books

Book Review: Hearts, Minds, and Coffee

About a month ago I was sent a book called Hearts, Minds, and Coffee: A Vietnam Peace Odyssey. It is the first novel by Kent Hinckley, a veteran who served in Military Intelligence for a year in Vietnam. In the book, Mr. Hinkckley slipped in a note with the following:

I judge by the address that you are stationed in Afghanistan. I’m sorry to hear that and hope we can bring our troops home. What a difficult situation.

If you have any questions, please let me know. Thank you for your service.

All the best,
Kent Hinckley

The younger me would have been offended by that statement. Shortly after coming home from Iraq, I remember hearing statements like that from lots of people I met. I didn’t like it. I was proud of my service, and it was hard for me to understand how someone could feel “sorry” for me or the situation and still be thankful for my military service. I just couldn’t compute it, and I am sure many readers of this blog probably still feel the same way.

Over the years, however, I’ve come to understand that war and military service is a subject that generates deep emotional feelings, and none of them are more right than the other.

The book follows the tale of a young officer “Slater” who joins ROTC to help pay for college, despite his anti-war leanings. The story takes him from his days as a farmhand in Iowa, his time at Officer Candidate School under the strict tutelage of Captain Gray, and then to Vietnam. Slater is pegged early in his military career as being a trouble-maker and anti-war. When he gets to Vietnam, he is given an austere and dangerous assignment with Special Forces, despite him being branched Adjutant General. For military readers, this is one drop in a bucket of seemingly incredulous things (blanks being fired without blank adapters, the wearing of an NVA ribbon on the dress uniform, etc.) that might drive by-the-book military types nuts.

The book flows well and is engaging. The characters that Slater interacts with – especially in Vietnam – reminded me a lot of the guys in “Bravo Squad” in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Hinkley manages to paint the reader a vivid image of what it must have been like to be in the mind of an anti-war military officer in Vietnam, focusing often on the inner-monologue of Slater and his thought process. The situations that Slater finds himself in border on the ridiculous, which led me to think that if this were to be made into a movie, it might be a comedy. Hinckley even named two staff officers Major’s Laurel and Hardy after the comedians. The two intercede the narrative occasionally to update the situation, often with information the reader knows to be false.

In Vietnam, Slater sets out to make sure him and his team make it out of Vietnam alive. Without spoiling the book, the team goes to pretty extreme lengths to ensure they are “at peace.” It’s a wild story, and the reader wonders how much of it is fiction and how much of it is inspired by true events – and if it could have even happened at all.

There’s a “forbidden love” story embedded as well, which felt a bit forced and obvious at times.

For me, the most powerful part of the story came at the end, in what at first felt like a tacked-on epilogue following Slater and his team on their return to America and eventually the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC. Sitting in my room in Afghanistan, I couldn’t help getting a little choked up as I followed Slater’s eventual pilgrimage to The Wall, something he avoided for years.

Overall, the book is an interesting look into a rare genre – the anti-war military man. Slater is a character who did not believe in the Vietnam war, but went anyway. Once there, he did everything he could in his power to “make peace.” The usual depiction of the anti-war soldier is one of indiscipline – the pot-smoking draftee or the deserter. In this case, Slater and his team are actually pretty efficient, despite being anti-war.

While there may be more “Slaters” out there, this is the first I’ve read about the anti-war military man who still managed to work through the system. The author writes in the notes at the end that this is a story that needs to be told. I’m sure there were many who went to Vietnam who didn’t believe in the war but felt that it was their duty to serve as they were called.

Check it out if you’re interested. Thanks for sending the book, Mr. Hinckley!

 

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Chapman Brothers Hell

jake6

Week ending September 28, 2014

For some reason chapman brothers hell was the search term that brought the most people to the blog this past week (via search). It blew all of the other terms away and is much higher than the norm.

Last year I posted a very short post that linked to some of the artwork of the Chapman Brothers, who make pretty gruesome dioramas.

Checking the news, there is nothing I see that would warrant them jumping back up in popularity. An anomaly of search, perhaps.

reflections

Long Goodbye

My first two deployments were short-notice deployments. I found out we were going to Iraq the first week of February, 2003. The war hadn’t started yet and the Commander couldn’t even confirm that we were going there. We were told that we were going to “southwest Asia” for “something.” The Department of Defense already put out a press release confirming the deployment of an Airborne Infantry Brigade, and we were the only one still available, but whatever. We stayed up late for the next two weeks stuffing our lives into duffel bags. We said hurried goodbyes, and we flew away for a year.

My second deployment was similar. I was driving for a General, and he was reassigned to a position in Iraq and had to be there in a couple of weeks. He asked his staff if they wanted to go and we all said yes. I packed, said goodbye, and was gone a week later as ADVON.

This current deployment loomed on the horizon like a giant barge, sitting in the water, inching closer by the minute but appearing not to move at all until finally it was here. We knew about it with some degree of certainty back in November, when rumors swirled we were put back on “the patch chart” – this mythical board that dictates when units will deploy. Further, the predicted deployment date was sometime in the summer, giving us at least a full six months in which to prepare.

That long run-up to a deployment is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because it allows more time to train and prepare. A curse – and this is especially true for those who’ve deployed before – because a good chunk of time is spent soaking up the good things in life under the excuse of “soon I’ll be deployed and won’t have this opportunity.” Thus begins a see-saw cycle of hard gym sessions followed by binging on Chips Ahoy and beer, because, you never know.

It’s worse on relationships. It’s the elephant in the room, the thing that is right there and coming that both parties try to ignore so they can “enjoy now.” A couple of weeks before this deployment, I sat in a beautiful sea-side restaurant eating breakfast with my wife, looking out at a bay in Saint Thomas. Gazing at the lush hills, my mind drifted to reading terrain for an attack and our current and projected task organization. We began to argue over something stupid, but it was really frustration about the deployment – an oncoming train that won’t stop.

And then, after months and months of that – preparing and binging, ignoring and acknowledging – the day finally comes and it is time to say goodbye. There is no good way to do it – I’ve done it too many times and the only thing that makes it any easier is knowing that the actual physical act of saying goodbye is the hardest part. There are actually multiple goodbyes; the one in the living room, the one in quiet car ride to post, the first one when you thought you were just going to be dropped off at base before you saw all the other families lingering around, and then the final one where you say “this is it.” Inside that goodbye, there are a dozen false starts. You hug and kiss and say goodbye and step away, only to move in one more time “for real this time.” After that, you finally have to go. You look and try your best to absorb the entirety of that moment; the humid air, the early morning, blue hued twilight sky, the feeling of your loved one’s body against yours, one last time.

And then you break and say goodbye, turn around, and walk away.

reaction

Veterans Drifting to the Dark World of Conspiracies

I’ve been thinking about how to accurately communicate this for awhile now, and the best I can come up with is to be blunt:

The veteran community has a problem with losing our own down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories that gets them in trouble.

I’m not talking about the sometimes antagonistic ramblings of conservative or liberal veterans. I’m talking about the ones who go off the deep end, who jump over the White House fence to warn the President about the “atmosphere collapsing.” I’m talking about Navy veteran Chris Dorner and his wild manifesto. I’m talking about your war-buddies who casually call for the internment or genocide of all Muslims on social media. The ones who lash out at you or call you naive if you disagree with them that 9/11 was an inside job.

Over the past few years, I’ve watched a number of my buddies – intelligent, good people – start drifting towards the dark edge of the internet. At first, this manifested itself innocently enough – angry rants about the civilian-military divide or the cheapening of modern culture and the indifference of the media towards things that matter. Over time, that morphed into links to “false flag” operations and whispered hints and giddiness at prepping for a coming inevitable revolution.

At first, I ignored it mostly, understanding that some people tend to gravitate towards conspiracy almost like a hobby. Growing up, it is fun to explore conspiracies like aliens at Roswell or the search for Bigfoot or Loch Ness Monster.

It hit home for me when a personal friend and combat veteran started drifting down that path. I spent years sporadically trying to convince him that he was not the “chosen one” to warn people of a coming apocalypse.

When I spoke with someone about my friend, they said what I was describing sounded a lot like the plot of the 2006 film BugWhen I finally got around to watching it, it felt like some of the dialogue was lifted right out of the mouths and Facebook postings of veteran friends. I wish the exchange below was available online, because it is delivered brilliantly in a manic, quickly strung together manner. In the scene, Peter, a war veteran who believes he is being tracked by the government, is explaining to Agnes what he believes is going on – this is his world:

Peter Evans: Listen! Listen! If you want to know what is going on, you have to listen to me! You have to! Because you don’t 269233_10100281334884626_713066802_nknow the fucking ENORMITY of what we’re dealing with! Listen: May 29th, 1954, the consortium of bankers, industrialists, corporate CEO’s and politicians held a series of meetings over three days at the Bilderberg Hotel in Oosterbeek, Holland… they drew up a plan for maintaining the “status quo.”

Agnes White: What’s that?

Peter Evans: It’s “the way things are” – it’s “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.” They devised a plan to manipulate technology, economics, the media, population control, world religion, to keep things the way they are. And they have continued to meet once a year, every year, since the original meeting. Look it up! Under their orders, the CIA had smuggled Nazi scientists into the States to work with the American military and Calspan, developing an inter-epidermal tracking microchip.

Agnes White: A what?

Peter Evans: It’s a surveillance tool. It’s a microchip that’s been implanted in the skin of every human being born on the planet since 1982. The test group for the prototype was the People’s Temple! And when the Reverend Jim Jones threatened to expose them, he and every member of his church were assassinated!

After it was revealed that the White House fence jumper was an Iraq War veteran and may be suffering from PTSD, the Minutemen quickly assembled and began to fire warnings off about linking PTSD to violence – in this case, jumping over the White House fence being considered a violent act. When it was revealed that Mr. Gonzalez was trying to warn the President about the “failing atmosphere” so he could “get the word out” my mind instantly raced back to friends I see posting links to off-the-wall blogs with 5,000 word diatribes about this or that conspiracy.

Last year, I posted about the movie Jacob’s Ladder. In that film, a group of Vietnam veterans believe they are being chased by demons. They become paranoid and only find solace in one another because together they are able to confirm the existence of the demons. While that film isn’t about conspiracy or even veterans per se (it’s a psychological horror) it captures some of the zeitgeist of what I think is going on in a small segment of the veteran community. The stuff folks find online and take to believing becomes real when other veterans egg them on and agree (and click ‘like’) – a special few who “get it” while the rest of us remain brainwashed.

What really bothers me about this phenomenon is that it seems uncrackable. Anytime I’ve tried to intervene or explain I’ve been either lashed out at or dismissed as naive. I think there is an easy reaction to explain it all away as a function of mental illness, and while that may be the case for some, I’m not convinced that drifting towards conspiracy means someone is mentally ill. I’ve seen too many well-adjusted, successfully transitioning veterans slide in that direction.

The purpose of writing this is a hope that by acknowledging that “something is going on,” something can be done. I really don’t know what it is, but my hunch through experience is there is a link between military service and drifting towards conspiracy. I’ve always thought that one of the things that makes military service so special – and what makes the transition to civilian so difficult – is the feeling of being important and the center of attention when you’re in the service. Once you get out, you really don’t matter much anymore (in a grand, geo-political way) and conspiracy is a way to keep you “in the game.”

From here, it’s left to the experts to figure out what is actually happening.

reaction

Stop saying “boots on the ground”

I hate the term “boots on the ground.” I’m not sure when or where it originated, but it’s been used with more frequency lately in discussions about potential deployments to Iraq to battle “Daesh.”

What bothers me about the term is the almost playful way it is tossed around. We don’t discuss with any seriousness the mobilization of hundreds or thousands of troops or the costs involved – both before, during, and after the conflict. All of that is reduced to the childlike physical imagery of “boots on the ground.”

Instead of that throw-away term, it would be better and more useful to talk about how we plan on committing ground forces in a straightforward matter without metaphor or simple imagery. What is usually meant when someone says “no boots on the ground” or that “we need boots on the ground” is the commitment of ground maneuver forces, whether they be infantry, armor, or special forces.

I recognize that “boots on the ground” as a term is easily digestible for a media-saturated public and it gives anchors and editors a great lede or headline. “Boots on the ground” is media-ready in the ilk of “wardrobe malfunction” and “thinspiration.” The commitment of ground forces – or any forces, for that matter – is one deserving a deeper discussion.

Further, there are serious ethical questions worth exploring on why it is palatable to take military action so long as there are no “boots on the ground.” Technology has developed to the point where we can pursue fairly robust military action without significant – if any – “boots on the ground.”

Lastly, whenever I hear the term, I think of this:

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Prose about death

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Week ending September 21, 2014

A number of search terms relating to prose and death brought readers to the blog this past week. A welcome respite from the usual suspects.

Earlier this year, I posted an excerpt from the book The Short-Timers – which is the basis for my favorite movie, Full Metal Jacket. The title of that post is Death Prose and the excerpt goes on to describe the moment of death for one of the central characters – and also a major deviation from the movie’s plot.

I suspect that someone vaguely remembered the post and was searching for it, resulting in the wide shot group of prose and death hits.

video games

Magic and Steel: The Predator Drone as Magitek Armor

Predator

Something fun for the weekend.

One of my favorite pieces of music from the Final Fantasy series is ‘Devil’s Lab,’ which is the mechanical theme played while exploring the Magitek factory in Final Fantasy VI. Magitek armor, for those not in the know, is the fusion of magic and technology to create a powerful weapon.

I don’t know what gave me the thought, but as we soar into the future, I can’t help but think that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or “drones” as we commonly know them, are our Magitek armor. It’s the fusion of all of our best technologies to create a beautiful and deadly machine, without too much thought given towards the ethics of the matter.

If I were to visit a drone factory, this is the music I’d expect to hear.

In drafting this post, I listened to a lot of different version of ‘Devil’s Lab.’ This one, done 8-Bit style, was the most interesting.

Cyberwar, as it were, will be waged to ‘Circumambient‘ by Grimes.

The picture is a promotional still from Horse Volume, the studio behind the upcoming game ‘The Sun Also Rises.’

reaction

Rage Against Women

w6u-gender-she-s-so-hot-right-now-genderGender, she’s so hot right now.

Gender.

In the past few weeks, two worlds that I follow closely have mirrored each other: women in video games and women in the military. The role of women and the way women are treated have been the topic du jour in both circles and in many ways, that interest has manifested itself through gender-bashing in both cultures, at least online.

A couple of weeks ago, a piece written by Brian Adam Jones for Task & Purpose (The Sexist Facebook Movement the Marine Corps Can’t Stop) garnered a lot of attention in military circles. In that piece, Jones calls out the numerous military culture sites – mostly on Facebook – that feature misogynistic material often shared by active duty service-members. Many of those sites share pictures of currently serving female service-members in a completely inappropriate “hot or not” style. On those sites women aren’t taken seriously as service-members, and are often referred to with demeaning memes and images. There’s a “pile on” effect that goes on, with hundreds and sometimes thousands of users jumping in, sharing and liking to create the effect of an exclusive male community where women just aren’t welcome.

While this was going on, in the video game world, #GamerGate was unfolding. The whole GamerGate thing is complicated (you can read more about it here or take a trip down the rabbit hole), but it essentially boils down to a lot of the same stuff that is happening in military circles. That is, the culture is starting to wrestle with the role of women in what has been (until now) a traditionally male-dominated culture. There are movements of angry young men (and some women) who accuse certain gamers and game journalists of pursuing a “social justice” agenda in the video gaming community and that video games themselves, and to a lesser degree, the culture surrounding games, are the ultimate victim in this struggle.

Article after article is being written about women in the infantry or women going to Ranger School. And article after article is being written about women’s role in games, how they are depicted and how they are treated as players.

The major things these worlds have in common are their traditionally male-dominated cultures, a changing social dynamic where spaces once denied to women are gradually being opened, and a vicious internet culture that aggressively attacks “outsiders.”

In the case of the military, there have been standing regulations against women serving in certain roles. As those regulations have changed, the military has adapted and grown. With the exception of the unregulated social media spaces, that growth has been, for the most part, responsible and professional.

In the gaming world, however, there are no such rules prohibiting women from participating. There are just norms. Norms that say gaming is a male space and that space is policed by (mostly) male gamers.

“The Fappening” confirms their tenet that men, not pretty girls, are what makes the world—or at least the internet—go around. It confirms that they know more about technology, and privacy, and basic iCloud maintenance. It reassures them that the web is a patriarchal place, that the biggest risks in online life apply not to them but to nubile young women, who, granted the power of sex appeal, risk losing it all when that sex appeal is publicly distributed.
Roisin Kiberd (Vice)

Modern military culture and gaming culture are strikingly similar. Especially online. As I’ve written about before, gaming is no longer an obscure hobby for nerds in the military. Everyone’s gaming, and the soldiers who aren’t are the weird ones. Gaming culture bleeds into military culture, and to a lesser extent, the opposite might also be true (I’d argue by its sheer size, gaming culture is more dominant than military culture).

I think a lot of the anger and aggressive language probably stems from a similar place for both cultures – that is, a fear of losing one of the “last all-boys clubs.” Whether it be the infantry or Call of Duty, these have been spaces dominated by men, and inside them, as female marine Capt. Serrano elegantly writes, men “…can fart, burp, tell raunchy jokes, walk around naked, swap sex stories, wrestle, and simply be young men together.”

While she isn’t lying, she’s telling the “Little Rascals” version of what actually happens. “Raunchy jokes” is a polite way of putting it. The conversations that take place in an all-male infantry unit is an ultimate “ungoverned space.” Similarly, the relative anonymity provided during a Gears of War death-match tempts (mostly) young men to say whatever it is they want, which for whatever reason, is usually anti-women and anti-gay. When that rhetoric shifts online to social media- in both military and gaming cultures – it manifests itself in threats of violence and rape, usually as “just a joke.”

It all feels like a friction point in a long, long ideological struggle. To rage against women – whether it be in video games or the military – feels terribly backwards, and I can’t imagine a future where anyone will look back on this moment in time and nod approvingly at that behavior. This silly process is probably a painful but necessary step in moving this whole thing forward.

video games

How a 1990s Strategy Game Predicted the Birth of ISIS

jake-busey-contact

Okay, that was a ridiculous headline.

But I’ve been thinking lately about Civilization II, a game that I spent countless hours playing in my attic room during summer vacations. I enjoyed taking a civilization from its infancy and growing it into the space age, trying my best to satisfy my bloodlust through war while being sure to keep some other civilizations alive to keep things interesting.

As the game progresses, from the stone age through medieval times to the present and beyond, I was always perplexed by the emergence of the ‘fanatic’ unit type. Usually towards the end of the play-through, when my civilization was technologically advanced and beginning to explore space, ‘fanatic’ units began to populate. They were a kind of dismounted infantry. They sucked at fighting and were easy to destroy. But they were annoying, destabilizing, and a distraction.

They came from governments that shifted to the ‘fundamentalist’ type. The fanatic units were aggressive and cared little for self-preservation.

As a teenager, I never really understood why such ‘backwards’ units would emerge. In the years before 9/11, I always pictured them as the Jake Busey-from-Contact type of fundamentalist, not the al Qaeda/ISIS variety. Still, they were attacking my mechanized infantry with waves of untrained ‘fanatics’ and it was annoying.

It’s interesting now to think of the ‘fundamentalist fanatic’ as a reaction to the civilization that’s sending men to the moon, but also working towards keeping the “other” civilizations at bay and away.