Black Swan, The Hurt Locker, and the strange intersection of ballerinas and soldiers

A little over a year ago I developed a little obsession with the ballet. I had just seen Black Swan, and left the theater in downtown London wanting to know more about the ballet and the lives of the dancers. I understood that the film was a work of fiction and overly dramatized, but I was drawn to the psychological drama, the monastic dedication to the craft, and the apparent isolation felt by the dancers. I was excited to learn more about the ballet, but couldn’t help but think that Black Swan might be to (some) dancers as The Hurt Locker was to (some) soldiers. That is, an overly dramatic account of a poorly understood segment of the population.

I started to look up reviews of Black Swan, particularly from dancers. Almost universally, dancers disliked the film for similar reasons some soldiers disliked The Hurt Locker: emphasizing popular stereotypes (aggressive, reckless soldier / psychologically distraught, anorexic dancer), errors in the details (wrong uniforms, unlikely TTPs / poor dancing, “ballerina-as-victim” motif). Both movies were critically acclaimed, and the attention that they received because of the Academy Awards raised the conversation concerning each of the films (The Hurt Locker won Best Picture in 2009 and Natalie Portman won Best Actress in 2010). Soldiers and veterans interviewed for whatever reason were often asked their opinion of The Hurt Locker. And some prominent veterans strongly raised their voice in opposition to the film. Dancers interviewed in newspapers and on morning television shows were often ambushed with the question of how they found Black Swan. I can only imagine what it must have been like for a dancer meeting someone at a party. “What did you think of Black Swan” probably is to dancers as “Did you kill anyone” is to veterans – the follow up question to learning ones’ unique profession.

Interested, I began to dig deeper. I saw the parallels of ballerinas and soldiers – especially infantrymen. A lot of my tougher friends who would be turned off by the ballet by default might not understand the athleticism required to dance. I was certainly oblivious to it. There was a scene in Black Swan, thought, that clicked for me. It was a montage scene where Nina (Portman) was preparing for her role, dancing, and at one point laying on an examination table being assisted by a doctor. Then, there was a scene of her taking a break, sipping water at a fountain and refilling her water bottle. It was at that point that ballet stopped being this airy, flirty thing to me and became a tough discipline that requires hard work and constant attention. It reminded me of so many sessions at the gym, early morning runs, or finishing a foot march and going straight to my canteen, trying to replenish myself before stepping off again.

Since I was in London, I signed up for the Royal Ballet’s ‘student standby’ program for students, which provides discount ballet tickets for students. I went to the ballet as often as I could, and began reading about it in newspapers and blogs. I looked for memoirs by dancers, finding Winter Season by Toni Bentley. Reading it, I made notes on the parallels:

“During the performance, things are cancelled, added or rearranged, according to the casualty level of the performance. If a dancer is injured, the ballet must be re-rehearsed for the understudy…” p. 32 (The mission must be accomplished, succession of command – PL, PSG, WSL, etc.)

“I saw Raging Bull yesterday and of course thought of the tragic sadness and frailty of those whose life is based on they physical – fighters and dancers.” p. 49

“But too often, meeting an ‘outside’ person involves the usual cross-examination: Where are you from? How long have you been dancing? What’s it like working with Balanchine? What did you dance tonight? We have a lot of jokes about pre-recording our answers. Of course people are curious (they’d better be!). We are unique, yet on a human-to-human level, this is very dull and finite in possibility. p. 55 (“What it like over there? Do you have to go back? No? Thank god. Did you ever kill anyone?)

“If you rehearse sloppy, you will dance sloppy. You rehearse how you will do it.” p. 60 (Train as you fight)

I exchanged emails with the author about these strange parallels. She, of course, demurred to the idea. Anytime someone on the “outside” compares their profession to that of soldiers or their arena as a battlefield or war zone, they attract the ire of veterans groups and political commentators (see Antre Rolle of the New York Giants, for example). As an “insider,” though, it is more appropriate, or at least more socially acceptable for me to make these kinds of connections.

On a physical level, I’m struck at importance of feet in both crafts. Dancers and soldiers alike spend a great deal of time finding the perfect shoe/boot and perform superstitious rituals to make their footwear fit as perfectly as possible. Dancers rough up the bottoms of their dance shoes, soldiers soak boots in water to break them in. Underneath, feet are rubbed, blistered, callused, and torn apart.

I’m not the only one who has made these connections. A new friend, Roman Baca, served as a Marine in Fallujah and is the founder of Exit 12 Dance Company. He’s a fellow with The Mission Continues and recently went back to Iraq to convene a dance workshop.

What this all tells me is that there is something here. There are these two communities out there, dancers and soldiers, who represent a tiny portion of the overall population, hold a unique and grossly misunderstood profession that is wildly stereotyped and exploited in the media, and who often struggle in transitioning from a profession that is largely based on physical prowess to something more sustainable afterwards. Nothing, though, ever compares to the thrill of of doing that job, be it dancing or fighting.

Where this goes, I’m not sure. But it’s been something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the past year and getting it out there might inspire more thought.

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The Junior Officer Reader (updated and expanded)

After getting some good feedback on the last post, and a more exhaustive look through my own list of books ‘to read,’ here is my updated list for the Junior Officer.

Just Another Soldier (Jason Hartley) 10/13/11
One Bullet Away (Nathaniel Fick) 5/13/12
The Unforgiving Minute (Craig Mullaney)
The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War (Brandon Friedman)
Chasing Ghosts (Paul Rieckhoff)
Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (Matt Gallagher)
Love My Rifle More Than You (Kayla Williams)

Hesitation Kills (Jane Blair)
The Blog of War (Matthew Burden)
House to House (Davide Bellavia)
Afghan Journal (Jeffrey Coulter)
Once a Marine (Nick Popaditch)
Greetings From Afghanistan-Send More Ammo (Benjamin Tupper)
The Poor Bastards Club (Paul Mehlos)
Kill Bin Laden (Dalton Fury note: is that not the most amazing name?)
Horse Soldiers (Doug Stanton)
The Long Road Home (Martha Raddatz)
Once and Eagle (Anton Myrer)

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The Junior Officer Reader – two down


I’ve been a poor reader when it comes to books written by junior officers or soldiers concerning their military experiences. I know there is great stuff out there and I enjoy reading them. It’s especially embarrassing since I know or at least have met the majority of the people who wrote these. What books am I missing?

Just Another Soldier 10/13/11
One Bullet Away 5/13/12
The Unforgiving Minute
The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War
Chasing Ghosts
Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War
Love My Rifle More Than You

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Life Lesson – Fear Inertia

“Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” or so the saying goes. I’ve always found that when I’m working and get into a “flow,” I accomplish a lot. As soon as I stop to sit down or take a break, getting started again takes a massive effort, and I usually fail. I can accomplish most of what I need to get done in a short period of time if I simply DON’T STOP MOVING.

Thus, one of my life lesson’s is to “fear inertia.”

in‚ÄĘer‚ÄĘtia. noun.
1. a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged: the bureaucratic inertia of government.
2. Physics. A property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.

When I start getting tired and gravitate towards the couch, I try to remind myself of how much extra effort it is going to take to get going again. Sometimes this works and I’m able to keep going. Other times I give in and plop down, ending the work.

Developing a healthy fear of inertia can help to overcome the tendency to stop, and result in a more productive person.

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This “total war on Islam” nonsense

I saw the article at Danger Room titled “U.S. Military Taught Officers: Use ‘Hiroshima’ tactics for ‘Total War’ on Islam” shortly after it was posted. I took a deep breath, fired it off on Twitter disgustedly, and then went to work. Since then, some friends have prompted me for my opinion on the matter and a number of other blogs I read have referenced the article (Mondoweiss, The Arabist).

Andrew Exum (Abu Muqawama) writes:

‚ÄúPlenty of U.S. military officers and troops were inspired by their service in either Iraq or Afghanistan to learn Arabic or Dari and study the peoples of the region. I left the Army in 2004, as a matter of fact, to pursue a master‚Äôs degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut,‚ÄĚ says Andrew Exum, a retired Army captain who now serves as a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. ‚ÄúBut plenty of other officers and troops began their own amateurish studies of Islam and now, like Lt. Col. Dooley, peddle claims to know the truth about the violence and hatred at the heart of Islam. Pope‚Äôs warning that a little learning can be a dangerous thing is certainly relevant here. These hucksters, like the Robert Spencers of the world, know just enough to make themselves sound credible to an uninformed audience and hide their prejudices under a thin layer of amateurish, ideologically motivated scholarship.‚ÄĚ

Like Exum, I was inspired by my service in Iraq to go and study the Middle East and Arabic – mostly because I saw firsthand how much we didn’t know. As a result, I studied abroad in Morocco and Egypt and did my masters at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where I wrote my thesis on the experiences of Iraqi soldiers during the Iran-Iraq War. On this blog I write about military things and Middle Eastern things. As much as I hate getting into these kinds of weeds, this blog sits at exactly the intersection of the military and Middle East Studies (a very uncomfortable intersection, mind you). What I’ve found is that this subject is extremely sensitive for everyone involved. People hold strong opinions on this, for whatever reason.

So here’s what I think.

Exum is right, over the past ten years there has been a cadre of opportunists who took advantage of the the military’s thirst for knowledge on a subject they know relatively little about (Islam) and used that opportunity to spread their own ideas of what Islam is and how to best fight the war on terror. For a long period of time, these guys went unnoticed (internally, anyway), probably because there weren’t many people to call their bluff. This course in question was pulled after an unnamed officer who took the course alerted someone higher to the objectionable curriculum. I’d be willing to bet that he had taken some courses on Islam or the Middle East before (or maybe he just understood that ‘total war’ on an entire people based on their religion was not a good thing).

Thankfully, General Dempsey already came out and condemned the coursework that Danger Room uncovered as “objectionable, against our values” and “academically unsound.” The Department of Defense is currently conducting a review of material to root out any traces of material that is combative towards Islam or rooted in some kind of Islamophobia.

Unfortunately, the damage has already been done, as most of the headlines regarding this incident inferred that the US military was indoctrinating its officers with this viewpoint, when that’s not the case. Outsiders looking in read the headline, read the article, and then conclude that what they’ve always thought was true: the US is at war with Islam or the military is filled with Islamophobes. This is unfortunate, because neither is true, and events like this degrades the way the public views the military.

But this incident points to a larger issue that exists, which I wrote about previously in the infidel post. There is still a poor understanding of the peoples of the Middle East and Islam as a religion within the armed forces and this poor understanding can manifest itself in ugly ways.

Why does this happen? My hunch tells me that people want to explain difficult things away by going for the low hanging fruit – “they” hate us because of their religion, or their culture, or worst of all, “they” are violent by nature. Fighting is hard, and everyone has to reconcile why they do it in their own heads at some point. Fighting a war on global terrorism, a vague thing in-itself hardly provides a person a good starting point to why he or she is wherever they are in the world fighting whoever it is he/she is fighting. But if they are fighting someone because that other person automatically hates our way of life, or that person is inherently violent or evil, it makes the process a whole lot easier.

Simply stated, it’s easy to blame complex phenomena on one’s culture or religion. Unfortunately, that’s wrong. Following that path 1) won’t work, 2) is wrong, and 3) will piss everyone off.

While this revelation is a public relations setback, I think it is bringing to the surface an important issue which can now be rapidly addressed. I know I’m doing my part.

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Joining the insurgency because it’s fun!

In my college classes and in think-tank papers, really smart people peel back layers to try to figure out why insurgencies happen, or why regular people engage in political violence. The result is often this ornate collage of factors that lead people (usually in groups, not as individuals) to join the rebellion. Complicated lines are drawn from economic/social/political conditions to the end result which is violence. The research is there and the data often works. Vindicated. Done.

I’ve always been more curious about the human dimension. Is it really a hodgepodge of factors that leads a person to violence like a lemming, or is there something else? I joined the Army, after all, mostly seeking adventure. The other stuff was there, too (service, patriotism, benefits) but the chief reason that the 19 year old version of me stepped into the recruiter’s office was to do something exceptional. Is it too much to think that our adversaries aren’t doing the same? In many places in the world where you find American troops, our adversaries are living the Red Dawn scenario that Americans often fantasize about.

A few years ago, I was at a seminar where David Kilcullen was giving a talk on insurgencies and counter-insurgencies. I had recently read The Accidental Guerrilla and was familiar with his research and his work. At the end of his talk, I asked him my question about what motivates individuals to join an insurgency, and could it not just be for the simple thrill of it – to be part of something exceptional? He didn’t really give me a good answer, but he directed to me to “an Army pamphlet called ‘Human Factors of insurgencies’ or something that was written in the 60s.” I quickly scribbled it down.

Later, I did a cursory search for this on the internet which turned up nothing. I typed it up as a task and tucked it away in my Things to look at it another day. And there it sat. For three years.

Yesterday, I was poking around and came across that task and decided to give it another search, and boom! First hit. Downloadable as a PDF: “Department of the Army Pamphlet No. 550-104: Human Factors Considerations of Undergrounds in Insurgencies (1966).

I haven’t read through it yet, but it looks like just what I was looking for. For anyone who is interested in insurgency and the human dimension, this looks like a great resource.

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Life Lesson – Positive Mental Attitude

This is the first in a series of articles about the life lessons I’ve learned over the years. Some of these I’ve learned on my own, others I’ve been taught. These are things that work for me. Maybe they’ll work for you.

More PMA than he knows what do with.

Shortly before I got out of the Army, I started to collect a couple of tenets that seemed to make my days go better. Short sentences or phrases that when repeated, would remind me of some truth that can get me past a bad day or tough obstacle. These tenets needed to meet certain criteria. First, they needed to work. Second, they needed to be easy to understand. Third, they needed to be easy to apply. If they met this criteria, I would write them down somewhere. The idea is that these things are so good, they are worth living by. Over the years, I’ve collected 27 of them.

The first one I learned from a colleague in the Army. Positive Mental Attitude – PMA. It’s the best life lesson I have in my arsenal. When applied, I can’t go wrong. The idea is simple, be cheerful and positive as often as possible. Little is gained from being negative. As individuals, we are ultimately responsible for our actions and reactions. The only person I control is myself, and I can choose how I react to anything that happens, ultimately creating my own reality. That sounds airy, I know, but it works. If you try to be positive, over time it happens naturally. There will be days where it’s near impossible to look on the bright side. But trust me, it can always be worse.

There’s a quote that encapsulates this idea better than I can put it down on this blog. It is popularly attributed to the German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. And at the risk of landing on On Violence’s “quotes behaving badly” series, I’ll admit that I don’t know who really said this, as this page says that the quote is misattributed to Goethe. Whatever. It’s a good quote:

“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather.
I possess tremendous power to make a life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture, or an instrument of inspiration.
I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.
In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de‚Äďescalated, and a person humanized or dehumanized.”

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