The Wrath Bearing Tree

War is Not Ironic

by Michael Carson

At one point during my deployment to Iraq, I asked an odd question. A soldier had been shot in the head. I was trying to get him back to the base hospital. I liked the soldier who had been shot. I did not want him to be shot. But shot he was and this is what I whispered to myself, under my breath, with gritted teeth:

“Are you happy?”

I could not sleep that night. The full extent of my complicity in this absurd war kept me awake. I finally gathered what was wrong and what was wrong was me. I saw clearly that I had done and had participated and no matter how earnest my contrition about the horribleness of it all, now that my friend and soldier had been shot, I would be a liar, because what had happened was not in the least ironic. I had expected it.

But, in my defense, all Americans expected it.

Paul Fussell’s literary history The Great War and Modern Memory seems to be undergoing a renaissance of sorts lately. In it, Fussell more or less argues that the war made European culture ironic because it was an ironic war. Nothing turned out as expected. As there has been no shortage of jaded war literature since the war, this sounds good. It makes sense from a literary perspective. Problem is, from a historical perspective, this is not in the least true. A quick glance anything other than Owen’s poetry and Graves’ angry fusillade against British culture (written ten years after the war and which he later expressed regret for) will tell you that the decades leading to the Second World War will show anyone that the people of America, Britain, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union were not especially ironic or anymore ironic after the war then they were before. This was the age of freewheeling capitalism, of communism, of fascism, of religious revivalism and soldier worship. If anything, The First World War ushered in an age of earnestness (Read Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning for a historian’s take on the question) that made hash of a vibrant pre-war culture.

Great War

Some British war literature did build on a rich satirical tradition but anyone who has read Dickens and Thackeray can tell you that World War One did not invent literary irony. This irony helped them endure the war longer than most belligerent nations, to look away and laugh as it sucked away their entire population and destroyed their economy, but it did not emerge in this awfulness. The Wipers Times, a satirical trench newspaper – forbearer perhaps of sites like the Duffelblog – is a great example of this, and nothing in that famous satirical paper does not build off the foundation of irony established well before the war. France and Germany had very few war ironists during the war. All Quiet came well after the war, ten years in fact, when everyone decided to play at irony as a last ditch effort against the main legacy of the war: seething anger, delusional stab-in-the-back romance and despair.

Fussell’s observations are correct and insightful insofar as they focus on the war poets – the Owens and Rosenbergs – who, ironically, did not survive their war. I think this renaissance of Fussell’s work has much to do with not only the First World War’s hundredth anniversary but with the volunteer nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We soldiers and Americans in general – so this version of events goes – are suddenly like Owen because we did not get what we expected. We went in as starry-eyed idealists after the towers fell and became hardened ironists through the brutality of a war we had no way of knowing could be bad. This movement from innocence to hardened wisdom makes for a great story, a sense of growth, of progress. Sentimentalists love a specious sense of closure, and this movement provides us this.

Yet it is not true.

Unless we were born in a cave (no, I take that back, even if one lived in a cave), everyone knows that when you go to war you kill people and are killed. You can’t possibly plead ignorance as a boy born on an Arkansas farm might in 1917 (and even this I find doubtful). Wars are about killing. And every war has people die and be killed. This is their appeal. It is an end to civility, a giving up on the norms of reason and accountability. Only a literal moron would think otherwise. For accounts of such morons, see Ambrose Bierce’s brilliant “Chickamauga,” narrated by a mute and dumb boy, or the psychopathic Ronald Weary of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Very few deaf and dumb mute people fought in Iraq in Afghanistan and very few deaf and dumb mutes voted for the war. There were admittedly a couple Ronald Wearys running about the halls of Congress and the Army and Marines but they were in no way the majority. So what gives? How is everyone so surprised when war turns out to be horrible and boring and as stupid as we thought it would?

Now there is the argument that we do not know really know what we claim to know or expect about war. We can say “war is horrible,” but we do not really understand it until we have seen it ourselves. There is some truth to this. But this is actually an argument against wartime irony. In this version, the full impact of its horror somehow breaks the civilized veneer of cynicism, which has become, so the logic goes, enervating to our sense of moral clarity. Experience or at least faith in something breaks down the distracting and consuming paradoxes of knowledge. Famously, the fall of the towers supposedly ended our irony, so we could see clearly again, and the first thing we did with our newfound earnestness is go to war against evil incarnate because we were sick and tired of the dissimulations and tongue-in-cheek circumlocutions of civilized discourse. War, we understood with reptilian logic, is where irony goes to die. We wanted it dead, and we killed it good.

In “What I Saw at Shiloh,” Ambrose Bierce, recounting the hideous forms of the Union dead, professes that he “cannot catalogue the charms of these gallant gentlemen who got exactly what they enlisted for.” This is harsh – they didn’t call him “Bitter Bierce” for nothing – but I think Bierce’s observation is less an accusation than an acknowledgment that part of war stories, part of the appeal of war, and part of those who adore war stories, derives from a false sense of ignorance on part of the civilians, readers and soldiers. War, we want to pretend, surprises us with its violence. This is part of the appeal, for being surprised with death is much more exciting than plowing crops from dawn to dusk, working at a Connecticut insurance company from nine to five or just lounging around all day at the local bar.


Gallant gentlemen at Shiloh

We go to war because we want to be surprised and we are duly surprised by death, human meanness and degradation. War is reliable in this respect. People forget how many of the modernists, those supposedly darkly ironic men, who for the most part turned after the war toward Christianity (Eliot), fascism (Pound) or Marxism (Brecht), saw in the First World War an antidote to peacetime banality, soullessness and ennui. The wasteland isn’t in Flanders but in London. The war confirmed their suspicion about existence and gave them a great metaphor; it did not teach them anything of note.

Phil Klay’s collection of short war stories has just won the National Book Award. The award is well deserved. His stories of various marines – from grunts doing jumping jacks on buildings to draw fire, to chaplains looking for true faith in the crucible of fire, to award writers filled with shame at the stories they are forced to make up about men under fire – touch on the way which the war gives us exactly what we expect, not how it surprises us, but how we are always stunned when we get what we thought we wanted and now no longer want.


Klay’s work is what we need because it deals with the problem of expectation. And yet there are already a series of writers and critics seeking to place Klay’s work within a tradition it is not really part of – as a proud entrant in a long line of ironic war art, whose original honorees would likely refuse the honor. They want to see the writing of his stories as a catharsis, a triumph for art over war, because they are sick of thinking about the war and this is how the story has always gone, and, most simply, this is what they expect.

But this is a lie, that old lie, as Owen might say, and we should react to the horror in Klay’s work not with surprise, not with blather about catharsis, and happy talk of how war art endures and triumphs over the barbarity of war, but admit that on some level when we went to war we as a country and as individuals expected the emotional, psychological and physical barbarity that would follow. And if this is true, if we do look toward war to answer questions we already know the answer to, then we need to really ask ourselves one thing and one thing only, the same question I asked and the same question we should ask after every war: quite simply, are we happy to get exactly what we expected? And – if we are not – maybe we need to start looking for novel and less catastrophic affirmations.

Peace in the Middle East (by Christmas 2014)

by ahbonenberger

I have the solution to the full-blown crisis in the Middle East, and as usual, America is the only country that can do it right. Russia has the resources, but let’s face it – they’re too fundamentally disorganized and sentimentalist to make it happen the way it needs to. No, only America can solve this human catastrophe. Sweet, rational, reasonable, capitalist America can do it tomorrow, and for good.

Here’s the problem: there are two more or less evenly-matched factions, with a host of smaller groups that are forced to affiliate with one faction or the other, or risk destruction. They have the full array of modern means by which to kill each other – arsenals that would put Hitler’s Wehrmacht to flight several times over. They are, the two interests opposed in the Middle East and on into Afghanistan, a perfectly-honed killing machine, and they will slaughter until some third party intervenes to arrest the slaughter, only to resume again after the third party leaves. As soon as one side gains an advantage sufficient for victory, someone steps in with just enough authority to prevent a necessarily bloody, one-sided religious and cultural annihilation. The problem has plagued the area since at least recorded history, and probably longer, and all attempts at a peaceful solution have met with failure.

Until now.

The only reason the United States and Soviet Russia didn’t end up going back to war almost immediately after WWII – five to ten years, tops – was fear of the nuclear bomb. We almost went to war several times afterwards anyway, pulled back from the edge by the certainty that destroying each other would be foolish and useless if the only thing that we accomplished in so doing was our own destruction. So here’s the deal – we give every group of at least 10,000 members within every faction five hydrogen bombs. For you laymen out there, a hydrogen or thermonuclear bomb clocks in around 500 kilotons (“Little Boy,” the truth-nugget America dropped on Hiroshima for the unthinkable crime of obstinacy, clocked in at 16 kilotons), enough to level a medium-sized city. That includes Nusra, ISIS, Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds, the Syrian Kurds, Assad’s regime, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the Taliban – everyone. Everyone gets enough nuclear ass to wipe the other portion off the face of the earth, plus a little bit left over to use as they please.

If everyone in the Middle East could destroy everyone else, they'd be peaceful instead. Photograph by Paddy Dunne

If everyone in the Middle East could destroy everyone else, they’d be peaceful instead. Photograph by Paddy Dunne

Now I know what you’re thinking. “We’ve worked so hard to prevent these groups from getting nukes – what’s to stop them from using them irresponsibly, against each other, or against us? They want to destroy our freedom, and freedom is notoriously vulnerable to atomic weaponry.” That’s a valid concern. But while it’s possible that our gift to the Middle East of enough fire and anger to destroy itself several times over, with the push of a button, another possibility exists: peace.

I said it. It’s possible – even likely, I would argue, that, faced with the very real possibility of nuclear annihilation – total destruction, the kind where nobody gets anything, and in such a way that your soul gets trapped here on earth by the blast, do not pass go, do not ascend to heaven – each faction would look to make peace with each other, and with us. Nuclear weapons have a strange way of inspiring even the biggest zealots among us to exercise restraint. Zealotry is usually tied to egotism and a fear of being destroyed – a desire for sex and procreation and the assurance that one will be free to make children who can in turn make children. Arm everyone with nukes, and we’ll all be safe.

What’s the downside? Well, it’ll be a tough sell for some countries. Israel has been justifiably concerned that if Arab countries and Iran get their hands on nukes, that they will use the nukes against them, and wipe them off the map. Surely, however, this is rhetoric – the Arab countries and Iran really just want Israel for themselves. And, once again, 2500 kilotons would destroy Israel utterly – nobody could have it. No, I think Israel would be safer, if anything, were it to be surrounded with suddenly-responsible people. Nukes are like the philosopher’s stone of radicalism, causing the most hardline beheaders to morph into paragons of conservatism and restraint. It should be at the point where there’s at least one nuke in every city in the Middle East, pointing at some other city. Sure, it’d be terrifying – but nothing would happen. Guarantee it.

And just to make sure, we could enable a trigger mechanism with a GPS function that would detonate if anyone screwed with it, and detonate if it was moved out of the Middle East. We can build cars that drive themselves. We can make a GPS nuke that won’t travel. It’s not rocket science.

We’d do it all at once. Make an announcement: “Check it out. Syria, Iraq, Qatar, Yazidi, Kurds, Turkey, Hezbollah, Armenia, Hamas, Kuwait, Taliban, Afghanistan, on December 1st, at 1200, we’re going to be flying planes full of nuclear anger into your countries. Resistance is futile. If you shoot at the planes they’ll just drop the bombs instead and see how you like that. Take possession of the nukes – they will be attached to simple trigger mechanisms that require only the push of a conveniently big red button – and let our planes fly away, in peace. Good luck and godspeed.”

This is a fine and workable idea. I will get some good sleep at night – mighty good sleep – as the fire burning the Middle East is put out for once and for all. Faced with the abyss, rather than platitudes – there’s no honor in getting destroyed for nothing, without the chance to even think of Allah or God or whomever – people would settle into the same boring, quotidian routines that we’ve come to resent.

Recalcitrant Natives and the Problem of Accountability

by Michael Carson



The age-old question: How do you teach the congenitally irresponsible to act responsibly?


According to SIGAR’s latest quarterly report to Congress, released October 30th, 2014, the American and international community’s reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan are not going as well as we had hoped. It seems that the 104 billion dollar reconstruction resulted in 411,000 full-time equivalent jobs for the Afghanistan opium industry; the insurgency’s supporters – those on which we have spent many more billions fighting – would be one of the prime recipients of reconstruction contracts and government largesse; and enormously expensive irrigation projects in Nangarhar, Badakhshan, and Kunar provinces actually helped increase opium-poppy cultivation.

This is admittedly bad. At the same time, this corruption on the part of the people of Afghanistan just proves what some of us always suspected – namely, you simply cannot trust uncivilized and backward people to do the right thing by themselves. You have to train them to be responsible and accountable like the West. Once they see how we always take responsibility for our actions, and how we always ensure our every dollar goes to where it needs to, then they will inevitably follow suit.

I have some experience with this. I deployed to Iraq, a smaller country with a smaller reconstruction budget of only 60 billion. Still, we did what we could with what we had. We spent it on berms, on contractors, on schools – benevolent projects that were supposed to be used to protect, give jobs and educate people. We were always extra careful to spend it only on undertakings that made us feel warm and fuzzy inside, on berms and buildings we associated with civilization. This struck us as scientific because science had at one time been used to create the projects we were building and we used a lot of scientific jargon to describe the projects. Fortunately for us, there were plenty of such projects to complete, as the sudden influx of suicide bombers and IEDs had destroyed the city’s once functioning infrastructure.

The Iraqis never thanked us. All they ever wanted was more propane. What do you want gas for?” we asked. “We’re trying to build you a school. Don’t you want to be scientists like us?” No, they wanted gas, something about having no reliable power source since the invasion. But even when we gave them gas, they would just sell it to line their own pockets and feed their insatiable greed. Their audacity knew no limits. You would give them gas out of the goodness of your heart to help run their military bases and they would turn around and sell it to some landlord. What kind of country, what kind of people mind you, would put the sale and capitalization of energy products above the interest of their own people? What kind of hard-hearted Neanderthals would be more concerned with making money off of oil when their infrastructure crumbles around them and people are in poverty?

Having studied the Vietnam War through movies about the war, I saw clearly that you needed to temper violence with creative and confidence-building projects, or else you might lose the people’s respect. You had to show them that they should like you and want to be like you. The problem, though, is you couldn’t trust any of them to come to this logical conclusion. They had no sense of history. You could give them all this stuff, all the money, power, and weapons, and they would just fitter it away on contractors, jihad and trinkets. They had no real dignity, no self-awareness. If there was one thing I learned from my year driving around in someone else’s town, barging into their houses, tearing apart their rooms, scaring their children half to death, and handing out paychecks to pay for the damages, it’s that you can’t make a man self-aware through force and money. People either have self-awareness or they don’t, and the people of these primitive countries most definitely do not.

My interactions with Iraqi children always brought this last point home extra forcefully. The soldiers and I liked to give them candy and stuffed animals and take pictures with them. Everyone had a grand time. At least here we were making Mosul a better place so the next generations of citizens would look fondly upon the American occupation. I know I would think the same thing if the Russians invaded my hometown. “Thanks for building the vodka distillery,” I would tell the Russians. “Thanks for all the neat Matryoshka dolls. My kids love them.” There is nothing that better serves to increase civic-mindedness, patriotism and personal accountability then invading a country and telling them what to do with their lives. This gave me some consolation, the hope that the next generation would be more responsible than the present one, and that the Iraqi people would forever stay like their children. Of course, it didn’t quite work as planned in Iraq because we left them on their own. And everyone knows you never leave children by themselves.  Still, I for one still cherish these memories and hope for a day when all Iraqis, men, women and children alike, will again smile and cheer obligingly when I give them candy.

Until then, we still have work to do in Afghanistan. The fact that the Afghans are using our money for their contemptible and singular drug habit, and that they are lavishing our hard-earned resources on self-serving contractors, is indeed worrisome and reminds me of our difficulties in Iraq. But this doesn’t mean the war is a failure. Not in the least. It simply means we should double down on the money we have left (15 billion according to SIGAR) and perhaps ask Congress for additional appropriations to hire more enlightened contractors of our own, as we should have done in Iraq. These people will never learn the importance of taking responsibility for themselves unless we continue to blindly justify our past mistakes through half-hearted and haphazard investments. For the fact is nothing teaches a backward and benighted people to be responsible with money and accountable for their expenses like acting responsible and holding every guilty party accountable for our own.

America’s Middle East Policy: The Great Post-Persia Hangover

by ahbonenberger

We never meant things to get out of hand the way they did in Iran. Let’s agree about that to begin with, let’s agree that the CIA’s role in replacing a democratically elected but left-leaning leader in the 1950s with a dictator, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was understandable in the context of Persia’s vast oil fields, and the widespread belief at the time that we were on the strategic defensive against an ascendent and nuclear Soviet Union. Let’s agree that yes, there were excesses, as there often are, even in our society today. There was CIA-condoned torture – a lot of it – so much so that if you were to ask an Iranian immigrant from that time about the Shah, he or she would likely tell you that life under the Shah was about as bad as it later became under the Clerics – but Persia was right next to the Soviet Union, and this was an existential fight. Sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, especially when the free world is on the line.

Iran was supposed to be a lock, for us, like it had been for the British. And the thing about America is that it’s better than Britain – in many ways, it’s just Britain 2.0. More freedom. Better PR. Hotter chicks, with better teeth. That’s the promise of America – bigger, beefier, less nonsense, and we can tell the difference between a bad guy and a good guy. Above all, the implicit bargain between America and its overseas pals is simple: you love us, we’ve got your back.

The type of revolution that occurred in Persia, coming when it did, after Vietnam, was unthinkable. A safely pro-US country turned its back on us, and started calling us “The Great Satan.” Worse than couching its rhetoric in a language we shared, the language of religion, they didn’t even ally with the Soviet Union. A defection along rational lines from our system to that of the Soviet Union would have stung, but was also easy to rationalize – we’d just allowed ourselves to get beat by the Vietnamese, because of weak and liberal politicians. In other words, had Persia gone Red like everyone else, well, that’s because we were beating ourselves. We were too weak. That was the national narrative at the time. And when you’re losing due to some decision you made, when you’re losing due to omission, it’s almost like you didn’t lose at all, right? It’s not like fighting fair, mano e mano, and getting slapped down by someone stronger.

This kinda looks like how things are shaping up in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, etc. Coincidence?

This kinda looks like how things are shaping up in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, etc. Coincidence?

But Persia went for something new, and pre-enlightenment. They went in the opposite direction of the Soviet Union. They rejected Western systems entirely, and embraced a pre-colonial, theology-based organization instead. It’s pointless to debate the merits of their system – anyone who’d claim Iran ended up better off as a theocratic despotism is either an extremist, an ideologue, or a buffoon. They slapped our hand away, and that of the Soviet Union. They said, essentially, that they hated us so much, they were willing to invent their own model, to hell with our science, to hell with a better life, to hell with all of it. If they were going to torture their own citizens, they were going to do it their own way, by god, and they did. The smack from that hand-slap has resonated, awfully, throughout our foreign policy ever since.

The greatest sin you can make against the United States of America is to hate us. Is to reject our love. Iran compounded that sin doubly – by threatening Israel, which is still a part of their official rhetoric, and by the aforementioned bad timing of their revolution occurring on the heels of our defeat in Vietnam.

It doesn’t take a genius to draw parallels with the current situation in Iraq and Syria. In ISIS (or ISIL, or IS, or Daesh) we see a similar impulse: a group of people who have discounted and rejected American assistance, save in a way that is supremely irritating (taking the plundered ammunition, vehicles, and weapons of our fallen proxies). To a certain constituent group with which we’ve become acquainted these last two decades, that we never suspected existed before, ISIS and Iran represent a clean break with the West, a positivist assertion of a moment in history when ethnic and religious social groups could exist outside a post-enlightenment, post-rational framework, and the colonialism and exploitation that went along with it. To ISIS and Iran, there’s no fundamental difference between America and the Soviet Union.

I’m against intervening militarily in Iraq and Syria, and have written why at length elsewhere. Regardless of whether you think I’m full of s*** or not – many feel that way – one has to acknowledge that America’s behavior in the Middle East has been desultory, reactionary, and short-sighted, which is why, in part, we keep encountering groups that profess to hate us. Once we begin to acknowledge that we were partly (although again, understandably) responsible for creating the conditions where a thing like Iran or ISIS could exist in the first place, we will have taken the first necessary step toward avoiding the mistakes that we will, left to our own devices and current foreign policy, create again in ten or twenty years, and then again after that. The lesson of Iran shouldn’t be that we must be at loggerheads with an entire people – but that time heals all wounds, and it’s okay for a group to not love us without America going ballistic in response.

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


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


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.

Breaking Bad at the Gym

by Michael Carson


Since leaving the military, I’ve had to make a sustained effort to give up working out and take up smoking cigarettes. This has not been easy. Cigarettes taste bad, often make you feel sick and make you paranoid about how you smell. People look at you with contempt when you smoke cigarettes. They think you are trying to kill them and have no respect for yourself. On the other hand, workouts make you feel healthy. You can preen in front of the mirror and people look at you with respect because you work hard at something and you seem to respect yourself.

My lapses in self-control, the way in which I often turn to a long run or push-ups to feel better about myself, is maybe not to be overly despised. I know many ex-soldiers and many non-soldiers caught in the same web of addiction as myself, constantly turning toward weights and burpees to find some sense of self-worth. It is difficult to blame someone for embracing physical health as a substitute for spiritual and mental health. And there is no denying this seems an infinitely better option than turning toward harder drugs, which only seem to make this spiritual and emotional poverty obvious through its manifestation in the physical. Yet, at the same time, it seems to me that the harder options, and even something as silly and insidious as cigarettes, at least have the merit of making obvious our failings. They retain for me perhaps a certain romantic attachment to honesty that the gym or a ten-mile run does not allow for.

We live in a society that has banished smoking from its public places, to the ghettoes and trailers of this grand country, and one that builds parks, trails and encourages health in its forward looking and wealthier citizenry. People bike and run and lift and squat their way to a sort-of-happiness. I’m not exactly against this. It is good for people to think of life’s breadth, most of us do not have the luxury to burn like fabulous roman candles – to quote Kerouac – for we have certain responsibilities and yesterdays burning candle soon becomes tomorrow’s melted mass of wax and paper (which others must clean). Still, it seems to me worth mentioning that cross-fit and marathons are too an addiction, another way to remove us from a world that is too much with us, and those that participate addicts too.

Alain Corbin’s brilliant 1986 history The Foul and the Fragrant details the obsession with odor in early 19th century France. According to Corbin, a war against odor was waged with the help of science and bourgeoisie sensitivities. This heightened concern for the olfactory, an “olfactory vigilance,” became one of the constitutive elements of a modernizing society obsessed with “fixing,” or controlling, the classes and crowds and ideas they feared. Infection was everywhere and “only an absence of smell in a deodorized environment achieved resolution of the conflict” (a conflict that was moral as much as scientific). It is my belief that our health-obsessed culture has taken us even further down along this road. It stems more from fear of what we cannot control than from courage of what we can, and those who endorse the placebo of well-toned thighs create the illusion of a world where weakness does not exist, or, worse, one in which death can supposedly be conquered by soap and bench-presses.

I should say I have always been somewhat suspicious of working out. Growing up in the ‘90s, gyms were ubiquitous on the cities making up the 95 corridor and Americans – at least in the Northeast – were finely tuning their bodies for what I was never exactly sure. I used to go the gym as well because I was no better or worse than the rest, and when I did I would tell my nephews whose father worked construction that this is where lazy people go to get strong. These words came back to me with force when I arrived in Mosul, Iraq, where the American military had brought with it not only its internet connections, video game systems and comfort food, but its weights, treadmills and health-shakes. Soldiers would spend their time not on duty running in circles and doing pushups, comparing workouts and thinking about muscle supplements. They were becoming strong, this was for sure, but was this really strength?

I talked to many around the base who saw the war as an opportunity to workout for a year and get paid. This surprised me. People were dying outside the wire and the majority of the soldiers on base were sculpting their pecs and checking their Fidelity portfolios. For some reason I had the idea that civilian vanity would fade away when at war, that those in the game of killing or be killed would give themselves over to the operation entirely. I had in mind possibly scenes from Vietnam movies where soldiers lounged around in a haze of pot smoke and beer cans between patrols. In this respect, I could not have been more naïve. There is no better institution in the world for ignoring what is happening immediately outside your circle of experience than the military. And there is no better tool in the world than working out – with the exception of perhaps video games – to perpetuate this infantile repudiation of experience and consequence without any apparent negative consequences.

The pomp and ceremony surrounding war is well known. The French Army and Austrian armies refused to give up on their colorful uniforms in the beginning of the First World War and they were still shot. The British and American armies refused to give up on their dream of a muscular Christianity in that same war and they were still gassed. Officers and soldiers over the last ten years watched the homoerotic 300, worked out constantly, and were still blown up. No one wants to realize that modern war, and war in general, is not really at all glamorous and no amount of style or strength is going to stop an arrow on Thermopylae, a bullet in the trenches or an IED in Iraq. Still, on my Mosul base, soldiers talked little of the Iraqi people – other than to voice their disgust with their cigarette addictions and bad hygiene (don’t they even know how to wipe? Ha! Ha!) – but of how they looked in a new pair of Oakleys or what workout gave them the best endorphin rush.

The posturing and affectation of soldiers throughout history is often glossed over in the recent deluge of anti-war accounts, in the tales of soldiers coming back broken and homeless. These representations have skewed the narrative. Many soldiers return home addicted to working out as a way to move on from what they didn’t want to see. They have pictures of themselves in bomb craters, medals on their walls and cross-fit in their souls – they believe they have been made if not whole by war then by what they have done to forget the war. Actual war experience offers little to the vain but vanity does offer a great way to forget war experience. It is no coincidence that William Makepeace Thackeray’s great novel about the Napoleonic War is called Vanity Fair.

When deciding between going for a run or smoking a cigarette, my mind often returns to the day when I had to clean up the dismembered bodies of my fellow soldiers. I shared a cigarette with my platoon sergeant who did not know he too would die in a few days. It was the closest thing we could have to a conversation faced as we were with the awful pointlessness of death and the absurdity of our war. I could forget this memory with a run or remember it with a cigarette. It takes some will power and discipline to choose a cigarette over a run and, sadly, I often find myself wanting. And it pains me. The soldiers who I worked with, the ones who did not have the luxury of preening in the FOB gym all day, who came from broken homes and impoverished communities, but who took up to the call to arms when their president asked them to, who lost limbs and consciousness in explosions, fell back on cigarettes and video games and pills. I highly doubt they are doing much running now.

Albert Camus once said of a certain infamous writer that he created a fable to give himself the illusion of existing. I say here that working out provides much the same illusion for many good and decent people. It stamps out the infection of their meandering experience or, for some, elides their refusal to countenance any experience outside their own. I’m not saying these people are bad or evil for the way they turn toward workouts. In some respects the movement toward health is a necessary and beneficial one. I too work out and will continue to do so. I’m simply presenting that they have the same horror of human experience as the most self-sabotaging alcoholic. They should at least be aware of the fable they have created for themselves in their effort to forget if not their past then their present, and they too should be thinking long and hard about how their addiction, like all addictions, shields them from more grueling and truly substantive crucibles.


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