Zero Dark Thirty: I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit

“What time are we going on the raid?”
“Zero Dark Thirty, bro.”
“You are such a tool.”

These are my unfair thoughts of Zero Dark Thirty, a movie I have not seen. A movie I am not against. A movie I will see when I get the chance.

Zero Dark Thirty has already been the subject of skepticism and pre-emptive statements from government officials. Besides the inaccurate depictions of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and their futility, there are a number of other things that worry me about Zero Dark Thirty, a tightly shot, beautifully cast, suspenseful punctuation mark to close ten-plus years of real drama, neatly packaged in an easily digestible 160 minutes.

I go to the movies almost every weekend, and I’ve seen the various trailers for Zero Dark Thirty at least a half dozen times. Like any good Hollywood customer, my body has been trained to respond to the cues I’ve been fed. The eerie music, the fading cuts, the crescendoing sounds leading to a quiet scene of night vision-fueled monochromatic green, showing what I know to be the OBL raid, what I assume to be one of the final scenes of the movie.

The trailer got me pumped up for a movie I never really wanted to see, a movie that will undoubtedly become known by the American public as the definitive story of the ‘Global War on Terror.’ A movie that was originally being written as the failure of that endeavor, and was pretty much completely re-written after the OBL raid as a thriller.

You know, to reflect victory.

I’m sure that it’s going to be a great, fun movie. It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to make me anxious, and like Kathryn Bigelow did in The Hurt Locker, it will probably make me feel things that I’ve felt before. Fear, tension, frustration, anxiety, and maybe relief. I’ll probably leave the theater with my chest out, proud to be an American!

In fairness, I liked The Hurt Locker. I thought it was a film that captured the “feel” of being an American soldier on an Iraqi street better than anything else I’ve seen. The scene of the main character overwhelmed by the colors, choices, and ultimate insignificance of the cereal aisle resonated with me and many other veterans I know as a snapshot of “what it’s like” to come back from war. I forgave the movie’s caricature of American soldiers and the details of uniforms and equipment as trivial and insider knowledge that just wasn’t that important. It was a movie, after all. Not a documentary.

Over time though, my thoughts on The Hurt Locker have changed. Because of the film’s success (it won Best Picture in 2010), it became the de-facto Iraq War movie. When I was still in college, people would respond with “Oh, I’ve seen The Hurt Locker” upon meeting me and learning that I was in the Army and had deployed to Iraq. The fact that they’ve seen The Hurt Locker was their way of connecting with me, to let me know that they understood what it must have been like. And that is a little unnerving.

It’s no fault of theirs, though. As a culture, we learn from movies. Most of my imagery of the Vietnam War comes from movies; Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon. I’m sure those are gross characterizations of “what it was like.” I’ve gone further and read about the war, but the images from the movies still color what I learn.

A successful movie based somewhat on reality will become the reality for those who see it. There is already so much buzz surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, it will undoubtedly be successful. This story will become the historical record. Not just for Americans, but for people across the world who will see it and accept it as the way “it” happened.

So here’s why I’m a little concerned:

For those who don’t know, “Zero Dark Thirty” is military vernacular for extremely late at night or extremely early in the morning, a time when it will almost certainly be dark. It’s one of those military terms that is overused by gung-ho new recruits during basic training and discarded by more weathered troops because of how lame it is. Like “hooah, “squared-away,” “get some,” and “hurt locker” (a term that I never even heard until it was the title of the movie).

It means you've been fooled.
It means you’ve been fooled.

To the general public, it sounds cool and ominous. I’m sure that one of the screenwriters came across the term during time spent with US troops, and scribbled it down in a little notebook. I’d be curious to know what the original title was going to be, before the successful OBL raid, when the movie was about the failed manhunt for OBL. But this is the crux of what bothers me about Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s work. They take something mysterious to the public, like a piece of jargon, and then sell it to the public to satisfy that craving for something authentic. A piece of the war that a tiny few actually experienced. The title is just the icing. The film is the cake. It feels like they are taking something inside, controversial, and complicated, producing it for general consumption with beautiful stars and effects, and packaging it as the legit, authoritative experience.

Only it’s not.

It’s exploitative, voyeuristic, and pornographic.

Maybe I am off here, but there is something that rubs me the wrong way about a journalist who on the one hand writes a story that needed to be written – The Kill Team in Afghanistan exposé – and then on the other hand writes a couple of films that tell a caricatured version of war that is marketed as the authentic story. Wearing the serious journalist hat in the morning, exposing atrocities of the Army, and then wearing the Hollywood screenwriter hat in the evening, making big money telling hooah stories about war.

Of course, the filmmakers can always deflect any criticism by saying “It’s a movie, not a documentary” which is true. But that ignores the reality of how it will be consumed – how they know it will be marketed and consumed. That, to me, is irresponsible.

I’m not boycotting Zero Dark Thirty. I’m actually looking forward to seeing it and I’ll see it when I get the chance. But I won’t accept it as anything but a fantasy.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Book Review: Starship Troopers

I have never seen Starship Troopers (the movie) in its entirety. I’ll catch bits and pieces of it on television if I am flipping through channels, but it is always too embarrassing to commit real time towards finishing. The movie has a cult following inside of the Army, similar to that other terribly painful movie which recently received an unnecessary remake.

With all of the recent talk concerning women in the infantry, Starship Troopers gets brought up a lot.

Women in the infantry!?

I’ve always been told that the book is much better than the movie. And I’ve read plenty about the book (On Violence spent a good deal of time talking about Starship Troopers in its “War is War” series).

Well, I finally got around to reading the book myself.

I like science fiction, but I’ve never been a science fiction reader. I’ve only read a handful of sci-fi novels, so I don’t have much to compare Starship Troopers to by way of its genre. For me, the interesting part was not the depictions of futuristic combat, but arguments embedded in the narrative for the use of force, the meaning of citizenship, and the thrill(s) of combat.

As a soldier, the book is fun to read because so much of the nuance reflects what most soldiers have already experienced, from the first meeting with the recruiter, to the myriad of exams and tests upon beginning service, to the terrible experience of initial training, to the ho-hum doldrums of life as a soldier. So much of the book is rooted in the author’s experience (a Naval Academy graduate) and although we are almost a century ahead of his time, the comparisons remain apt. It’s not a stretch then, to assume the same would be true for soldiers joining the future Mobile Infantry.

Especially fun for me was reading that in this future force, all potential officers had to first be enlisted, and then attend Officer Candidate School (the way it should be?).

In terms of message, others have described Starship Troopers as a glorification of violence and militarism, and I can see that. There is a lot missing from the book, though. The story is told from the perspective of a gung-ho recruit, so the world is colored through that lens. Like looking for answers from a 19-year-old recruit hopped up on Monster.

I was surprised to find that women were not serving in the infantry in Starship Troopers, despite the depictions in the movie. I thought that would be one of the central themes. It is the absence of women, in fact, which is an active theme in the book. The main character spends a good amount of time lamenting the absence of women around him and fantasizes about what it must be like to serve as an officer, where inter-gender interactions were more frequent.

As a companion piece, I’d highly recommend reading Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War back-to-back. I haven’t reviewed The Forever War – I read it over a year ago. It’s another sci-fi novel that follows a soldier who fights in an intergalactic war that (because of faster-than-light space travel) lasts for thousands of years. As a result, the world that he left behind when he began fighting in the world is drastically changed when he returns. The entire story is an allegory of the returning soldier. In the Forever War, unlike Starship Troopers, women do serve in the infantry. It’s an interesting look at what could be. And where Starship Troopers can be declared to be pro-war or militaristic, The Forever War could be classified as anti-war or anti-militaristic.

Starship Troopers has gone in and out of vogue on the services’ professional reading lists. A quick search brought me this blurb from the Navy’s Professional Reading page:

For today’s Sailor, this novel is extremely worthwhile, for it shows that the travails and aspirations of those who serve are universal and timeless. Its point-of-view, that of an idealistic young man learning the ropes in the military, will seem refreshingly familiar to the reader. It is easy to relate to, and root for the protagonist as he goes from being a raw, naïve recruit to a tough leader of men, along the way learning the true meaning of discipline, loyalty, and courage.

“On the bounce, soldier!”

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Ranger Hall of Fame: SGT Martin Watson, Abraham Lincoln & Tom Hanks

We signed out this morning for leave at tables setup in the Ranger Hall of Fame, a large room at Ranger Training Brigade Headquarters which has pictures along the wall of Rangers who have been inducted. Behind the “A to G” table was the group of inaugural inductees, who were mostly Rangers from history, like COL Mosby, MG Merrill and MAJ Robert Rogers. At the bottom though, was a picture of one of the scariest looking men I have ever seen. It was a black and white photograph of a shirtless, muscular man. He was bearded, but it wasn’t a 21st century cool-guy beard. It seemed legit. Blackbeard legit. The name was SGT Martin Watson.

After signing out on leave, I scribbled his name down on the back of my leave form and told myself to look him up later. Which I did. Here is his story:

SGT Watson: Ranger
SGT Watson: Ranger

Sergeant Watson served with the 1st Ranger Battalion in World War II and fought in the Northern Africa, Sicily and Central Europe campaigns. He was captured by the Germans at Cassino, Italy and remained a prisoner of war for fifteen months. Sergeant Watson attempted escape on one occasion but was recaptured. He was repatriated following World War II and volunteered for the 4th Ranger Infantry Company (Airborne) during the Korean War. Sergeant Watson and three other Rangers were detected by the enemy while on a mission 65 miles behind Chinese lines. Following a foiled rescue attempt, Sergeant Watson, a downed U.S. Navy pilot, and nineteen South Korean agents evaded capture by the North Koreans for ten days with no food or supplies. After his capture, the North Koreans repeatedly tortured Sergeant Watson for attempting escape on three separate occasions. Sergeant Watson was the last U.S. serviceman repatriated following the Korean War. He earned the Silver Star for valorous actions during the Korean War, and the Bronze Star for his resilience and refusal to cooperate with the enemy after repeated torture. Sergeant Watson’s iron will and unshakable resolve are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and clearly illustrate that surrender is not a Ranger word.

I’m not sure I have ever heard of any other soldier who qualified for a POW Medal with an oak leaf cluster, but apparently it’s a real thing. Pretty bad-ass.

Anyway, while looking up information on SGT Watson, I came across two interesting Ranger Hall of Famers: President Abraham Lincoln and Mr. Tom Hanks.

Abraham Lincoln: Ranger
Abraham Lincoln: Ranger

Early in 1832 he was elected captain of a company of the 4th Illinois Regiment, which served during part of the Black Hawk War (1832). When his company was discharged, Lincoln volunteered as a private in a company of the Illinois frontier guard, whose soldiers were known as Rangers, scouts, and spies. For two and one-half weeks during the late spring of 1832 he patrolled the northwestern frontier of Illinois with his company, on the lookout for Indian war parties. When the company’s Rangers were discharged, Lincoln immediately reenlisted in another company of the frontier guard. He and the company served a three week tour of duty during the early summer by scouting in advance of the army as it moved northward into Wisconsin. After his military service Lincoln became a prominent Illinois attorney, a popular political leader, and President of the United States. His strong, successful leadership as the Union’s President during the War Between the States (1861-65) made him a great American folk hero. He is often considered the best example of the greatness that can be produced by a democracy.

Mr. Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks: Ranger
Tom Hanks: Ranger

Tom Hanks is inducted as an honorary member into the Ranger Hall of Fame for his honorable and accurate portrayal of a Ranger Company Commander during World War II in the movie Saving Private Ryan, and his continued commitment to ensuring the honor of those that served was properly recognized through his service as the National Spokesman for the World War II Memorial Campaign and Honorary Chairman of the D-Day Museum Capital Campaign. Although a renowned Oscar winning actor, his service to the Ranger community through his untiring efforts, numerous interviews and public appearances helped the World to remember the sacrifices and courage of our Armed Forces during World War II. He was instrumental in assisting in the funding for, and the dedication of, the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, and the National D-Day Museum in Louisiana. Mr. Hanks said in an interview: “I am fascinated by this period and see it as something that very much relates to how we live our lives today. The world is still, by and large, a question of what is right and what is wrong. And the best example that we can have at our disposal is to take a look at what happened during the Second World War.”† Mr. Hanks also helped write and produce the critically acclaimed and Emmy Award winning miniseries Band of Brothers.† He hoped that Band of Brothers may remind Americans exactly what The Greatest Generation sacrificed for us. “As filmmakers, we certainly hope to entertain those in search of a great story. We also hope to enlighten those who are unaware of history and those who are unappreciative of the human cost of preserving our great freedoms.” Through his efforts on many fronts from actor, to filmmaker, to spokesman, to chairman, Mr. Hanks has enlightened Americans and the World on the most honorable profession; that of a Soldier.

Who knew.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Book Reviews: The Things They Carried and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson. America!
Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson. America!

I finished two books over the past week: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. The first is a classic that I just never got around to reading until now and the second is what I hope might become a new classic.

The Things They Carried, like many good war stories, blurs the line between what is real and what is fiction, and in doing so comes closer to telling the truth of “what it’s like” than any straight telling of the facts ever could. Some of the stories are so fantastical that they seemingly cannot be true, yet they tell something deeper about war and soldiering in combat that just could not be told any other way (the improbable story of Mary Anne Bell, for example – the peppy girlfriend of a soldier who flies to Vietnam to be with her boyfriend and instead becomes consumed by the war, teaming up with a team of hardened Green Berets and going on ambushes).

Weaving between time in Vietnam, time before the war, and time after the war, O’Brien tells the story from his omniscient position as a “43 year old writer, twenty years after leaving Vietnam.” O’Brien served in Vietnam as an infantryman which helps legitimize the detailed descriptions of life in Vietnam. One of the strongest parts of the book is dedicated to O’brien’s personal struggle before the war deciding whether to attempt to dodge the draft.

While most of the book discusses O’Brien’s experience in Vietnam, I would classify this as a post-war book. This isn’t a historical recounting of battles or a chronological record of a deployment experience. It’s a looking back at the totality of a war experience and a retelling of that experience after years of thought and analysis. And that retelling has been embellished and filtered to get to a more accurate “truth” even if some of the individual stories are blatant lies.

Unlike Tim O’Brien, Ben Fountain did not serve in the military, which made me skeptical about Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The author’s lack of military service or experience left me wondering how the story would unfold and I was immediately looking for the author to simply use the story of soldiers to tell some other, “greater” lesson. While it might be argued that this book uses the ‘coming home’ story of a squad of soldiers to paint a picture of modern day America, Fountain gets so much right that to me, it’s a legit post-war story, even though entire thing is a work of fiction.

The gist of the story is this: a squad of infantrymen gets into an intense firefight early in the Iraq War and that firefight is caught on camera by a Fox News crew. The video shows the squad taking it to the enemy and it becomes a feel-good morale booster for a home-front completely cutoff from the reality of the war and starved of any good news stories in the first couple of years after the September 11th attacks. The squad is then sent home from Iraq on a two-week “victory tour” which culminates in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day where the squad will participate in the Halftime Show of a Cowboys/Bears game.

I don’t know how, but Fountain manages to capture both the zeitgeist of what it was like to come home in those early days of the Iraq War and the complete feeling of emptiness that going to war and coming back can have for soldiers. The book will resonate with any veteran that has been to a bar and showered with awkward “thank you’s” as patrons glanced over briefly before turning back to their beers or who were forced to stand up to be recognized at some event, where the act of thanking seemed more a cathartic exercise for the thanker than the thanked.

Billy Lynn’s squad (known as “Bravo Squad” because the media mangled the unit designation – they were part of a Bravo Company) is constantly peppered with questions about what it was like to shoot the enemy in such a non-chalant manner because their exploits became a media sensation. With the exception of a few cutback scenes, the entire story takes place in the less than 24 period that the squad spends in their last day at Texas Stadium for the Bears/Cowboys game. They are shuffled around, moving from their sideline seats, to the owners’ box, to the locker room for an awkward meeting between the soldiers and some of the Cowboys, who begrudgingly sign autographs for the soldiers and some young children with cancer while they get ready for the game. All the while, the squad is followed by a Hollywood agent who is trying to spin their story into a movie. The soldiers, who are being hailed as heroes everywhere they go and who have become celebrities of the week are told they can expect a huge pay-day for the exclusive rights to their story. The rub comes when that “support our troops” attitude meets the reality of people having to lay down real money – a sentiment that has been felt by many veterans who have heard in the same sentence “I support the troops and thank you for your service, but there is nothing I can do.”

Like The Things They Carried, one of the key issues comes when Billy’s sister tries to connect him with an anti-war group that specializes in getting soldiers out of the military. Billy flirts with the idea of deserting, in the same way O’Brien flirted with the idea of fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft.

The central question that hung in my mind as I read both books was “what is the deeper meaning of all this?” It seems that in post-war stories, the author is trying to tease out what the purpose of the war was, not on a strategic level, but on a personal level. What does my service mean for me?  Both books left me wondering what it all means. Neither book provided an answer, and I’m not sure there is one or that one will ever exist.

The New York Times Review of The Things They Carried
The New York Times Review of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Enjoy these posts? Sign up for my monthly newsletter.