Alephia 2053: Arabic Dystopian Anime

The storyline, set in 2053 in the fictional Arab state of Alephia, follows a group of undercover agents plotting to take down hereditary ruler Alaa Ibn Ismail and his oppressive regime, described as the most tyrannical in the world.

Alephia 2053: Animated thriller strikes a chord in Arab world | Arab Spring: 10 years on News | Al Jazeera

Very cool. Rare to get something like this in Arabic (for free).

Full film here.

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The Best Years of Our Lives

A couple of months ago I was listening to an episode of the Angry Planet podcast that featured a conversation with Gregory Daddis about his book Pulp Vietnam (now on my reading list). The conversation meandered towards depictions of the American war experience, the military and ‘homecoming’ in film. For the most part, we’ve reached a place where these depictions have become mostly cartoonish or simply exploitative (10 second “surprise homecoming” videos on the nightly news). There are exceptions, of course, but it is rare that the true essence of “what it’s like” is captured in media.

Anyway, Daddis mentioned the film “The Best Years of Our Lives” as one of the best in this category (homecoming). I had never heard of it, and I am endlessly fascinated with the subject, so I made a note to check it out.

Produced at the end of World War II, the film follows the story of three veterans who return home at the war’s conclusion to the same Midwestern hometown – a grizzled infantry NCO who is actually a wealthy banker with a family, a dashing officer and bombardier who comes from a poor family and lived in a shack, and a young sailor who lost both his hands in an accident during the war. The film follows the three through their homecoming experience over time. The elation of being home and free, the dissatisfcation with “regular life,” depression and flirtations with alcoholism, and the frustration of trying to get things going.

The film was a commerical and critical success – winning seven Academy Awards while also selling out theaters during its release.

Given its contemporary popularity and critical success, how could I have not have heard of it?

It’s not a war movie. It’s not about combat. It’s about people and family – the veterans and the folks around them – and the real struggle that they all face when veterans return home.

It’s odd to me that perhaps the best film to capture “what it’s like” – even now – came out right as the big war ended nearly 80 years ago. It kind of makes sense though. It was still so raw and new, there wasn’t time to mythologize the war as it would be shortly thereafter. Things were still too fresh and the only way to tell the story was the way it was being experienced. Anything else would have been a fantasy.

It’s 2021 now. We’re twenty years removed from the start of the Global War on Terrorism. So many men and women have run through that gauntlet (and still do today). Personally, I’ve been so wrapped up in the machinations of that grind that it’s easy to forget what’s going on.

The movie holds up. I found that the characters are more relateable today than most of the archetypes depicted in other media – film, games, literature, whatever.

For a much better synopsis of the film, here is a 2007 review by Roger Ebert.

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Clash of Loyalties

I came across this short video on the Iraqi film “Clash of Loyalties.” It was part of Saddam’s effort to shape perceptions of the Iraqi state, this one with an eye towards an international audience. It’s a bonkers story. The film features British movie star Oliver Reed who spends much of his time boozing in Baghdad bars during the shoot. The whole thing was shot during the Iran-Iraq war and Saddam insisted that filming continue to project a sense of normalcy.

The film is about the early days of Iraqi state formation and features well-known figures of the time, including Percy Cox and Gertrude Bell. It’s a fascinating story that has really only been told through books, mostly memoir. T.E. Lawrence is the more well known orientalist of the day because of the Arab revolt in the Hijaz, but the political scheming of Cox and Bell would have a more significant and long-lasting impact on Iraq and the region.

The political intrigue stems from “who” would control Iraq – a struggle between the British colonial service’s Cairo office and India office with little thought towards the Iraqis themselves.

Looking at it now, the episode looks very similar to a combatant command rivalry. 

The film was never released in the West, but through the magic of the internet, you can watch it on YouTube. It’s mostly in English, but there are some drawn out scenes fully in Arabic. 

Watching the movie, it felt like the British got a fair portrayal. The personalities of the key figures (Cox, Wilson, Leachman, and Bell) were all exagerated for sure, but the gist of the film accurately portrayed Iraq (and the proto-Iraqis) as a canvas for British imperial interests. Wilson, who preferred a more militant approach versus Bell and Cox who preferred a gentler, scheming approach, in the end were all working towards improving the Crown’s prospects in Mesopatamia. 

In going down this rabbit hole, there are a number of good articles on the film – mostly interviews with the director Mohamed Shukri Jameel (Vice, Esquire). 

Lastly, I just want to point out there is a shot of a fantastic map board used by one of the British officers – complete with a sling.

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About that trailer for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

A couple of weeks ago the trailer for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime walk was released.

It has me a little worried.

I’m a fan of the book. I’ve only read it once, but for me, it captures the zeitgeist of “the war” better than anything else I’ve read or seen.

The trailer, though, seems to be indicating that this is not going to be that.

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Pas de Deux with American Sniper

American-Sniper-Widescreen-Wallpaper

American Sniper did well this past weekend, smashing box office records and garnering 6 Academy Award nominations. It has also been making waves online, as a number of articles were written in the past few weeks either praising it, critiquing it, or placing it somewhere in a gray area.

I didn’t see it (I’m still in Afghanistan), but I intend to, when I get home, on a big screen in the theater. The last time I wrote about a war film was when I posted a few thoughts on Lone Survivor, which I still haven’t seen for reasons I elaborate on in that post. I really like war films, but not for the violence. I like war films that capture the absolute absurdity of war and showcase the limits of heroism. For that reason, Full Metal Jacket is still my favorite movie and I look forward to the Iraq and Afghanistan version of it.

I was never really that excited for American Sniper. When I originally saw the well-done trailer, it all seemed so ho-hum to me – another story of a Special Operator that would undoubtedly lionize and champion the role of the “warrior” absent the black context of the war(s) itself. Additionally, I have less and less of a stomach for war movies about our modern conflicts. We’re still in Afghanistan and we’re back in Iraq. While I don’t think that in order to make a good war film the war necessarily has to be over, it seems to be a good general rule.

There are two running lines in the veteran community about American Sniper; 1) it’s the best modern war movie about the current conflicts, and 2) it’s a caricature of war that feeds into America’s obsessions with its military.

The first point of view is is championed by Paul Rieckhoff in an essay for Variety. In it, he writes:

I’ve seen just about every film about the Iraq War ever made. I’ve produced and associate produced a few. I even appeared in one (for about a millisecond). And without a doubt, “American Sniper” is the single best work of film about the Iraq War ever made.

It’s a strong opening statement. While Paul goes on to admit that the story isn’t terribly complex, it gets the war better than any other war film about Iraq. He even compares American Sniper to Full Metal Jacket, which I have a hard time believing, especially because FMJ is a work of fiction whereas American Sniper is based on the real life of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. I’ve disagreed with Paul in the past concerning war films. I actually liked The Hurt Locker, despite its exaggerations, whereas Paul made it very clear that he did not.

Still, I appreciated Paul’s thought process on one of the reasons he did like American Sniper:

Most of America is tired of hearing about Iraq. But now, they’re at least open to being entertained by it. And as an activist and as a veteran, I’m OK with that. After a decade of working on veterans issues with an unprecedentedly disconnected civilian population, I’ll take it. Like Chris Kyle was, every one of America’s newest generation of 2.8 million veterans is still processing the war ourselves. And will be doing so forever. And we know that films like “American Sniper” may bring civilians closer to us than anything else.

It’s a good point. It’s been over a decade and the closest thing to realistic depictions of military service that are widely viewed have been in the form of video games like Call of Duty and Battlefield (which isn’t saying much). Despite winning the Oscar for Best Picture, The Hurt Locker bombed at the box office. Now, finally, we have a film that prominently features Iraq that is actually entertaining, critically acclaimed, and being widely seen.

On the other side of the spectrum, Alex Horton writes in the Guardian that the movie is another in a series of films that highlight the exploits of special operations forces while dismissing the much more prevalent experience of the conventional military that have rotated in and out of theater for over a decade. He writes:

These films have the potential to distort how the United States views its own history and its troops. The everyday stories of war are background noise. We rarely see intel soldiers piecing together insurgent networks, or low-ranking officers meting out local grievances in rural Afghanistan.

It’s a good point, and one that I think lends ammunition to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ statement that the American public has a “cartoonish” idea of what the military is and how it operates, largely based, as Alex suggests, on films like Zero Dark Thirty and now, American Sniper.

He also gets in this gem, which he says was to see if I’d notice:

People under 40 no longer ask what war is like; they ask if it’s like Call of Duty.

I noticed.

Alex’s point is one that I’ve made before as well: whether we like it or not, the films become the historical record of the conflict. When I think of Vietnam, I think of the movies I’ve seen that tell me what it was like. When tomorrow’s children wonder what the hunt for Osama bin Laden was like in the first decade of the 21st century, they’ll think of Zero Dark Thirty. And when they want to know what Iraq was like, they’ll think of American Sniper.

Of course, any criticism about getting details right or exploring the full context of war are always dismissed as either not the job of the filmmaker or brushed aside as secondary to capturing the spirit of the war-fighter:

“And for me (Bradley Cooper), and for Clint, this movie was always a character study about what the plight is for a soldier…It’s not a political discussion about war, even…It’s a discussion about the reality. And the reality is that people are coming home, and we have to take care of them.”

The same thing was said over forty years ago, when another film that lionized special operators was made during the heat of the Vietnam War, The Green Berets:

In defense of the film, John Wayne said his “motive was to glorify American soldiers as the finest fighting men “without going into why we are there, or if they should be there.” His “compulsion” to do the movie was based on his pride of the Special Forces, determined to show “what a magnificent job this still little-known branch of service is doing.”

Rightfully so, war is a topic that people get emotional about. Servicemembers and veterans do not get a monopoly on having opinions on war, and a film that is largely based on the auto-biography of a real person is likely to receive more scrutiny than a work of pure fiction. Reactions to the film’s heroiziation of Chris Kyle have been harsh. So too is the barely latent bigotry of theater-goers who took away only hate from the movie.

All that said, I’m looking forward to seeing it (albeit, after Mockingjay, Guardians of the Galaxy, Gone Girl, and Interstellar) and like Zero Dark Thirty, I fully expect that it will be both entertaining, and overly simplistic. Pass the popcorn.

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I’ve got your back, Gwyneth Paltrow

When it comes to celebrities and comments on war, I’ve said everything I have to say on the topic when I wrote in defense of Tom Cruise last year.

Bottom line: no one has a monopoly on war. It is a human experience that anyone can talk about. The thing that exacerbates the civil-military divide more than anything is not celebrities comparing things to war, but veteran self-righteousness.

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General Order #1 and the Man Who Would Be King

This Contract between me and you persuing witnesseth in the name of
God–Amen and so forth.

(One) That me and you will settle this matter together: i.e.,
to be Kings of Kafiristan.

(Two) That you and me will not, while this matter is being settled,
look at any Liquor, nor any Woman, black, white or brown, so
as to get mixed up with one or the other harmful.

(Three) That we conduct ourselves with dignity and discretion, and
if one of us gets into trouble the other will stay by him.

Signed by you and me this day.

Peachey Taliaferro Carnehan.

Daniel Dravot.

Both Gentlemen at Large.

After reading ‘The Man Who Would Be King‘ as part of the End of War Reading List, it was recommended to me by a friend that I watch the 1975 version of the novel starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. I watched it over the weekend and I highly recommend it as both a good adjunct to the End of War Reading List and as a really good movie. It is a re-telling of the Kipling novella, with lots of details added in to fill out the film. Connery and Caine are terrific and there are so many good lessons that could easily be pulled from the movie and taught. It’s amazing how we are over a hundred years past the fictional events of the book/film, but the same prejudices and stereotypes persist.

“Different country, different customs. We musn’t be prejudiced, Peachey.”

What I found particularly interesting is the contract that the two adventurers drew up between them (posted above) and the way it sums up in a nutshell the same contract American soldiers adhere to when they go to Afghanistan as part of the infamous “General Order #1” which prohibits alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling, the keeping of pets, and certain types of photography.

It is in fact, when the contract is broken, that Peachey and Daniel’s plan falls apart. So, there’s that.

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Thoughts on ‘Lone Survivor’

Lone Survivor is coming out this week. If you want a review or analysis, go over to On Violence. This is their show.

There are a few things, however, that I would like to say about it.

First, the trailer is really unsettling to family members of anyone who has someone currently deployed or will soon be deploying to Afghanistan.

I spent a good portion of my holiday leave cringing around family when the trailer would come on. I go to the movies a lot, and saw the trailer three or four times in the theater over the past month and just about as many references on television. For most of the movie-going audience, I imagine that the trailer hints at the possibility to escape, as in, escapism. Going to the movies is a place to escape from reality, even if they are escaping to the war in Afghanistan.

But what if you are one of the few that actually goes to Afghanistan? That’s not escapism. It’s more like voyeurism for the masses. A safe way to experience something terrible.

More so than Zero Dark Thirty, Lone Survivor gets the seal of authenticity. Marcus Luttrell wrote the book that the movie was based on and he played a role in making sure some of the details were right. It’s his story, and a true story, so how can it be criticized?

Is Lone Survivor the Green Berets of the Afghanistan war?

There have been a number of Iraq War movies over the past ten years. With the exception of the critical acclaim The Hurt Locker received, most of them have done pretty poorly. I can’t even remember a single war movie about Afghanistan, unless you count Zero Dark Thirty.

Now, here we are. A big budget Hollywood movie that is being marketed as “the best war film since Saving Private Ryan.”

It makes me think back to another movie that came out during the war it depicted: The Green Berets. That film, featuring John Wayne, was released in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War. It is criticized as being insanely pro-military and simplistic in nature. In defense of the film, John Wayne said his “motive was to glorify American soldiers as the finest fighting men “without going into why we are there, or if they should be there.” His “compulsion” to do the movie was based on his pride of the Special Forces, determined to show “what a magnificent job this still little-known branch of service is doing.”

Lone Survivor’s tagline is ‘Live to Tell the Story.’ In press, Marcus Lutrell says he feels like his job is to get the word out about what these amazing men accomplished.

According to Metacritic, the film is getting average or mixed reviews. My sense (having not seen it) is that this isn’t our Full Metal Jacket, or Platoon, or Apocalypse Now. This is another Black Hawk Down. This is big budget. This is Hollywood. This is The Green Berets.

This isn’t the Iraq/Afghanistan war movie I’ve been waiting for.

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Why I Really Want ‘Enlisted’ To Succeed

Back in the Army

One of my holiday traditions is gorging on old movies. I’m sure to see White Christmas at least once every December. Through the holidays, I’ll fade in and out of old movies, picking up bits and pieces along the way.

One of the things that I find interesting about those old movies is how prominently the military is portrayed. That is, the Army, or some part of it, is often a major part of the plot – often outside of war and combat. Common themes are new soldiers that have a hard time adjusting to military life and the hilarity that ensues, or guys who are coming out of the military or out of war and trying to make it for themselves in the civilian world. The military is weaved into the normal culture of everyday life. Military innuendos are made with the expectation that the audience is already read in.

More interesting to me, is that it was OK to poke fun at soldiers. It was socially acceptable. There was no false idolizing. Not everyone was blanketed with the term ‘hero.’  Most of the ‘soldiers’ depicted in these films are cynical, clumsy, or generally disinterested in military service.

Gee, I wish I was back in the Army
Army wasn’t really bad at all
Three meals a day
For which you didn’t pay
Uniforms for winter, spring and fall
There’s a lot to be said for the Army
The life without responsibility
A soldier out of luck
Was really never stuck
There’s always someone higher up where you can pass the buck
Oh, gee, I wish I was back in the Army

There was also a very healthy view on what military service might be. An easy ride. A safe space. A place where you could always “pass the buck.” No responsibilities.

And this was the Greatest Generation!

Then, of course, there was M*A*S*H, which was part comedy, part drama. But still part comedy.

Since then, war on television and film has mostly been all about big-budget action. Lots of death, lots of explosions, lots of destruction. Off of the top of my head, the only things in the ‘funny’ category I can think of is Pauly Shore’s In the Army Now and Major Payne. Not much more needs to be said about that.

Our inability to allow others to make fun of us is partly due to the civil-military divide and a decade of hero worship that has left us shyly accepting well-meaning ‘thank you for your services’ as the chief spoil of war.

But now, this week, Fox will premier Enlisted. It is a new sitcom about three Army brothers who are on ‘Rear D.’ I’ve watched the trailer, and it actually looks pretty funny!

Of course, the military community has already responded with incredulity at some of the glaring differences between real military life and what has thus far been depicted in the trailers. Most of the stuff is about uniforms and haircuts.

Which leads me to a quick aside. One thing I’ve noticed, being back in the Army in the age of social media is how any military pictures posted to Facebook or Twitter are scrutinized by other military folk primarily for uniform issues or the like. Content is secondary to pointing out uniform discrepancies or commenting on the current state of military gear. “Back when I was in, we didn’t even have X, Y, or Z!” Meanwhile, I could be standing over the still warm body of Osama bin Laden, which would matter naught if my chinstrap was undone or my index finger hovered lazily near the trigger. The whole thing is exhausting, and it has actually led to me to choose not to share certain photos – which are otherwise good  – just because I don’t want to have to deal with the onslaught of military people who can’t help themselves to comment on this or that.

Or, better yet, try watching a military movie with a new soldier or marine. They will be sure to tell you how everything is wrong, or how they would do it differently. A military movie near a base is filled with groans and grumbles as the mostly military audience reacts to what civilians would just watch and enjoy.

To Fox’s credit, when the angry military commenters started thrashing over the errors of Enlisted, they responded by announcing a ‘Spot Our Errors‘ contest which invites people to watch the show (surprise!) and spot all of the errors.

That’s all fine, but I think the actual problem in the first place is that we (as a military community) continue to demand rigid authenticity and militant adherence to things like uniforms in television and film, or we get bummed out. The military community is sensitive and doesn’t take well to outsiders (Hollywood) depicting them unless it is in a good light and there are no uniform errors.

A few years ago when The Hurt Locker came out (a movie I liked), folks in the military community, most prominently Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, criticized the film for not being realistic and depicting soldiers, especially the lead, as undisciplined and not representative of real soldiers. The movie went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards and for good or for ill, actually got some people thinking and talking about Iraq.

I’m trying to imagine how Enlisted might look if it were more ‘realistic.’ Probably pretty boring. And not very funny.

Timely, there is also this story which made the rounds over the weekend concerning comic Natasha Leggero who made a joke at the expense of Pearl Harbor veterans during a New Years Eve program. You can read the whole episode here, but essentially she made a joke, the military community attacked her for it, and she refuses to apologize. Good for her, I say.

Yes, I really hope Enlisted does well. We could all stand to take ourselves a little less seriously.

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