmets—as immortal. Indeed, as one commander told me, “they [the Iraqis] thought we were cyborgs like Schwarzenegger in Terminator.” Of course, soldiers do not view themselves in this way. Soldiers, in the vein of Phil, are not God, but see themselves ultimately doing God’s work. Ironically, insurgents perhaps view them as infidels—anti-Godlike.
The Gettysburg National Military Park opens its website about living in camps during the American (p. 321) Civil War with a quote: “‘Soldiering is 99 percent boredom and one percent sheer terror,’ a soldier wrote his wife” (National Park Service, 2010). Most studies of soldiers and war focus on the one percent. This chapter examines boredom and links the 1993 film Groundhog Day with the lived experiences of American soldiers and others in Iraq. Many soldiers and a host of others who deployed to Iraq referred to their daily existence as Groundhog Day-like. The reference to the film includes not only boredom but the accomplishments of soldiers from day to day. I have taken the metaphor of the film Groundhog Day (Albert & Ramis, 1993) at face value and legitimated it by probing deeper to develop an appreciation for what soldiers and others in Iraq meant by referencing this one specific film as the best representation of their social situation. Again, this is not a literal connection between Iraq and the film. It is however instructive to peel away elements of the film relative to boredom to understand better how soldiers experienced Iraq.
The boredom factor remains a prevalent feature of military forward deployments and should continue to be studied by psychologists and sociologists. Boredom appears especially prevalent in nontraditional military contexts such as peacekeeping and enforcement, humanitarian and disaster relief, nation-building, and even fighting counterinsurgencies. Boredom is linkable to a whole range of elements essential for how military commanders define success. In the extreme, boredom could lead to atrocity (e.g., Abu Ghraib). Service members and their leaders need to find balance between boredom and overload—between redundancy and noise. Redundancy is vital in military training. Dramaturgist Erving Goffman argues that we use “aways”—games to occupy ourselves—to move away from idleness and overcome boredom. Certainly, video games, films, television, and the abundance of communication technology on the forward operating bases provided a variety of aways (Ender, 2009; Wong & Gerras, 2006). However, removing oneself too far from boredom can create overload, and it, too, can undermine meaning. In their review of the history of military boredom, Mæland and Brunstad (2009) offer resiliency and personality hardiness as psychological antidotes to boredom. On a social level, military field manuals have come to address boredom—especially in more recent U.S. military missions involving peacekeeping and counterinsurgency. After the war was won in Iraq, Americans sought to win the peace, and boredom crept into the mix. Studying and applying new lessons by jiving training and expectations with lived experience will better prepare soldiers to cope with boredom. Soldiers can be socialized to anticipate the reality of the social situations they encounter in wars.
How soldiers collectively experience and perceive their deployment is real for them. The Groundhog Day film can be an instructive education and training tool for those who have not experienced Iraq or Afghanistan. Groundhog Day is a multi-layered film. Humor on the surface makes the many-layered themes beneath somewhat invisible on initial viewing. Inspiration and promise lie beneath the surface (under the flesh) of the humor in the film (Jewett, 1997). Brussat and Brussat (2005) in their review of Groundhog Day noted that “the questions posed by Phil’s predicament are deeply spiritual.” A collective screening of the film can influence the viewer(s) to do the right thing, try to achieve success, and persevere for positive meaning, not social or psychological destruction. Meaning for living within the happiness of those around us can be gleaned from the film—a cultural universal of all religions.
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(2) La cafard is a French term that literally means “cockroach” or “beetle.” Mæland and Brunstad refer to it in the metaphysical sense as “it designates a combination of monotony, misery, hardship, and fatigue—a deep form of boredom” (2009, p. 35).
(3) Indeed, Thompson (1999) makes the point that the ability to describe Groundhog Day (1993), indeed any film, in a short summary identifies it as a “high-concept” film. Groundhog Day (1993) is a high-concept film but also classical in the Hollywood tradition. Other examples of high-concept films with the fantasy of displacement include Pleasantville (Kilik, Soderbergh, & Ross, 1998) and The Truman Show (Feldman, Niccol, Rudin, Schroeder, & Weir, 1998).
(4) Groundhog Day continues to be studied, examined, referenced, and analyzed over a decade after being released (Bacha, 1998). Many religious people appear to acclaim the film’s usefulness, including Buddhists, Jews, and Christians, as well as minority spiritual groups such as Wiccans and the Chinese Falun Gong.
(5) The set-up, according to Thompson (1999, p. 154), covers four days: February 1st prior to Groundhog Day, February 2nd, the original Groundhog Day, and Phil’s first two repetition days. The complicating action begins when Phil consciously realizes that there is no tomorrow; he accepts it, and begins to behave within this new reality. The complicating action section ends when Phil realizes suicide is not an option and the development section begins when Phil shares his consciousness with Rita by stating that he is a god. Phil begins his transformation here—essentially, he is reborn and has two goals—to move from selfishness to selflessness and to prove himself worthy of Rita’s love, not her sexual conquest. The climax and epilogue is a traditional Hollywood ending, with Phil, the boy, getting the girl (Thompson, 1999, p. 154).
(6) Some note that the premise for Groundhog Day is not original but borrowed from a number of sources, including a short science fiction story by Richard A. Lupoff called 12:01 P.M.; an episode of the 1961 television Twilight Zone series called “Shadow Play” and written by Charles Beaumont, directed by John Brahm; a short film by Jonathan Hepp; and a television thriller by Jack Sholder (Antulov, 1999; Leeper, no date).
(7) Harold Ramis is the co-writer and director and suggests that the original script called for 10,000 years of repetitive days in Punxsutawney but that it was probably more like 10 years. There is some evidence in the film of the number of repetitive days. Phil tells Rita it takes six months to learn how to throw a deck of 52 playing cards into a hat. In terms of space, the entire film purportedly takes place in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania—although the actual location is Woodstock, Illinois, because of a more “authentic” Main Street set of the downtown (Gilbey, 2004).
(8) Harold Ramis, the director and co-writer of Groundhog Day, and Bill Murray have appeared together in Ghost Busters (Reitman, 1984), Ghost Busters II (Reitman, 1989), and Stripes (Goldberg & Reitman, 1981). Ghost Busters and Ghost Busters II were directed by Ivan Reitman and written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis. Stripes (Goldberg & Reitman, 1981) was directed by Ivan Reitman and written by Len Blum and Daniel Goldberg, and featured Ramis in a supporting actor role. All three films starred Bill Murray. In Stripes, he plays an out-of-shape, apolitical, unemployed and unlucky, self-indulgent bachelor converted into a military leader and hero who does not however in the end sacrifice his individuality, and he gets the girl. Similarly, in an earlier role he brings the role and the rodent with him. The groundhog in Groundhog Day comes from the film Caddyshack (Kenney & Ramis, 1980). Also written and directed by Ramis, Caddyshack featured a 29-year-old Bill Murray in a subplot playing an assistant golf greenskeeper who obsessively pursues a gopher terrorizing the greens. The gopher is essentially a rodent, similar to a rat or squirrel or, notably, a groundhog.
(9) Mainstream religions acclaim the film’s usefulness. Followers of the Chinese Falun Gong sect hold that the spiritual self lacks development until it learns from past mistakes. For Wiccans, the actual Groundhog Day is one of the four quarters of the year that cross—in this case, it occurs roughly halfway between the first day of winter and the first day of spring. Groundhog Day can fall somewhere between the end of January and early February. For Buddhists, there are links to samsara—a suffering that humans must try to escape. It is rebirth and ultimately the achievement of nirvana. In the Jewish faith, we see the commitment to mitzvahs (good deeds). Christians view doing good deeds as the way to earning one’s place in heaven.
(11) Walter Scott’s books include Rob Roy (1817), Ivanhoe (1819), and The Talisman (1825).
(12) One of many examples is the 172nd Brigade out of Alaska. See Robert Burns (2006).
(13) An improvised explosive device [IED] “can be almost anything with any type of material and initiator. It is a ‘homemade’ device that is designed to cause death or injury by using explosives alone or in combination with toxic chemicals, biological toxins, or radiological material. IEDs can be produced in varying sizes, functioning methods, containers, and delivery methods. IEDs can utilize commercial or military explosives, homemade explosives, or military ordnance and ordnance components.” IEDs are usually roadside bombs designed to explode when a vehicle or group of vehicles with troops pass by. See Globalsecurity.org (2005).