The Wrath Bearing Tree

These Colors Don’t Run: Afghanistan Edition

by ahbonenberger

It’s sad when you already know what people are going to say when you tell them that staying in Afghanistan today is as stupid and pointless now as it was in 2003, or 2009, or 2011. They’re going to say “but look what happened in Iraq,” relying on their audience’s lack of understanding of or interest in the two countries to allow that logic to stand as a reason why we should continue keeping boots on the ground. They’re going to say “but what about the Taliban,” as though a grassroots organization based in Pakistani territory – never reachable, wholly beyond our ability to control or solve – has anything to do with “Afghanistan’s” problems. They’re going to say “we can’t let Afghanistan fall apart like Iraq,” although our first move in Afghanistan was to install a truculent, overtly partisan Pashtun who did everything in his power to prevent regional Tajik and Uzbek warlords from getting wrapped into the official security apparatus.

When a region has a problem, and that problem is a longstanding crisis of confidence in a population’s political leadership, owing to that leadership being perceived as a bunch of crooks who’ve sold out to various Western powers over the last century (Britain, America, France, Russia), the symptom is an outraged local movement focused inwardly, and interested primarily in isolating itself from foreign-minded politicians, as well as foreign countries’ influence. In Afghanistan that was the Taliban. In Iraq and Syria, obviously, the “people” have flocked to extremist organizations like al Nusra, ISIS, the Mahdi militias, and similar outfits. In America, it’s the libertarian party and the Tea Party – tired of America’s continued hyper-involvement in other countries’ domestic squabbles (the Western power to which we’ve sold out, according to party members, is ourselves – American politicians and big business, as represented by Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton).

Advocates of ongoing military intervention in Afghanistan, and expanded intervention in Iraq, and propping up regimes like Yemen’s, and the type of meaningless, low-level provocation in Ukraine that will only encourage Putin to take more in the months and years to come, and selling out protests like the student demonstrations in Hong Kong – advocates of violence as a means of solving external local problems would have you believe that their method will resolve movements like the Taliban, and ISIS. That by killing over years and decades, we can kill enough of the people that oppose us that the opposition will simply vanish, and in its place will be compliant and responsible citizens who are friendly (or at least neutral) to our political system, to the West.

This way of thinking is naïve in the extreme. In no culture ever have people have been whipped or bullied into submission. It’s never happened. There have been events where this type of behavior between cultures escalated to the point where one side essentially annihilated the other, or demonstrated its willingness to do so – but I don’t think anyone’s advocating that America or the West exterminate the populations of nations where significant portions of the population hate us, replacing those populations with American or European settlers. Even if this were practical or possible, the act itself would damn us more completely than our lazy and casual large-scale murder campaigns have over the last decade.

So why are we staying in Afghanistan? Only the most tortured, rhetorically disingenuous flip-flopper could contort our accomplishments in that war-torn land to the point where our continued presence makes any kind of sense for our strategic interests, or those of our European allies. Saying that “The Afghans” want us there is similarly misguided – the product of deeply blinkered reports from Kabul and Mazir-e-Sharif, or the product of those think-tank and consulting groups whose diseased minds were responsible for getting us into that mess in the first place.

And if it feels like what we’re doing in staying is “stabilizing” Afghanistan, take a look at SIGAR’s website. If stability is demonstrating to the Afghan people and the rest of the world that we can’t manage tens of billions of dollars on boondoggles and graft, then, yes, we’ve achieved a ton of stability in Afghanistan recently.

But if not – if we haven’t actually stabilized the country – if what we’ve done instead is committed ourselves to a longer, more explosive slide into violence than anything we’ve seen in the Middle East so far – if staying in Afghanistan is just deferring the inevitable, as well as adding to an expense bill we can scarce afford at home – well, then why are we doing it? Is this actually the best idea we have, the status quo? Are we so bankrupt of creativity and intellectual power that we’re just kind of riding it out, seeing what happens? This is the worst type of intellectual dishonesty, and Potemkin governance. But it’s what we expect from ourselves –no surprise it’s what we expect from others. If only the populations of these other countries would cooperate with us, instead of hating us.

Shock and Awe Fatigue

by Michael Carson

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The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant’s brazen acts continue to fascinate the West. Videos of their dramatized beheadings, car chases and firing squads proliferate on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Journalists and newscasters compete with each other for the most demeaning superlative. Neocons have emerged from wherever it was that they went to tell us we brought this on ourselves in our weakness, and security moms dust off their minivans to vote for the neocons. Texas politicians swear they see cells of Jihadists just south of the Rio Grande and the President is no longer allowed to go on vacation. But what is it specifically that offends us so? People are killed in war all the time. The outpouring over death in the Ukraine has been desultory at best. I can’t remember the last time I stumbled across an article on Central American gang violence. But the actions of ISIL have us not only squawking like disturbed birds, but also oiling up our not-so-rusty bombers for another go at the desert.

So why this outpouring of vituperative and fear? Why do we have nearly every autocracy, democracy, plutocracy and autocratic-democratic-plutocracy in the world rallying to a banner in the face of a common enemy? We endure all kinds of transnational horrors – typhoons, exploding nuclear reactors, child-sex trafficking – with the stoicism of Marcus Aurelius but pull out our hair and gnash our teeth at these videos? If violence in that region and throughout the world is not in fact new, then it stands to reason our reaction stems from the type of violence they practice – namely, we are horrified not by the fact that they kill but that they do so openly and eagerly. This terrorism terrifies us not because we really fear for our lives – though this plays a part of course – but because it seems to reject the cherished illusion of modernity, of progressives throughout the world. We fear ISIL because they kill openly and joyfully where we do our best to do so secretly and reluctantly.

We in the modern world believe in our heart of hearts that we kill out of necessity. We in the West have large standing armies and manufacture over 50 percent of the world’s weaponry but we do not do so willingly. No sir. We shake our heads sadly at man’s fallen state as we open yet another munitions factory and sign up another seventeen-year-old infantryman. “It is terrible to live in such a world,” we say, “but such a world it is and we must defend ourselves our die.” Paradoxically, we do not want to admit the world is as terrible as our bombs and rifles make it out to be. We work very hard on clever euphemisms to deny that this violence even happens, and we are always surprised when others seem to relish what we reluctantly and sophistically embrace. We are much like Christ in this respect, except our right hand cuts funding to Syrian refugee camps and instead sends expensive bombs crashing into people’s houses.

And yet we were not always so squeamish about violence. Only a few short years ago, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, we did not hide our willingness to kill and destroy behind weak-kneed euphemisms. This might be lost on us now after the interminable drone strikes and mountainside patrols that no one knows or really cares to know about, but the war in Iraq, the theory of it, was built upon the idea that violence should not be disguised, but openly acknowledged and eagerly embraced. The “Shock and Awe” idea has become something of a joke now, and yet that is exactly what we, in all earnestness, hoped to do – shock and awe the world with our willingness to annihilate our enemy. Instead of hemming and hawing about international law and collateral damage, America would show on international TV, for the entire world to see, that we would not be pushed around. We would terrorize them for once. The Tigris and Euphrates would turn red with the blood of our enemies. Terrorists throughout the world would faint for fear of our wrath.

Well, the rest is history as they say, and, yet, in some cruel and utterly unforeseeable irony, it seems those in the ghettoes of Brisbane, London, Paris and Miami – second brothers and petit-bourgeois failures, the taproot of every revolution from time immemorial – carefully watched and replayed what America did in one lovingly detailed and realistic video game and movie after the next. Now, instead of toppling statues of Hussein in the streets of Baghdad, they are toppling statues of Abu Tammam in Jasim. The fact that the people of the world are not really sympathetic to Abu Tammam’s poems or care all overly much about his statues is a nicety of no real importance. What is important is violence and destruction. What is important is that people are shocked and awed by a man’s willingness to be violent and destructive. They hope as we did that we will do something stupid from fear, overextend ourselves, panic. How little credit they give us!

Some will argue that our actions were categorically different than the barbarians in the desert. Our saturation bombing campaigns, to these folks, are like executing a criminal through lethal injection – painless, efficient and immune to human error. Everyone wins. Perhaps. But we can’t deny that many of the barbarians come to Syria from our ghettoes, which we wrongly thought we had effectively sealed off through zoning, frisking and by arming the police with riot gear, sniper rifles and tanks. This is an increasingly not-so-rare chance to get your war on, to live out the fantasies of violence and manhood played out in movies and video games since Mortal Kombat. And once your war is on, isn’t it a little precious to get caught up particulars like whether or not you should kill everyone in the village or just some of them? Or, perhaps, to use a historical anecdote, whether you should invade a country that actually houses terrorists over one that does not? Isn’t it a little quaint, old fashioned even, to discriminate between one country or village of brown people and the next when it comes to War?

Albert Camus once said, “the man who enjoys his coffee while reading that justice has been done would spit it out at the least detail.” We seemed to have learned this lesson the hard way and lost a lot of good coffee along the way. Once the body bags started coming back from our own attempt to scare the terrorists silly – not to mention the credit card bills – we begin to rethink the logic of such a campaign. We decided it much wiser to speak euphemistically and carry an armed drone. We are, in truth, rather sick of being shocked and awed and shock and awe in general. We want to enjoy our coffee. Unfortunately, no one told the barbarians, who persist in using our own passé tactics against us, and who do not seem to appreciate the fine subtleties of modern war, which privileges both a nice cup of coffee and the dispensation of justice at the same time. But then again, they are medieval savages, with little sense of history and no discernment, so what did we honestly expect?

 

The Wrath of Islam

by ahbonenberger

I read a piece on Vox recently (compliments of former roommate and exceptional human being Damien Spleeters) the point of which was to disabuse readers of “myths” surrounding the Islamic State. The piece had a useful goal: to educate readers about the Islamic State, presumably so the reader could make more reasonable decisions about whether or not to support military engagement, or how to help resolve the problem of the Islamic State. I read the piece, twice, and while I found it better than much of the analysis elsewhere in mainstream media, it failed to disrupt the broader myth of the Islamic State. I want to continue the dialogue here, by examining what we hope to accomplish, and why.

Fact number one: Americans love violence. We love it in our movies and literature. We buy it en masse. The best television dramas aren’t just full of violence – they depend on it, without violence (and especially that most acceptable acts of violence – revenge, or retributive, or just violence) much of our entertainment would cease to make any kind of sense. This is true for American-made, American-written stories in a way that it is not for almost every other culture in the world, with the current exceptions of Chinese and Japanese cinema and literature, which are similarly saturated with violence, rape, and murder. Unsurprisingly, Japanese art has a large and enthusiastic following in America – unsurprisingly given our politics, Chinese art does not.

Fact number two: American love for violence extends into the political sphere. This is accomplished by adventurers who are wearied by peace, and bored by long-term projects to increase sustainability in communities, foreign and domestic. It is accomplished by cynical career politicians like Hillary Clinton and Karl Rove, both of whom understand that being seen as a powerful leader is part of what makes a good political candidate. And whereas there used to be a dominant isolationist, business-oriented, violence-sublimated strain to American politics – the old Republican Party, the boring, sober, clear-eyed realists of American politics that largely went extinct in the 70s and 80s, replaced by the current group of wild-eyed missionaries and Kulture-zealots. The Democratic Party still benefits from the perception that its constituency helped end the Vietnam War – they did not, it was the old, extinct Republican Party, Democrats began and expanded our involvement in Vietnam – but utopians on the left have always been the biggest proponents of foreign intervention on a small and large scale. Only recently, again, have utopians on the right begun to appropriate that narrative for themselves. For personal and professional reasons, as well as owing to the fact that journalism is a profession like any other, and there is no licensing process for thinking or talking or writing, most of the media coverage of every international event will be slanted toward creating the perception that American intervention is absolutely necessary.

Fact Three: American military intervention in other countries’ affairs usually makes things worse – occasionally much worse. Sometimes it doesn’t make things awful. That’s what we’re playing for, in the real world. It’s like that time on The Simpsons when Homer is asked to relate the particulars of some event – in his mind, he’s a tall, buff man, talking with the President of the United States, while (for no good reason) he is surrounded by aliens. Marge is exasperated by this obviously impossible account of events, and shuts him down. Advocates for military intervention are always prone to being Homer. Marge doesn’t exist. Let’s glance over big-ticket American military interventions over the last century:

Spanish American War – we freed Cuba and Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spanish hegemony. That was such a staggering success for us and for our foreign policy that each of those three countries are… oh, right. Currently in shambles.

WWI – we beat the Germans, so the English and French could win WWI, because we liked their uniforms better (or something – there is actually no good reason we became involved in WWI and anyone who wants to dispute that is welcome to do so in the comment section), and then Europe was peaceful forever after that. WWI kicker – intervention in Soviet Revolution, against Lenin. Huge win for U.S., made everything better.

China in the 30s and 40s – we helped the Chinese resist the Japanese, which was cool, by supporting a monomaniacal tyrant who was happy to exterminate large swaths of the Chinese population, which was confusing because Chiang Kai-sheck could’ve looked like Tojo with glasses. What, they all look the same! Anyway, our support for the Chinese made everything better in China forever.

In World War II, we armed and equipped the Soviets and British to fight against Germany, then fought on the Allied side when Japan declared war on us. Defeating the Japanese actually did make things better over there – the Japanese may be the one place and time where our intervention actually helped. Our interest in doing so was tied to fear of the Soviets, who, despite our help during WWII, didn’t like us very much, as anyone with half a brain could’ve predicted going in. Germany’s life did not get better as a result of our intervention in WWII, they lost more of their territory, which made France and England happier, were split into two, and occupied. Sadly, everyone with some exposure to Soviet documents now understands that the Soviet Union was expecting us to attack them, and were never in any position to take over Europe, making the Cold War at least 50% our fault. Crazy when you think about it that way, but there you go.

Korea was a push – we made South Korea, run by a brutal dictator into the mid-eighties, look a lot like Japan. Life in North Korea after our military intervention did not improve – it actually got worse, to the point where it is actually a cliche that describes how awful life could be.

Iran – If you want a really sad, depressing accounting of how overseas, please read the official account of the Iran coup of 1953. Makes you feel bad for Iran, and bad about us. Eisenhower’s weak link as a president was British, and despite history assigning the responsibility for this one to us, it really was a British screw-up.

Vietnam – the less said, the better. We intervened militarily and things got so much better, it hurts even to think about it. Excruciating irony kicker – after arming or allying with South Vietnamese to fight their North Vietnamese cousins in order to protect them against Chinese and Soviet communism, the newly-reunified Vietnam fought a bitter, vicious war with China just a year after we closed our embassy. How’s that for gratitude – they could’ve at least pretended to be friends so as not to hurt our feelings. I mean, that’s one insanely useless war!

Cambodia & Laos – I don’t know much about these places, but am told that what happened after we intervened militarily helped their tourist industry. You’re welcome, Cambodia and Laos. Can’t wait to visit.

Africa – strongest continent on earth!

Iraq I – made things better for Kuwait, by keeping that territory out of Saddam Hussein’s hands. Were it not for our actions, the one quarter to one half of Kuwait’s population that’s actually Kuwaiti, and not some kind of slave, would have had to call themselves Iraqi instead. And as everyone knows, being an Iraqi sucks.

Somalia - We did not improve Somalia.

Afghanistan - Has life gotten better since the Taliban left? Well – it hasn’t gotten much worse. That’s gotta be worth something.

Iraq II – Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who terrorized the Middle East until we deposed him. He massacred 30,000 Kurds, which is awful. Unfortunately, things didn’t get better in Iraq while we were there, until we hired 20% of their population as security guards. Sort of disingenuously, Republicans and neo-conservatives have made it sound like it was having U.S. soldiers on the ground that was keeping Iraq safe. All I’m saying is, we had a lot of soldiers on the ground there while not paying off 20% of the population and we got attacked all the time. Had a lot of soldiers there while paying off 20% of the population and things got real quiet. In any case, shit’s out of control there right now.

Libya – Don’t bring up Libya. It’s fucking horrible there right now. A nightmare in every sense of the word.

Iraq III and Syria – shipping arms to militant groups we like at the moment has a way of burning us. It’s always the same story, too – they’re heroes when they need weapons, and then they’re awful, raping, human-rights-violating criminals afterward. Putting boots on the ground will not lead to a long-term deterioration in security, it will do so at the expense of American lives. Airstrikes are worse than useless, although they seem to make us feel better about ourselves. The Islamic State is a group that is using Western-style propaganda videos, and speaking to us, and encouraging us to become involved in Iraq and the Middle East right when it looks like we’ve extricated ourselves. Why? Because they know that our involvement in the Middle East will make things better for their cause! Why can’t we see this? Why do so many believe, against all visible proof to the contrary, that involvement in Iraq or Syria will improve anything in those countries? The counterargument – well, we can’t leave them to the Islamic State, that’d be horrible, distorts reality. However horrible it will be for Iraqis, Kurds, and Syrians to face the Islamic State alone, it will only be worse if we intervene by arming proxies, or by deploying soldiers and carrying out air strikes. I know this, and can say so definitively, because I have two eyes, and a brain, and am literate, and was paying attention to what happened over the last fifteen years.

Meanwhile – just so we know how the Middle East perceives us – the place we want to stabilize through the creation of a client-state in Kurdistan, or through Iraq, or – I’m not sure what our plan is because all the options are so bad – in any case, our reputation is so shitty in the region that as The Huffington Post reported recently, Middle Easterners believe that the CIA is funding the Islamic State. We are a myth to the very people we insist on helping – a nightmare – why are we so insistent on participating in yet another bloodletting? When they’re both expensive, and do no long-term good?

 

Fury: A Realistic but Stupid, Useless Film

by ahbonenberger

Hollywood does not know how to make a film about war. This has been proven on so many different occasions, often averred on this blog, across the spectrum of time and experience, that I almost wonder why I’m bothering to write another essay on the subject. There are other projects I could be working on – short fiction, advocacy for responsible foreign policy, poetry, running. Developing personal relationships. Finding a useful pursuit beyond criticizing gross failures of imagination, when – to be perfectly frank – nobody’s listening, anyway.

If this looks like anything other than some grade-A baloney, you need to check the prescription on your moral glasses

When I watched the preview of Fury I immediately tweeted about it – words to the effect of “Saving Private Ryan with Tanks.” I have not watched the movie, as Michael Cieply did before reviewing it for The New York Times, but I’ve read his review, and combined with the two-plus minutes of preview I endured (several times), I feel confident delivering my reaction to the movie in full. Here’s me lifting my glass to the previewers, and Cieply, who seemed to feel pleased that the film was made, because I will not waste my money on it, it’s certain to be trash. Worse than that, the type of trash that deceives its watchers into thinking they’ve done something useful, or honored their grandparents, or I don’t know what.

Don’t worry fellas – your deaths will be realistically portrayed by Hollywood, and we’ll get the Nazis, too

Here are some excerpts from the beginning of his review: “Raw.” “The Good War this is not.” “Hero.” “Relentlessly authentic.” “Poised to deliver what popular culture has rarely seen.” “Executed prisoners and killed children.” Later on in the review, after exposition on the significance of a movie dedicated to the tankers, and the crews of Sherman tanks, “Much of what [Pitt’s] Wardaddy does may shocked viewers who have watched American soldiers behave brutally in Vietnam War films at least since ‘Apocalypse Now,’ but have rarely seen ugliness in the heroes of World War II.” “In his harsh initiation of a new gunner, Mr. Pitt’s Character crosses lines, both legal and moral. Not even Lee Marvin’s Sergeant Possum in Samuel Fuller’s ‘The Big Red One,’ another knife killer, went quite so far.”

“This time around, the subject will be those damaged tanker-heroes.”

Give me a break.

Realistic Footage Of Combat

Without watching the movie, based on the preview, and The New York Times review, I’m going to head out on a limb and claim that if specific catalogue of carnage using different weapons than we’re used to reveals some epiphany about the horror of war, I’ll eat a leather shoe.

I’ll do it. So help me god, I’ll boil one of my leather shoes, and eat it.

According to the review, there’s a scene in the movie where someone from Wardaddy’s crew has to kill a “buddy.” A tank gunner vet quoted in the review claims that he didn’t see that type of behavior himself while serving 28 months overseas during WWII – one imagines that such events happened, even if they were exceptional. So what? There’s a great deal about how this movie isn’t Inglorious Basterds, although there’s another knife scene in it – presumably realistic, to show the grit of war, because according to the review (and the movie’s actors and makers), war is a series of physical actions more or less without negative consequence, unless you’re the person getting killed or stabbed.

A great deal of time is spent in the review on the writer/director, David Ayer, and his bona fides, as though that has anything to do with whether the movie is good, or accurate, or useful. Apparently Ayer has a man-cave in Los Angeles packed with war memorabilia. Apparently he himself served in the Navy during the 1980s, on a submarine crew. Apparently he reads lots of historical fiction and non-fiction accounts of World War II. Apparently any of that, combined with Brad Pitt, means he knows how to write and direct a “good” war movie worth watching.

It sounds like his movie sucks balls.

Here’s how Fury could maybe not be a movie that totally blows, and should never have been made (I’d be happy to eat that shoe if I’m proven wrong, because it will have been worth it to be wrong):

  • The violence does not lead anywhere, and is seen visibly eroding good people and changing them in ways they do not like, and does them no good
  • Combat is seen as a sequence of misfortunes, ideally misfortunes that befall the actor rather than the subject. Guns jam in comical ways. Soldiers shit themselves. People shake and weep. I’m guessing that Brad Pitt isn’t the sort of character (at least not if he’s being described as a hero) that he played in 12 Monkeys – batshit crazy, crying in the mayhem, barely able to function. No – I’m guessing he’s the guy who sticks knives into Nazi skulls, which everyone knows is cool.
  • At least one of the soldiers should do something despicable – not like killing their buddy because they have to, to save him/her (unless it’s a major plot point), but because they enjoy it. I’d recommend the rape of someone vulnerable, say, a French or Jewish refugee. This should point to that character’s basic cowardice as a human being, a point underlined by their altruistic (not necessarily poor) performance in combat. It should go without saying that this soldier would be American.

At some point – maybe Saving Private Ryan – people decided that realistic portrayals of combat were socially useful because they were honest and brutal, and I assume that was supposed to dissuade people from wanting to experience war. If this is an idea that’s floating around in Hollywood, please allow me to argue vigorously against it. Many people I knew in the military (the two other primary contributors to this blog, Mr. Carson and Mr. James being definite exceptions) loved those movies, called them “badass,” and watched them over and over again. The weak secondary characters were disliked, and the enemies were hated. No deeper meaning was extracted from the films. Again – if Hollywood feels that making a realistic movie about tanks, or submarines, or bombers, or fighter planes, or black units, or white units, or Navajo units, or anything fighting Nazis and the SS and the commies is going to make young people feel revulsion toward war, or horror at its deprivations – they’re delusional. Fury will merely be added to a long list of factually probable representations of violence that help beat the drums for another generation of people to glamorize the worst parts of state-sanctioned murder, and prepare them to serve in misbegotten causes.

 

Shit gets weird in Cross of Iron, and not in ways you’re gonna like. The German experience in WWII: Western cinema’s great unmined Gold Vein for disturbing, unsanitized anti-war accounts

Which brings me to my final thought, and I’ve had this thought for a while: if the big Hollywood producers were interested in making a good war film about World War II, they could do a lot worse than reading 2666, meditating for a while, and then creating a film that takes Peckinpah’s superlative Cross of Iron and elevates it to the next level. Yes: I’m proposing that the best way to create a useful and accurate anti-war film would be to make the protagonists Germans – preferably German light infantry, the type that got chewed up on the Eastern Front with casualty rates somewhere above 1,000%, then was redeployed to the Western Front to fight the Americans and promptly bombed out of existence, for no good reason at all. The greatest mine for really good, true war stories, in my opinion, is the Wehrmacht – my guess is that nobody in Hollywood has the guts to put that movie together. After all, America’s about winning, and the Nazis were evil, and every German was a Nazi. And so we’ll continue singing ourselves to sleep at night with patriotic tunes on our lips, secure in our confidence that Brad Pitt and his buddies did what they had to because in the end, it was just a bad dream.

Once is Never: A Review of Edge of Tomorrow

by Michael Carson

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The Germans have a saying having to do with a life only lived once: “einmal ist keinmal,” or, in English, “once is never.”

I have thought a lot about this in relation to war and the soldiers I have seen die at war. I spend much time writing about how people die absolutely. But no matter how much I write or think, they do not come back. They do not return. There is no magical fairy dust to sprinkle over them. No reset button.

They are dead forever and ever.

So I was ready to dislike Edge of Tomorrow, the recent Tom Cruise blockbuster that seemingly solves this problem of “once is never” by allowing a soldier killed in battle to return to life as many times as it takes to get it right. What he “gets right” is a D-Day-esque landing against aliens that bear an uneasy similarity to the Nazis in military trajectory and racial politics (they begin in Germany, take over France, most conspicuously the Louvre, and work to eliminate the human race through superior evolutionary adaptation).

Doug Liman’s picture in many ways seemed an insult, a distraction, from what I took to be a, if not the, salient fact of war. My deployment had shown me the ways in which soldiers could use video games to deflect from experiences in the field. A death or a shootout would not be considered as a death or a shootout but understood in the light of a movie or a game. No one, it seemed, could take death seriously, and the video games only served to undermine what little hold on their experiences my soldiers had. A movie like Edge of Tomorrow, where the hero is turned into a video game character, would, I believed, only reinforce this dissonance, make its damage harder to expose, and keep us fighting and killing with no sense of the finality of all this killing and fighting and blowing things up.

I think it was after Tom Cruise is shot in the head the fourth or fifth time that I changed my mind. Most of the audience did not know what to do, whether to laugh or gasp, and so they just endured his increasingly stupid and obscene deaths in frustrated silence. I felt as if these people were for the first time recognizing the fleeting precariousness of their own lives compared to that of the character on the screen. I watched the movie on Fourth July weekend, a few weeks after its release on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. There were plenty of other options for big-screen mayhem, death galore, explosions and machine guns – Transformers, for instance – to get us through our Independence Day, but only this one, I felt, with its strange conceit of eternal return, actually portrayed what it would mean to die, and maybe, for a moment, broke through the brilliant electronic pyrotechnics that distract us from what our violence actually means.

Many critics have called Edge of Tomorrow, based off of the novel Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill, a combination of Groundhog Day and Saving Private Ryan. I think this rather misses the point. Saving Private Ryan already met Groundhog Day. Saving Private Ryan is Groundhog Day. For seventy years now we have woken up here, on these same body-strewn Normandy shores, and have re-understood America’s role as international protector and bastion of civilization once again. We have emerged anew in a Manichean universe defined by ultimate evil and reluctant warriors, forged into a nation on the PT boats and parachutes. Whether we are seeking to understand wars before World War Two, such as World War One, or those that followed, such as Vietnam, we judge them in comparison to “the good war,” our existential fulcrum. Even after Iraq, we continue to finger our World War Two dog tags like rosaries. Our national consciousness begins here again and again, erasing the sins of the more recent past, and purifying us as we move into future mistakes.

Edge of Tomorrow, then, is, in fact, not D-Day meets Groundhog Day, as that already exists. It is, rather, a reminder, a not so subtle blandishment, encouraging us not to give up on the concept of eternal return – that would be too much for a Hollywood summer blockbuster – but to choose something less hideous to return to other than the slaughter that played out in Normandy. Ironically, this becomes clear in a moment of dialogue that seems to imply the opposite. At the movie’s beginning, a US Army Master Sergeant from Kentucky, played by the always-brilliant Bill Paxton, delivers a stirring speech to Bill Cage, the cowardly officer played by Tom Cruise. Combat, the Master Sergeant announces, to a room filled with vagabonds, losers, psychopaths, hucksters and seeming idiots, the salt of the earth really, is the one place, the one crucible, where men are made equal, and even scumbags like Cage, chickenhawks who preach and sell wars but don’t fight them, can gain access to a sort of immortality.

By itself, this speech, even through Paxton’s ironic accent, would be the worst kind of propaganda, a celebration of the idea that war, whatever else it is, whatever its rightness or wrongness, its collateral damage or mistaken pretexts, is a forge where men (or women) are made and heroes immortalized. But we don’t hear this speech only one time. We hear it as many times as Cage comes back to life. And each time it loses its force, its magic. Cage’s character begins to interrupt the Master Sergeant, he mimics him, cuts him off. “No,” he says, in so many words, “each and every one of you will die and no one will remember you because you will be dead.” Robbed of its air of mystery, the speech is deflated. The Master Sergeant is left confused, fumbling for words he – and we – once knew so well. It begins to dawn on the audience, a faint glimmer, a tremulous effervescence, that there is no mystery here, each and every one of these downtrodden men who were exploited in the civilian world are now being exploited in the military one; they understand, if only for a moment, in a flash, that, in the words of Tim O’Brien, war simply “makes you dead,” and, possibly, to quote Vonnegut, “when you’re dead you’re dead.”

But, now that we know, now that we understand, can we stop the slaughter? Cage’s inability to do just that is as tragic as it is hilarious. He can’t save the individuals he likes, no matter how many times he sees them die; he can’t convince the sergeants and the generals of the evidence plainly before them; he can’t even run away. When he does, the old men drinking at the bar call him a coward even though he has died a thousand deaths. When he tells the truth about his power, about this curious condition he has, they threaten to put him in the psyche ward (shades of Siegfried Sassoon and the First World War there). Over the course of the movie’s first half, Tom Cruise becomes a Laocoön of our own cultural zeitgeist, screaming at us that we will all die if we think every war a beautiful gift horse, another D-Day, another necessary and inevitable contest between evil and good, between survival and annihilation that will bring us together and make us good and caring and brave in the eyes of the world. Of course, as in the myth, everyone ignores this ridiculous prophet, and serpents sent by jealous gods – or in this case aliens who look uncannily like serpents – drag him screaming into the sea.

About halfway through the movie, one realizes Cage is not the only one repeating his life over and over again. Bill Paxton’s Master Sergeant is an almost exact reprisal of his role in Aliens II. Tom Cruise, with his knowledge of other’s actions, turns into one of his Mission Impossible role, dancing like a superhuman spy through government buildings, courting his co-star (Emily Blunt) and mugging his newly formed muscles for the camera. A bunch of ne’er-do-wells, freaks from way on down the socio-economic scale, are the only ones who can take down the evil empire, which is housed in the Louvre of all places, elite-western’s culture ostensible center. We are back with The Dirty Dozen, Stripes, Inglorious Basterds. Da Vinci Code and Starship Troopers. The movies in the other theaters – How to Train Your Dragon Two, Transformers Four – repeat the same stories, recycling, adding another sequel. But Edge of Tomorrow does all this at once, making more and more appropriations, showing the way in which our memory works to provide substance and form to a life only lived once.

And as I watched Tom Cruise live so many lives on this last Fourth of July, I kept on thinking of Tom Cruise playing Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, Oliver Stone’s much more straightforward, and perhaps that much more ineffective, anti-war film. Admittedly, Edge of Tomorrow does eventually descend into the Hollywood schlock we know so well, and for as many times as Cruise dies, we see surprisingly little blood – one wonders if the humans who live in this fantasy world are as biologically constituted as the aliens – but the movie as a whole does drive home, at least to me, that we are not Tom Cruise. We will not be born into a thousand and one different lives and a thousand and one different characters. We are us and the decisions we make regarding war and violence matter. People die when we use a drone. Countries cannot be invaded without consequence. The people we send to war do not come back no matter how many memorials we etch and patriotic firework displays we gather to watch.

“Einmal ist keinmal,” the Germans used to say. Still, I like to think, learning this, learning what we choose to memorialize, what we choose to relive over and over again, dictates who we are in the present, the form and substance of this dust that will soon be blown apart by history’s bitter winds. And, given this, better we eternally return to, shape and give substance to, a day that did not involve the mass slaughter of countless individuals, teenagers who never had a chance to go to movies on the Fourth of July with their families, a day with more nuance, less horror, no lies of transcendence. Learning this, even if only once, is to me something rather than nothing, and makes our one go around here on earth seem a little less like never.

Foreshadows from Iraq

by ahbonenberger

by Nathan S. Webster

View of the Bayji Refinery from the U.S. JSS, pre-2010. Photo by Nathan Webster.

View of the Bayji Refinery from the U.S. JSS, pre-2010. Photo by Nathan Webster.

Short moments from my embedded reporting in Iraq now seem like foreshadowing. Throwaway comments in 2007 and 2009, significant only in hindsight.

In 2007, I embedded in Bayji, Iraq, spending about a month at a Joint Security Station with an unobstructed view of the now-contested refinery’s methane flares, an orange glow on the night’s horizon.

Captain Tim Peterman commanded Charlie Company, 1st/505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division at the beginning of 2007’s “Sons of Iraq” security program – the Americans would pay local men $300 a month to maintain local security against the Al Qaeda insurgents that brought indiscriminate violence to the region.

Captain Peterman arranged meetings with cynical Iraqi sheikhs, to locate someone in Bayji’s all-Sunni community with enough credibility to take charge, and with whom the US forces could work. Peterman didn’t trust the Iraqis and the Iraqis didn’t trust him.

But the Iraqis understood one thing: “Better Bush than Persia,” one sheikh said, “Persia” meaning Iran. With an adversarial Shiite government to the south, and Al Qaeda’s violence all around them, the Iraqis were willing to listen to what Peterman had to say.

Captain Peterman deliberately played to the meeting’s Sunni constituency.

“If Izzat Al-Douri wants to stand beside me and fight Al Qaeda, I’ll work with him,” Peterman had told his audience, which was still sympathetic to Saddam Hussein’s former Ba’athist regime.

The Iraqis had laughed appreciatively at Izzat Al-Douri’s name, the King of Clubs in the 2003 deck of cards that denoted Hussein’s top commanders. Peterman mentioned this long-forgotten name to prove a point that the US soldiers were ready for reconciliation with former enemies. Al-Douri was on the run at the time, rumored even to be dead. He was as good a ghost story as any.

The Iraqis laughter seemed ironic at the time, like they were in on Captain Peterman’s joke. By 2014, Izzat Al-Douri seems to be back on his own terms. In retrospect, the sheiks’ laughter was informed by a clear-eyed appreciation for what was bound to happen. They were patient.

* * * *

In 2009, many of Charlie Company’s men had returned to Iraq again, this time to Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. Local “Sons of Iraq” groups had been in force in the region for a couple years, and it was fairly quiet.

New rules mandated that Iraqi and US forces have equal numbers on joint patrols. US soldiers were meant to accompany, not lead.

First Lieutenant Michael Telford’s men accompanied a night patrol of Iraqi soldiers, stopping at a patrol base in the quiet marshland north of the city. Telford and his Iraqi counterpart asked the base’s commander a few questions, but the dialogue quickly trailed away. Lt. Telford was restless, ready to hit the road to make the next stop.

Lt. Telford, on his first deployment, was equally cynical and professional. As US forces prepared to withdraw, handing over more and more responsibility to Iraqi units, he felt it would be a rough transition.

“How I’ll judge success,” Lt. Telford said at one point, “is that we leave them with enough training and stability so they don’t get slaughtered 72 hours after we leave the country.”

Through the interpreter at the Iraqi patrol base, the Iraqis explained they wanted to stay at the base for about an hour – the night’s patrol was scheduled for three hours, and to ensure it lasted that long they wanted to sit for a little while and kill some time.

Lt. Telford wasn’t having it. “You gotta do the job,” he implored them. “You can’t just sit around. You gotta do the job.”

He rallied the Iraqi soldiers, who begrudgingly continued their nighttime drive. Vehicles crawled at five miles an hour, chewing up the clock.

“A time standard. The Iraqis have a time standard now,” Lt. Telford had scoffed. “That’s what we’ve given them – a time standard.”

Telford didn’t say “after six years of war and all this work, this all we’ve given them,” I knew what he meant.

* * * *

Kent Dell was awarded a Purple Heart in Bayji, wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade in 2006. By 2009, he was a squad leader. By 2014, he is married with a daughter and is now a Masters of Public Policy student at Michigan State, intending to be a legislative analyst for Michigan government.

Like all the men of Charlie Company who made repeated deployments to Iraq – who saw the violence of 2007 replaced with the quiet near-peace of 2009, it’s impossible to not be frustrated.

“You would think when a militant group is running rampant across their country they could put aside their differences for a moment to deal with the issue,” Dell said. “What’s worse is the Iraqi people are no better off under a representative democracy than they were under a dictatorship. The only difference is their lives are now miserable due to the apathy of many, rather than the megalomania of one.”

One of Mr. Dell’s former squadmates feels equally bitter about the current Iraq situation, if not surprised. Alex Busch is now a nursing student at Georgia Southern University, scheduled to graduate in December moving toward a career as a nurse practitioner. Mr. Busch likes that nursing is a service job, like the military but “helping other people in a different way.”

“I learned as a noncommissioned officer how to talk to people,” he said. It helps with difficult patients in stressful situations. “It’s my job. Don’t take it personally, don’t internalize it.”

It’s difficult to feel the same about Iraq, which he says makes him frustrated “nearly to the point where the news makes my brain want to bleed.”

“We accomplished our mission – at heavy cost,” he said. “We handed the Iraqi people their nation on a silver platter.”

“Any of us who were actually interacting with the Iraqi security forces saw this coming. I am frustrated by our disjointed response. Overnight we went from ‘no boots on the on the ground,’ to 300 advisers. Before we throw more American lives into the fire, the American people deserve a solid plan.”

* * * *

I think back to previous plans we tried to put into action. Trying to apply small-business approaches and democratic ideals to a country that had never seen them before.

Microgrant financing seemed like a good idea, providing start-up capital to tiny businesses. A woman running a sewing shop might receive a few hundred dollars, enabling the purchase of more machines or fabric, or salaries.

Others were less concrete. In June 2009, a mission led by Second Lieutenant Will Freakley looked over a storage shed filled with broken shelves and a dusty glass case. A 20-something Iraqi man filled out paperwork, posed for the mandatory biometric eye scan. He intended to turn this empty shell into a pharmacy.

The idea alone didn’t guarantee money. The woman with the sewing business was the widow of a Sons of Iraq leader. She was all set. This man was just somebody’s cousin.

Lt. Freakley seemed a little skeptical, but he was not paid to judge.

“I don’t know if this is going to work,” he said. “But we’ll fill everything out and see how it goes.”

Lt. Freakley’s last words, a throwaway comment, I look back on now and I can’t help but apply our naiveté and wishful thinking to Iraq, since 1991, 2003, 2007, 2009, 2014 and going forward, remembering all the enthusiastic cynicism and gleeful bitterness, the biting fears and star-crossed hopes.

“We’ll give it the old college try.”

 

Nathan Webster reported from Iraq several times as a freelance photojournalist embedded with U.S. soldiers. His work has appeared in dozens of publications nationwide, most recently The Rumpus, Daily Beast, and The New York Times. He is a Lecturer of English at the University of New Hampshire.

On Boredom

by Michael Carson

Sisyphus

I do not think I’ve ever seen my son bored before.

I mean really bored.

He stares emptily at the blue leather before him, and I am worried, a little frantic even. I rummage through the pocket in front of me for a magazine. I should have brought along a book. I should have thought of taking the Ipad out of the bag before I stowed it. I should have reviewed the current rules on using phones. It will only be for a few more seconds, only until the Captain turns the seatbelt light off, but, right now, I am overwhelmed by the idea that I have failed him in some way, seeing him stare dejectedly like this into space.

More than anything, I’m horrified by his glazed eyes. They haunt me as I write. I see myself in them. I see a slipping away. An indifference to the world. It makes me think how fragile our concentration actually is, how it might be crushed, snapped, and we would just float off into eternity, as if we had never bothered entertaining ourselves at all, and there were no thought or person in this world worth entertaining.

At one point in my life, I might have gotten up on a high horse and tried to point out how this shows something wrong about our culture. I might join the hounds that entertain themselves by baying over these over-entertained children. I would say that his is killing our children’s minds. I would argue that no culture that expects to be entertained all the time can produce anything of worth. I would bring up ADHD. I would point toward our failing schools.

But this would conveniently forget how much I detest boredom as well. It would gloss over the fact that I will bring a book with me on daily errands, that I check my phone email twenty times an hour, and that I run around my block once a day to avoid being bored.

I am just as terrified of boredom as my son.

I blame this insight – such as it is – on my time in the military.

I’ve never really been bored, bored to the point of tears, bored to the point of snapping, until my time in the infantry.

If I can say the military did anything for me, it forced me to confront my fear of boredom, though it in no way diminished it.

Before the military, death was nothing compared to boredom. I would rather die than be bored.

Boredom was perhaps part of the reason I got into the military. A lingering fear that if I didn’t do something dramatic life itself might become boring.

Of course, I had never really been bored, not really, that would only come later. Apart from occasional intervals at school and church, my childhood brought with it a whole host of distractions.

You hear a lot about how the military pushes you. How you’re always busy learning new stuff about guns and weapons and making new friends and running a lot. This is true. I made some friends, and I certainly ran a lot.

There is also another, equally exciting, idea of the military out there. In this version it is all guns and explosions, shoot-outs and near death experiences. And, if you’re lucky enough to go to war, this too, is, in some respects, true.

But both, while partially true, and in evidence occasionally, fail to account for the intervals between these events. They fail to account for the fact that these events are themselves rather dreary when they do appear. To talk to anyone for over an hour, much less months on end, about patrol tactics and field etiquette, requires a heroic fortitude and courageous stoicism seldom highlighted by military recruiters. To get in conversations about whatever city your interlocutor happens to be from, and to maintain this conversation over the course of twelve-hour overwatch missions, tends to become a tad repetitive.

There is nothing more boring to me than scraping up yet another dead body. There is nothing as monotonous as the dull fear, the inkling that you could die, not in some spectacular way, in some manner deserving of retelling, or even imagining, but for a stupid reason, because someone misfires a rifle or your vehicle rolls over the wrong pothole, and others will inevitably find your death boring, scraping up pieces of you to fill up their bags.

I suppose this really a problem of novelty. Sure, the first time you hear bullets above your head it is exciting, but the second and third time? It just becomes a matter of course. It just becomes yet another way to die. And you yourself become a little bit more boring for having participated in it so often.

So when I look back on my military experiences I can’t help but think of this boredom.

I can’t help thinking of them as boring.

Of course, as I grow older, the moments that were in truth abysmally boring might in comparison to present boredoms, like, say the four-hour flight I’m now on, seem exciting and fresh, winsome even.

I try to be faithful to the memory of boredom but a man can only do so much. New boredoms continually pester whatever it is in people that survives being bored.

The lady to my left is playing some sort of game on her Ipad. She touches the screen and tries to get the colorful pill looking object around the other colorful pill looking object. The next time I look over she is moving animal parts around to complete an animal puzzle. Every time I look over it’s a different game. Now it’s playing cards. I suppose this is the advantage of the Ipad. In my day you had to choose one distraction and stick with it.

The girl to my right cannot sleep. She tries different positions. She shakes her head, sighs heavily and curls up on the window. Finally, she gives up. She pulls out headphones and begins listening to a song she has heard a thousand times before (that, to be honest, if she was being honest, has become a bit boring).

I myself type these thoughts. I order a drink. By God. I won’t be bored.

I have been bored and it’s not pretty.

My son is watching a three hour-long movie he has seen before, so I feel better about his situation. I don’t think he is bored anymore, at least not as bored.

Most everyone in the plane is nodding off, or hoping to nod off, because they find the experience of flying forty-thousand feet above the earth boring.

You could blame the companies for packing us like this or the people for agreeing to it.

It’s really a matter of perspective – your enthusiasm for criticism, self-criticism or some combination of the two.

Right now, the stewardess is passing out peanuts, which my son, the chubby lady to my left, the teenager to my right, and I all open simultaneously, shoving them into our mouths with impatience, momentarily interested in the sparkle of salt on our tongues.

We are good souls, we are.

Never quite bored because we are in fact quite boring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suicide and the Military

by ahbonenberger

There are two substantial issues facing the American military and veteran community today. The first, a logical and narratively unified reaction to years of hero-worship, is a backlash against the impulse to thank soldiers for their service – a tendency, made explicit in recent media pieces, to vilify veterans and stigmatize them as prone to violence, hatred, racism, bigotry, and murder. The second issue is less dangerous than the first in absolute terms, but based on real statistics and empirical evidence: a growing problem with suicide.

This topic has been examined under a microscope. 22 soldiers and veterans die per day in America by their own hand, victims of some unknowable, tragically preventable plague. Especially tragic given the notion that a person who has cheated death should have some sort of inherent attachment to life. We believe that a man, having avoided bombs, bullets, and grenades from determined foes as variable as the enemies we’ve faced over the last seventy years, should have a higher reason to live. We believe that a soldier-veteran, ennobled by the experience of having come close to an end to their existence, should far more than others be eager to embrace the world, to love life. We imagine that we, in our dull day to day lives, which include regret, and trifle, and petty annoyances, have got it bad, and that veterans have seen clear through to some transcendent truth. Like a sunset over the water after a thunderstorm, with rays of light reaching up into the heaven, and beyond ourselves. Like encountering a known limitation, and moving beyond it.

Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 3.07.27 PM

Of course veterans are people like everyone else. Different in the sense that they’ve made a choice many non-veterans think – wrongly – that they’re incapable of making, fed on a steady diet of propaganda from movies, books, comics, video games, and history. Think, then, how disappointing it must be for a servicemember – a soldier, marine, airman, sailor, or coastguardsman (what do they call themselves?) – to discover that they won’t see war? Or, having seen it, that there’s no transcendent truth behind a dead face – friend or foe? Imagine that every meaningful assumption you’d made about the order of things was up-ended – good, generous, industrious and clever people died or were thwarted, while bad people, lazy and unscrupulous people profited and prospered? How would you feel, to know that life and death meant nothing?

I’m laying aside the question of faith in a higher power, and refraining from offering my own thoughts on the subject because a great many different ideas have occurred simultaneously in war on the topic of who believed what about which God, and praying to each of them seems to have had about the same effect (which is to say, nothing). Also, men of faith have taken their own lives, and agnostics and atheists have done the same, and out of respect for their service to God and Country, I should like to imagine that their lives are better or easier now.

During my time in the military, I came to believe that one reason there were so many suicides – apart from the proportional wealth of toxic leaders I encountered who likely did much to encourage their soldiers to take their own lives – was that it’s the single area over which the military has absolutely no jurisdiction. Each individual is instructed from the earliest moments in training that authority is violence, and violence is authority, and who can do the greatest harm to whom determines rank. A salute isn’t just a gesture of respect, it’s an acknowledgement of hierarchy. One person must awake at four in the morning to clean an area so that another person can walk over it with dirty boots. Infractions are punished. Individuality is punished. Thoughts are punished. Feelings are punished.

But suicide can’t be punished. Threats of suicide and suicide attempts are taken seriously by military units – very seriously – with the offending soldier often being carted out to behavior health and instantly transformed into a walking pariah, at least to the extent to which that soldier is still allowed to be a part of their unit. The impulse or desire to commit suicide, vocalized, is the worst type of offense possible – likely because it undermines the possibility of corrective violence, which is the military’s only organizational / institutional ability to correct misbehavior. For a toxic leader, who relies only on the threat of violence, suicide must be an evil. For a good or scrupulous leader, suicide is an unparalleled catastrophe.

Some people are afflicted with medical conditions that prevent them from taking any joy in life, or the world. Depression – suicidal depression – is a real condition. For these people, sights and smells and sentiments from which reasonable people would take pleasure offer nothing instead. These people require help – medical assistance, psychiatric guidance – and should be in places, surrounded by professionals who are capable of giving them said help. I’ve had brushes with depression in my own life, had my share of beautiful summer evenings that unaccountably tasted like ash – enough to know that people who must live with depression, with existential crisis, on a daily, hourly basis are truly cursed.

But this is different. These active duty military service members are killing themselves not because of a biochemical predisposition toward self-murder, but as an alternative to a torture that must feel infinitely worse than the idea of painlessness.

Veteran suicide, meanwhile, points at a similar but more diffuse problem – the problem of finding suitable engagement for veterans habituated to being employed, accustomed to using themselves in a way that creates meaning and value for their societies (but unable to do that in the context of the military any more, for a variety of reasons). Society itself becomes the problem for which the only solution is painless release – a society where service members are allowed to transition out without having jobs ready for them, or livelihoods assured.

So long as the military has toxic leadership, and a promotion system that encourages toxicity, many service members will take their own lives. So long as society does not have adequate room for veterans who wish nothing more than a steady pay check and some sort of useful employment, veterans will take their own lives. Perhaps the answer to the scourge is not to vilify the preventable suicides – but vilify the systems that make them possible in the first place. Otherwise, the prudent solution could be to stop vilifying suicide in the first place – make it an acceptable option in the event that a person’s life is truly unbearable. Of course, the system of financial servitude we live in could not bear such a situation – it would quickly collapse.

We Are All Bowe Bergdahl

by Michael Carson

Freedom

Freedom?

We called it Operation Istanbul.

Initially, it wasn’t much of a plan. We wouldn’t have made it halfway to Kurdistan. But over time Operation Istanbul morphed into an arabesque our hundred-man Brigade S3 shop would have envied.

Operation Overlord was child’s play compared to Operation Istanbul.

“What about gas?” one of the privates asked, an intelligent boy from Georgia who didn’t want to be either in Iraq or back in Georgia.

“Good point,” I affirmed, showing that not only could I lead but I could listen. “We’d have to send a scout team out, maybe Robbins and O’Donnell, to distract the motor pools NCOs. Cory could fill up at least a couple tanks.”

My squad leader, who had been looking intently, even a tad angrily, at the dirt, tracing, sharp evil figures there with his boot, spoke up, ”sir, we’d need a task force to puncture the CSMs tires. He’d have the entire battalion after us by mid-afternoon. We would have to do this at least three hours before zero hour.”

The privates giggled. “Yes, maybe smash the motor pool radios? You know they’ll call in the birds.”

“Yeah, they have GPS too you know.”

“The second border will be a problem. We’d have to ditch the Humvees. We’d be a little conspicuous.”

“Some Jihadi will use it as a propaganda ploy if they found them.”

“We could blow them up once we made it the mountains.”

I nodded wisely. “And then blame it on the Kurds, ask for help from the Turks.”

“What if the Turks ended up talking? Telling the Battalion Commander?”

“I doubt they’d hand us over. Aren’t they friends with Russia?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I think their friends with us. They’d probably just hand us right back.”

My squad leader would not be deterred.

“But what if they didn’t? What if we pleaded asylum?”

Now I also giggled. The idea of us trekking through the mountains, half-starved, utterly confused, looked upon with wonder by Turkish peasants, trying to explain ourselves to the Istanbul authorities, was a rather funny one. We were such a hopeless little unit, utterly without intellectual reserves but not lacking in imaginative grandeur.

I seconded my squad leader. “Right, we’ll put together a fragmentary operations order having to do with contingency operations, including but not limited to questions of asylum.”

We were joking of course. I had no intention of actually doing what we talked about and I assumed – maybe a bit naively – that my soldiers didn’t either. It was a dream of freedom. A romantic scenario of adventure and escape that became increasingly deranged the longer into the night we debated its merits. Eventually, we had a UN peace keeping force chasing us across the Galata Bridge, the Yemeni and Israeli navies struggling for control of the Persian Gulf, and the few surviving members of the platoon fighting onward through Serbia, up into Finland, and taking hostage a fishing trawler bound for Greenland. There, what was left of our tired, broken and begrimed retinue fell in the ice, glorious and forever frozen and snowy white and clean of the war.

If the initial part of our plan sounds familiar, it should, and not because Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is in the news recently, but because there is a great tradition of escapism in American war stories. Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane had many tales of Civil War deserters. First World War novelists could not wait to get to war so they could walk away from it in manly disgust. In Catch-22, Yossarian and Orr seek escape from the people trying to kill them in the ocean. Tim O’Brien wrote a whole book about a soldier deciding to walk from Vietnam to Paris called Going After Cacciato. Yet this is not unique to books about war; it is also cultural. Americans love the idea of going off the grid, facing the elements alone, throwing over the responsibilities and expectations of civility. TV shows like Survivor Man and Survivor imagine men and women alone with the elements, proving their skills and getting back to their roots. Our movies nearly always feature one man in a brainwashed society, the chosen one, who sees clearly and can save everyone else from their civilized degeneracy. Adventure companies make good money marketing pre-packaged exoticism and myths of rugged individualism. Politicians gain power preaching lies of ahistorical self-determinism to their constituencies.

So, it seems to go without saying that when faced with something even the least bit boring and enervating, most Americans would at least consider walking away. And even professional soldiers grow tired of war. Not because they are afraid but because they are romantically predisposed as the rest of us. They think the command incompetent, the unit pathetic and their continued risking of life a waste, and they imagine taking matters into their own hands, walking off to a place where the command is competent, the people inspiring and the risking of life worthwhile. Problem is, of course, that this is sheer fantasy. As we are slowly discovering with Bergdahl – whose attempt at self-sufficiency ended up making him dependent on both a significant portion of the United States military and the Taliban – war’s banality extends all the way down, defining those who try to escape as well as those who try to bring them back. Further, I would argue that not just war but modern life itself is a slog that requires the help of other people, people who will be for the most part self-interested, bumbling and boring as you, whether you like it or not. If you do try to just walk off the grid, you will fail. A stingray will stab you. The Taliban will pick you up while defecating.

But what of those who stay? Were we somehow better people for not following through on Operation Istanbul? Perhaps. I don’t think we were any less romantic. Many of us were there because we thought war might offer and escape from the grind of managerial positions and Home Depot janitorial duties. Politicians and pundits sent us to Iraq because they were bored by the endless and demeaning back and forth of weapon inspections and international law. Some of us secretly wanted to train hard and become something really romantic, like Special Forces soldiers who could grow beards, wear whatever they wanted, and hop about the world saving damsels in distress. Others couldn’t wait to get home where they could settle down into happy domestic lives with spouses and children miraculously cured of pre-deployment grievances and discontents. We decided against one fantasy in favor of a more obviously safe one: namely, just do your job, keep you head down, and hope for the best. Our romance simply took another form.

At the time of Bergdahl’s disappearance, many repeated over and over the comforting idea of “no man left behind.” Since then, much has been revealed about Bergdahl’s character, and those who disapprove of Bergdahl’s actions have refined it to the clumsier: “no man who we like as a person and approve of as a soldier left behind.” But either version is equally romantic, a way of distracting us from the obvious, not that six soldiers died looking for him, but the fact we leave men behind all the time. We left around 50,000 in Vietnam, 5,000 of them in Iraq and 2,500 in Afghanistan. Their bodies might come home, but they are not coming back, whatever their personal heroic values or lack thereof. To replace them, we have reimagined them; we have woven them into countless other romances, enmeshing their individual and utterly meaningless eviscerations by bomb or sniper bullet into another magical quilt of American fantasia; we have deluded ourselves that if we give it another year, the tide will turn, history will collapse upon itself, and the people living in a country that is not ours will love us like brothers and embrace us and those who fell fighting for them as heroes.

Operation Istanbul would have ended badly. This should not take away from the fact that Iraq did end badly. If the Bergdahl story teaches us anything it’s that escape is a powerful fantasy in war and war is a powerful escapist fantasy. But we won’t learn this. Until the romance comes full circle, until we can be feted as liberators forever and forever, an eternal return where we storm Normandy and save France until the end of time, we will pile on Bergdahl, blame six deaths on him at first, then, eventually, all the deaths and all our successive failures on him and people like him. We will blame the authors of books like Catch-22 and Going After Cacciato for teaching Americans they can walk away from wars that they cannot actually walk away from, for taking our inherent escapism and exacerbating it through counter-cultural mythologies, all the while imagining ourselves to be realists, hard thinkers, men of the world. We will, in essence, do everything in our power to deny that the insidious romanticism that inspired Bergdahl to leave his post is much the same as the one that inspires us to stay at ours.

In Defense of Open Wounds

by Michael Carson

Helen Benedict’s Guernica Magazine essay paints a comic picture of a recent New York City literary event. In the piece, Benedict describes the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim departing from a pleasant discussion of literature to touch upon a rather awkward subject:

“Your army came to my country and destroyed it,” he said, arms crossed, eyes calm. “Your war has not only destroyed this generation, it has destroyed generations of Iraqis’ futures. And you don’t even say you’re sorry.”

I wasn’t there. I suppose it was not as funny for the people in the room as it is for me. But it is funny. The Americans have found a real live Iraqi who writes books, whose brilliance – according to his Penguin book blurb – is “forged” by the crucible of war (like a sword), and have paid a lot of money to have him go on tour in their country as Europeans used to take Native Americans through Europe. But, just when you want to have a nice discussion about literature and magical realism, just when we were going to see how decent and civil a sufficiently westernized Arab can be over a croissant and glass of wine, he goes and throws this curveball, this stunning accusation, at everyone in the room.

I mean who could have seen this coming?

Well, anyone who read Blasim’s book for one. His short story collection is so powerful not because it describes war but because it interrogates so ruthlessly the aesthetic appeal of violence. His work mocks those who make money at war, and not just arms dealers or politicians – that’s a little too easy – but the artists, the storytellers who make their money off of the violence. The title story of his American debut is not called Corpse Exhibition for nothing. In one of his stories, civilians vie with each other to tell the most horrific life story; to be proud of these experiences, this capacity, is, to say the least, a complicated sort of pride. Thus, Blasim, you could say, is the winner of a contest he is not very comfortable winning.

Yet Benedict insinuates not many people have read the book. She then proceeds to take veterans to task for their failure to face the fact of their crimes. They – everyone last one of them – “become trapped in a painful, roiling stew of unresolved guilt, unable to feel like a “good” person while desperately needing to.” Luckily, these poor souls are not alone; they have civilians there to take some of the blame: “We, too, are caught in morally erosive tangle of denial and lies, a tangle that has made us lose sight of who on earth we Americans are.” She enjoins all Americans, veterans and civilians, to regain our sense of moral clarity by facing up to and apologizing for our moral complicity. The problem is, this blandishment, like all such appeals to a recovery of essential “Americanness,” conveniently forgets the fact that this belief in the possibility of moral clarity, of a true “Americanness” that can be achieved through some sort of redemptive narrative and manichean universe, is largely what caused all this moral complicity in the first place.

I assume Benedict’s description of the audience’s reaction, silence, is likely dramatized. How could a bunch of writers, veteran writers no less, be so naïve to not seen this coming? But the drama makes aesthetic sense. Americans want to believe these ex-soldiers had nothing to say to Blasim because it fits so well into the American mythology of intense naiveté followed by hard-earned wisdom, with the idea that if we can try hard enough we can put our past behind us (as we did so successfully after Vietnam). If veterans and civilians haven’t truly considered what they did in Iraq, if they haven’t said they’re sorry (a meaningful sorry, no crossed fingers!) there is now a perfectly reasonable explanation for their lack of psychological health and political malaise. All the suicides, all those murders, all the sadness – Americans just need to own up to what we did and find our way back to our true essential American self, its “moral center” (which is obviously good and upstanding and innocent and un-suicidal). I admit it is nice to think that America is sitting where it is right now because it hasn’t said it’s sorry or admitted it made a mistake, but life, I’m sorry to say, is not an Disney movie (or a Spielberg one). America cannot regain a moral purity it never actually had.

But many insist otherwise. The question then is this: when did the world make sense for America? Where is this moral purity? When were heroes heroes, wars good, and civilians innocent? Benedict seizes on 1945 as the date we lost our way. We bit the apple sometime in the late 1950s or 1960s. Maybe in Vietnam. Maybe in Korea. I don’t know. People tend to be unclear about the specifics of the fall and quite clear about their vague fondness for World War Two. After 9/11, people were worried America had lost it’s way. Dictators were crushing freedoms all over the world, attacking us, and we sat idly by. Journalists and politicos furiously demanded the American they knew and loved wouldn’t be morally confused; their greatest generation, their grandfathers, would not have stood for this agonizing ambiguity. I was raised in the 1990s, before 9/11, when every other movie was about the good Germans who stood up to the Nazis during the Holocaust or the heroism of a band of ne’er-do-wells who stormed Normandy and took down Hitler. Things might have been confusing with the LA riots and school shootings and Kosovo, but back in the 1940s, back during the good war, things were not so morally frustrating. Things made sense.

Except for they didn’t. Someone living in the early 1940s, in a segregated country still hemorrhaging from the failure of their economic system, allied with Stalin, murderer of over 20 million people, contemplating whether or not to destroy entire cities of human beings with nuclear energy, would have hardly have described themselves as living in a time of innocence and moral clarity. Propaganda from the period makes it seem this way and worked very hard to make people believe the world was simpler and less messy than it actually was, but why should we believe the propaganda? I thought we were better than that. It’s time we admitted memories of the Second World War have become a sort of moral pornography. Not only do they push Americans to make horribly stupid decisions concerning going to war and blowing up countries, they undermine criticism of more recent wars. If we continue to see Vietnam and Iraq as exceptions to the rule, as deviations from a previous moral clarity, we will continue to hunt for this moral clarity and continue to apologize to country after country for what our moral confusion has wrought.

The idea that there is an original “self” or culture uncorrupted by time’s complications and indignities is absurd. Life itself, last time I checked, is “a morally erosive tangle of denial and lies.” Blasim’s call for an apology, I would think, has more to do with our predilection for this insidious fallacy. He likely wants us to apologize for believing that life could be any different, that Americans were at some point in our past exempt from the normal processes of history and experience. Toward the end of the interview Benedict has Blasim comparing reality in the wake of the Iraq war to “a giant mirror that has fallen and shattered into a million shards.” “Each one of us,” Blasim says, “picks up one shard and thinks he sees the whole picture.” Benedict, ironically, sees this as a call to action. Americans need to restore the mirror to look like it was in 1945. But isn’t the exact problem? Our tendecy to pick up a shard and act as if what we saw there – ourselves mainly – were the whole image? And then to hubristically force all the shards together to make a monstrous doppleganger of this fantastic idea of ourselves?

The good old days.

If we could just get back here somehow…

Benedict concludes with a suggestion:

“Thus I have a suggestion. Like the veterans I know who are struggling with the question, “Am I still a good person and, if not, how can I be good again?” so should we civilians ask this of ourselves: How we can we feel like a morally upright, “good” people when our military has killed and tortured so many innocents with our support, tacit or otherwise, and continues to do so? And if we do face these facts, where and how do we start to heal?”

Speaking as one veteran of the Iraq war, I have a suggestion as well, for civilians and veterans – let’s not be healed. Let’s keep the wounds open. Let’s see these wounds as not something to be cleaned up and forgotten but important contradictions that should be rigorously contemplated and endured for as long possible. Let’s not be so quick to apologize or pretend facing the facts will somehow make the facts go away. A half-a-million Iraqis will still be dead no matter how heartfelt our apology, no matter how intense our honesty. So, instead of imagining a world and America that never actually was, instead of seeing ourselves as good or bad, as characters in a medieval morality play, let’s examine the America that is here. That’s what Blasim did. He exhibited corpses. We would be well advised to resist burying our own under yet another destructive nostalgia.

 

 

 

 

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