Tags: war


unknown soldier

Joshua Dysart's reboot of Unknown Soldier, a superhero comic (!?) about the LRA insurgency in Uganda, should by all rights be terrible. But somehow it instead manages to be the most compelling, humanizing, thought-provoking, morally complex treatment of contemporary African conflict I have read since Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. There are no good guys or bad guys, no simple solutions, no magic white dudes galloping in to save Uganda from itself--it is a realistic central Africa, in which things are so fucked up that even superheroes are ultimately powerless. In short, it is the exact opposite of Iron Man flying over to Basra to singlehandedly save Iraq (and, verily, the two token white characters in the story, far from being a point by which American audiences are intended to relate, are bewildered, helpless, and generally ineffective).

The visual storytelling is some of the best I've ever seen in comics, with all-too-familiar dewey-eyed UN-style rhetoric ironically juxtaposed with horrifying yet intensely human images of the frustrating, impossible reality of the situation on the ground. (There's an image, early in issue 7 or so, in which the titular protagonist digs up a cache of AK-47s wrapped in a UNICEF satchel. He inserts a couple new rifles claimed from child soldiers he has recently killed, pauses to contemplate what he is doing, and buries it again. It's never clear whether he's using it as a burial ground or a weapons cache, and the moment expresses the series' troubling ambiguity perfectly.) This series is easily a new landmark of the comics medium, almost on par with Maus.

And it's being cancelled because no one gives a fuck about Africa.

Which, somewhat prophetically, volume 2 of the trade paperback is about. That entire arc is framed in the uncomfortable perennial question posed by diplomats, NGOs, and journalists seeking foreign intervention in the conflict: Why is the life of thousands of nameless Africans worth less attention to the Western media than the life of one white American visitor? And it brings the implications of the usual easy, comfortable answers to that question to some unexpected, unsettling, inevitable conclusions, all the while casting light on how the question itself is problematically racist. If you like feeling good about yourself, or being right in your view of the world, this book will fuck you up.

The main character of issue 21 is an AK-47. Not a superhero with an AK-47. The rifle itself. Just one. The comic traces the life of the weapon from its creation in a factory in 1976 through the lives of its many owners throughout Africa, each of whom carries it for different reasons, with a few consistent themes through each of their narratives. The gun may be mute, but its report is always loud.

This series is being cancelled, people. For shame.

(edit) Hey, look at that. A New York Times article. Why are more people not picking this series up?

in which a juvenile delinquent becomes a hero

High school peeps: Does it surprise anyone that Victor Lin became a U.S. Marine?

Dude, the clown-with-a-heart-of-gold personality, the mischeviousness, the love of approval, the parkour, the Counter-Strike obsession, the weird stunts during P.E.--Vic was virtually born for the job. (The shooting people part aside.) The international upbringing apparently is no longer an issue--I mean, he has a huge tattoo of the flag raising at Iwo Jima across his back; there's no doubting that he has embraced his new American heritage.

I just at Facebook pictures of his 2008 tour of duty in Iraq, and he makes war look almost fun.

Unlike, you know, this.

(Yes, that is authentic Iraq War footage.)

God bless you, Vic. I may not support the politics behind the war, but as a friend, an NEHSer, and a New Yorker I support the risks you've taken and the sacrifices you've made to make sure the terrorists stay on the other side of the pond. All the teachers, administrators, and Experimental Department disciplinarians who thought you would never amount to anything can suck my dick.

the things they carried

Two really fascinating blogs I've stumbled upon lately, from people out in the Real World. (If New York is the Real World relative to Oberlin, these guys are the Real World relative to New York.)

The first is called Sleepless in Sudan. I found it while Googling for the phrase "extremely single" (shut up, I was lonely). Its author is a thirtysomething U.N. aid worker in Darfur, who notably writes not only about Big Serious International News Drama Territory but about the everyday tedium of distributing bottled, setting up tents, making small talk with refugees, and the like. Being on the frontlines of one of the most horrible genocides in recent history has done little to quell this author's determination to have some semblance of everyday life; like any metropolitan yuppie blogger she talks about the food she's eaten, the technological toys she gets to play with, and the guys she wants to date. The difference is that the food is pineapple curry (a disgusting concoction scrounged together from dwindling canned food supplies when a shipment didn't come through), the toys are truck-mounted machineguns, and the guys are all other aid workers. It's surreal, reading about this little touch of metropolitan frivolity in one of the biggest crisis hotspits in Africa--and oddly reassuring, in an uncomfortably neocolonialist way. The blog ceased publication in 2006 (ever the superhero, U.N. Lady has since been shipped out of Sudan to feed and clothe refugees elsewhere), but there's still a wealth of material to be perused by the curious reader.

The much less frequently updated Baghdad Babe is a little more tragic. You can tell from the URL alone (iraqifreedomadventure.blogspot.com) that it isn't going to end well. It chronicles U.S. Army Spc. Rebecca Burt's 2003 tour of duty as a military journalist in Iraq. There isn't an awful lot on the site, and Google doesn't turn up a whole lot else, so it's hard to say what Burt's duties in Iraq were, exactly--from what she writes about it seems she was a combination reserve infantryman, webmaster, office intern, domestic propagandist, and overall morale assistant. (Which of these duties were official and which she picked up out of can-do spunk is not clear.) In any case, if she was deployed to keep troop morale high and give the war a positive spin in the American press, it seems that she did a pretty good job--a story about two brothers united during the war got picked up in the New York Times, and she's featured in a DoD article about Christmas in Baghdad. The by-golly, down-home enthusiasm of her early entries is infectious--the Burkha bodyguards, who never smile, smile at her; the Florida National Guard is extra gentlemanly around her; a local pirated videodisc merchant tries to hire her because her presence is so good for business. By her account, once the edge of boot camp and culture shock wears off and the boredom sets in, life at the base is actually kind of fun. She's organizing movie nights, learning to salsa dance from other soldiers, playing cards with the locals and being mobbed by adoring Iraqi schoolchildren while helping set up a school...aside from the grueling combat training, the intense manual labor, and the omnipresent threat of death, it sounds an awful lot like summer camp. She's poised to take home the kind of experience that is every Army recruiter's dream.

And then suddenly, deep in friendly territory, the hotel her unit has been using as a command post is hit by mortar fire.

It's not immediately clear what happens next. Her response at first is rational, measured. She's prepared for this. She was recruited to put a good face on the war but she's been trained to pick up a gun and fight, and the moment the blast hits she is combat ready. Her account of the incident is astonishing in its professionalism and resolve. While others scream and panic around her, she applies emergency first aid, directs the wounded to the medics, helps the civilians out of the building. Her first priority is the safety of nearby civilians and fellow soldiers. She's a whole different person in that first account of the bombing, protective and levelheaded as a lioness. There isn't time to think or react or panic. She saves lives out of sheer momentum. She's a hero--one of many, that day.

And then...she comes back to the blast site, and the gravity of what happened sinks in, and she thanks God and calls her parents, and goes through the usual stages of shock and bewilderment and relief. She's suited up, ready for combat duty as usual, determined to keep the morale of her fellow troops up. She's put up a strong face, a stone wall. She's going to get through this. And then a checkpoint where some of her buddies from the Florida National Guard are patrolling gets hit by a truck bomb.

No one's injured in the blast, thankfully, not even the bastard who set it off, but after that point things get a little strange with her. She writes about what appear to be a lot of other mortarings, reflecting, thinking about the precariousness and fragility of life; it's not until several pages in that it's evident that all of these blog posts are about the same event. Posts come in fewer and farther in between, after then, some of the months apart. Eventually we see a post, almost as a footnote, that her tour has ended and she's coming home.

She's in college, in her last entry, dated 2006--the army made good on its offer of financial aid. It's three years after she has returned from Iraq and she's suffering from PTSD. She freaks out in the middle of the night whenever she hears loud noises from construction nearby, and has to move to another dorm. She seems to be taking it rather well but something inside her is gone. She still sounds like her own sweet self, like the kind of girl who in her old age would make fresh brownies for kids on Halloween and be potluck coordinator for a church in Minnesota, but there's a jitteriness to her tone that wasn't there before. Somewhere out there, forty years from now, will be a sweet old lady who will hear the engine of her son's car sputter in the middle of the night and kick open her front door, trembling, with every knife in the kitchen strapped to her body, sighting down a plastic broomhandle like an M16, screaming obscenities that have not been uttered in half a century.

This is the price we pay for getting involved.

I am aware that, this being the internet, that both of these blogs could actually be written by a bored fiftysomething male postal worker in Weehawken with dreams of literary stardom. Doesn't make the stories any less fascinating.
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kiowa died in a field of shit

I wonder if Tim O'Brien read this nasty little Iraq War anecdote, and shook his head. The more things change, the more they stay the same...

On a lighter note (or perhaps darker, in a different shade), this is an absolutely golden blog post about the controversy about the removal of the Soviet war memorial in Estonia (which, as well-informed readers may remember, is what led to the complete obliteration of Estonia's internet infrastructure by Russian hackers). I normally don't endorse political blogs, because by nature they tend to be little more than ill-informed, rumor-mongering, festering pools of confirmation bias. (Great thing about partisanship in the American blogosphere: you can build your information sources around your worldview, instead of the other way around. And as was true in ancient Rome, eloquence always trumps rigor. Facts don't summon torches and pitchforks fast enough, and let's face it--politics in the blogosphere is not so much about issues as much as it is about insulting people with opposing opinions.) But this blog is worth reading for the entertainment value alone. The most frequent contributor is a ornery git named "Crusader AXE of the Lost Causes," who, being a middle-aged, Irish, well-educated former career soldier, not to mention an aspiring seminarian turned antitheist, is so full of piss and vinegar he could dissolve a urinal by spitting in it. Which is, regardless of how much or how little you share his worldview, fucking hilarious.

Considering that he's a Vietnam vet (an enlisted man, no less, not a draftee), a former seminarian, a self-made businessman, and--if the dates in his autobiographical posts are any indication--well over the age of fifty, you'd expect he'd be one of the most diehard conservatives in America. But, shockingly, he's actually a very left-leaning libertarian. More than a few times he puts himself in the awkward position of being both extremely supportive of the troops we've committed to Iraq, going as far as to write about their individual needs regarding the safety of field equipment and the effectiveness of ammunition types, and extremely critical of their commander-in-chief. I guess after seeing more bullshit in the course of two decades than most people see in their entire lives, he's grown cynical of the typical war vet rhetoric and resigned himself to be a modern postwar Yossarian, commenting with resigned amusement on the absurdity of modern military history. He's learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. Maybe that's why his blog is called "The Defeatists."

(Technical warning: For some reason, leaving a window with his blog open for a while causes a flurry of Adobe Flash popups to appear, crashing Firefox. I don't know what's going on--bad site script, XSS attack, or what--but you might want to close your most important tabs before accessing that site.)
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    Apollo 440 - These Boots Were Made For Walkin' (Techno Remix)
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