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.

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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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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I’ve got your back, Tom Cruise

I am angry about this whole Tom Cruise thing that has blown up since Veterans Day.

For those not tracking, a story was released by TMZ with the headline: Tom Cruise – My Job’s As Hard as Fighting in Afghanistan.

If you are like most people and you are just scrolling through Facebook or Twitter early on Veterans Day, and your eyes glide over a photo of Tom Cruise next to that headline, you are likely to feel your blood pressure rise and anger generate deep in your chest. That’s what happened to me. I thought – “No way would he say that, what an idiot.”

So, I clicked the link to learn more.

At that point, I’d gather, I’d already done more than 90% of the people who reacted to the headline.

Here is the damning quote, which TMZ says it got from legal documents it obtained:

First, the Middle East — Tom says his location shoots are just like serving a tour in Afghanistan, “That’s what it feels like. And certainly on this last movie, it was brutal. It was brutal.”

And that’s it. That is the quote that warranted TMZ to write the headline claiming that Tom Cruise exclaimed that his job is as hard as fighting in Afghanistan.

I read that line and I thought – “Well, it sounds like he’s simply saying that making a movie can be exhausting.” As someone who has been on the set of a major blockbuster, I would agree.

I clicked away from the TMZ piece, happy to have discovered the truth, knowing that it was just TMZ being inflammatory.

Hours later and the damage had already been done. Outrage from the military sphere. Mock articles on the Duffle Blog. A scathing video from Action Figure Therapy. Tom Cruise became the perfect heel for Veterans Day. A wealthy Hollywood type who is already known for being eccentric, supposedly claiming he has it as bad as American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. It serves as the perfect story to capture how removed from reality people can be, and helps shine a light on the civil-military divide.

Only, the whole thing is spectacle and manufactured outrage. I was able to tell from the TMZ story itself – BY READING IT – that the claim made in the headline was hyperbole. And then, the next day, more information emerged explaining the context in which Tom Cruise said what he said:

The comments come in a section of the deposition where Cruise is being asked about time he has spent away from daughter Suri, either because of film or other commitments.

“Now your counsel has publicly equated your absence from Suri for these extended periods of time as being analogous to someone fighting in Afghanistan,” opposing counsel asks him. “Are you aware of that?”

“I didn’t hear the Afghanistan,” Cruise replies. “That’s what it feels like and certainly on this last movie it was brutal. it was brutal.”

“Do you believe that the situations are the same?” Cruise is asked.

“Oh come on,” Cruise says, “you know, we’re making a movie.”

So not only was Tom Cruise simply responding to a question asked in regards to the feeling of separation that comes about from being away from his family while making movies, which is indeed analogous to someone being deployed, but he even goes on to scoff at the idea that those two situations are analogous: “Oh come on,” he says, indicating how silly the comparison is in the first place (even though I don’t think it’s that silly a comparison).

Facts don’t matter. The damage was done.

People – veterans especially – love to get outraged. Ranger Up posted an article naming Tom Cruise as the “Douche of the Week” and to their credit they removed the article once more information became available.

And now, Mark Wahlberg, who is out promoting his new movie Lone Survivor, is the hero of the internet because in an apparent reaction to what Tom Cruise did not say, he rants:

“For actors to sit there and talk about ‘Oh I went to SEAL training,’ and I slept on the — I don’t give a fuck what you did,” Wahlberg exclaimed. “You don’t do what these guys did. For somebody to sit there and say my job was as difficult as somebody in the military’s. How fucking dare you. While you sit in a makeup chair for two hours.”

“I don’t give a shit if you get your ass busted,” the tirade continued. “You get to go home at the end of the day. You get to go to your hotel room. You get to order fucking chicken. Or your steak. Whatever the fuck it is.”

It’s all nonsense because people aren’t actually reading these stories and thinking critically about them – they’re just reacting to the headlines in the way that they want to react so that whatever worldview they hold is validated.

As it turns out, Mark Wahlberg was asked whether his comments were a reaction to Tom Cruise, to which he said they were not.

As you know, facts don’t matter. Only outrage matters.

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Veterans on the Set of World War Z

Me and Brad Pitt.
Me and Brad Pitt.

Update, September 29, 2013: Finally got a screen grab of me from the movie. Above.

Update, June 21, 2013: I saw the film last night and I’m proud to confirm that the scene that I describe in the paragraph below made the cut. I spent the morning searching for it online but came up short. When it comes out, I’ll get the screen-grab and put it up.

No shit, there I was, knee-deep in the the zombie apocalypse.

Pushing my way through a dimly lit, dank labyrinth deep under the USS Truman, I dodged refugees, aid workers, and other marines. I’ve been awake for two days. I haven’t shaved, and wondered if my sergeant was going to give me shit for it. I found the family of three I was looking for, a small child and his grandparents – his parents were dead. Grandpa looked wealthy, with neatly combed silver hair and a blue blazer. I know how he got on board – money. “This is bullshit,” I thought to myself. “This isn’t my job.” His arm was around his wife and his hand rested on the child’s shoulder, lovingly. I pressed up close to them, allowing others to pass behind me. “Sir,” I said, my voice dripping with hate, “we’re still looking for a space for you and your family. They’re clearing out some room in the lower decks. It shouldn’t be much longer.”

He nodded, understandingly. His family looked to me, pitifully. In the corner of my eye, I saw him approaching, holding his daughter, getting briefed by that guy from the United Nations. So this is the guy who’s going to save us, I thought? I nodded to the family, ready to head back. I really should shave.

“And, CUT!”

Brad Pitt stepped out of the door and walked past me, less than a foot away, and moved back to his starting point. We all watched. I saw him up close and he still looked handsome, but older than I ever remember seeing him on screen. The director came in and said he wanted to do the shot from a different angle. On cue, a team of burly construction men immediately entered the set and began smashing a wall, knocking it down. Drills buzzed. Paint came out and was expertly applied to dull spots. They worked quickly. Time was money.

I looked around the hallway. Another “marine” leaned against the wall, tall and in full fake kit. He looked about my age, but probably younger.

I approached him, “So, do you do this often?”

“Yeah,” he responded, cooly, “I’ve done a few movies.” Before long he was showing me pics of him on his cell phone in War Horse and the Dark Knight.

“Wow,” I said, “that’s pretty cool.”

“Yeah, I’m just doing this for extra money,” he said.

My brow furrowed. He didn’t have an accent. “Are you American?” I asked?

“No, Canadian.”

“Oh,” I said, kind of surprised. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m going to school, and I’m in the British Territorial Army,” he replied.

My interest piqued and I turned to face him a bit more, “Oh, cool. I was in the American Army. I’m here now for graduate school.”

“Cool,” he said, cooly.

Two summers ago, with the help of a ragtag bunch of veterans (and Brad Pitt) I helped save the world from a zombie apocalypse.

I was studying in London when I saw this article looking for US service members or veterans in the United Kingdom to act as extras in a zombie flick. My classes were over, I could certainly use the extra money, and I had never been in a movie. Visions of being discovered and starting my new life as an action star swirled in my mind. I sent them a picture and was thrilled when I received an email asking me to be an extra. I would play a marine.

Later that week I boarded a London train to some distant place, a compound out to the west of London. I walked past giant warehouses where other movies were being filmed. The sounds of saws cut the morning air, flowing out of warehouses where sets were being created for our enjoyment.

I found my building, checked in, and took a seat. After a few minutes I was called and sent to wardrobe for fitting. The place looked like a military Goodwill. Rows and rows of uniforms hung from mobile hangers. The wardrobe guy took my little slip of paper and looked at it for a moment and then looked up at me. “Marine, eh?” he said in a thick British accent.

“No, I was in the Army,” I responded, matter-of-factly.

He let out an annoyed laugh, “Nah mate, you’re playing a Marine, right?”

“Ah, yes,” I said, embarrassed.

He looked at me again, sizing me up. “Do you know your sizes?”

“Medium Regular, top and bottoms, eight and a half regular for boots,” I said confidently.

I imagined that my precise knowledge of military sizing conventions impressed him and saved him precious time. He set off to find the uniform.

“Your name’s Gomez, eh? How about Gunnery Sergeant Gonzalez then?” he asked, approaching holding a uniform on a hanger.

“Sounds good to me,” I said, taking the uniform from him. Marine desert cammies.

“You’re going to have to roll the sleeves, like Marines do,” he said as I was slipping on the top. “You know how to do that?”

We did something similar in my old days with the 82d Airborne Division, when we still wore the green camouflage uniforms. “Yes, I know how,” I said.

I didn’t. He was going down a checklist, annotating what sizes I would wear. I was panicking, trying to get the sleeves to fold just right. I felt my face get flush and I started to sweat. I didn’t want this to look bad.

Sensing that he was finishing up, I did the best I could and put the top back on and stood up. One sleeve was slightly tighter than the other. It didn’t feel right, but I think it looked okay.

He looked me over, studying. “Okay,” he said, nodding slowly, “Go over to makeup.”

I marched out of the building and started toward the makeup trailer. This was the first time I had worn a military uniform in five years. As my foot stepped over the door frame, I dutifully placed the marine cap onto my head and placed two fingers on the bridge of my nose, the tips barely touching the brim, ensuring a proper fit.

Five years and old habits die hard.

I stepped into makeup and two middle aged women ushered me in. It was like Ab Fab. “Well, look at you soldier! Go ahead and take off your cap and sit in the chair.”

I took off my cap, revealing a freshly shaved head. They chuckled. “Well, nothing we can do there, luv.” I climbed into the chair and smiled. They studied my face in the mirror and applied some makeup, dulling the shine of my head.

“Go ahead and stand against that wall, luv,” one of them said, the other handing me a placard to hold with my information written on it. They snapped a Polaroid and handed it to me.

“Bring that back to casting,” she ordered, “and when you come back for filming, make sure you don’t shave for a couple of days. You’re supposed to look tired. Zombies, you know.”

I nodded and stepped out of the trailer, heading back to casting. I thought it strange that I wasn’t supposed to shave. I was there for the invasion of Iraq, and in the craziness of the rush to Baghdad, our leaders made sure we shaved every morning. I couldn’t imagine that even a zombie apocalypse would interfere with the duties and obsessions of wicked sergeants throughout the military.

I went back to casting and handed my slip to the young woman at the desk. She smiled and said to come back next week to start shooting.

A week later, there I was, sitting in the corner of a large room inside of a warehouse. We self-segregated. Extras who were playing civilians and refugees huddled together on one side of the room and extras who were playing uniformed military personnel huddled together on the other side of the room. The two groups didn’t interact. It was stupid and childish. We ate cheap cookies and drank cup after cup of coffee and tea as we waited to be called in.

Most of the military guys already knew each other. They lived there in the UK and did ‘extra’ work on the side pretty regularly. They moved from set to set, like vultures. One guy from the Air Force took leave for two weeks in order to do this. They shared “war stories” from other movies they were in. iPhones came out and they boasted over pictures from War Horse and Dark Knight.

I kept quiet, mostly. I was embarrassed by the whole thing. I never did this before. Eventually we got around to telling everyone our stories – what service we were in, what we did, and whether we deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan or not. I felt superior because I had actually deployed and fought. No one else in the group had. I was an infantryman, a grunt. These guys were just support personnel, mechanics and engineers. I felt like I deserved to be on the set, next to Brad Pitt. I earned the right to be there. They were going to play infantrymen in a Hollywood blockbuster but hadn’t actually done it for real. I was angry and disgusted.

The only guy I got along with was the Canadian guy who was an aspiring actor. He was in the British Territorial Army, which is kind of like the US National Guard. He was infantry, but hadn’t deployed. Close enough, I thought. I told him stories about Iraq and he told me stories about picking up girls on different movie sets. It was a mutual admiration.

Later in the week, as I stood in a very depressing line with the other extras, waiting to sign our payment stub for the day, the man with the silver hair asked if I wanted a ride to the train station. “Sure,” I responded.

After signing my stub, I left with him and we walked out into the parking lot to his car.

“So, you’re military?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, “Well, I was… I mean, I’m a veteran. I got out in 2006. I’m here for school.”

“Oh!” he said, sounding impressed. “Did you.. go overseas?” he asked, with some trepidation. When people find out you were in the military, they want to know if you went to Iraq or Afghanistan. Then they want to know if you killed anyone, in that order.

“Yes, twice. I deployed twice. To Iraq,” I said, opening the passenger side door and sliding into his car. He drove a nice car.

We started driving. “You know, I served in Vietnam. I was a pilot,” he said.

I looked at him, surprised. “No kidding! That’s amazing. What did you fly?”

“AC-130 gunships,” he said proudly, turning his head slightly to make eye contact.

“Cool!” I said like an excited kid. I saw the magnificence of the AC-130 when I was deployed to Iraq, and infantrymen everywhere respect its raw power.

“Yeah,” he said, remembering.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, suddenly more surprised at his being here.

He rattled off something about the State Department, and some kind of business. I really didn’t understand, and I really didn’t care. My mind was still focused on what it must have been like to be an AC-130 pilot in Vietnam, and how weird it was meeting him like this.

On the quiet ride from the studio to the train station, we spoke about how strange it was that here we were, two American veterans from different eras, just outside of London, filming a zombie movie with Brad Pitt. We talked about how odd it would be to tell our old selves, at war, that one day we would be doing what we’re doing. It didn’t make much sense, but we loved it.

I asked him if he does this regularly. “No,” he said, “this is the first time.”

He dropped me off at the train station and we said goodbye. After that week of filming, I never saw him again.

Next day on set. I knew I looked right. I contacted one of my friends who had served in the Marines and he gave me a lesson through a Google+ Hangout on how to properly roll the sleeves. I looked sharp. We lined up for inspection. Most of us were military, or ex-military. There was me, the old-paratrooper turned Middle East Studies student, the Air Force guy from Columbus, Georgia who believed in every conspiracy theory he ever heard, the hard looking British Army Engineer who had firm instructions not to say anything because his accent was so thick, and the suave Canadian who told me stories of picking up girls on the sets of different movies. There we were. A bunch of military-esque faux actors, lined up, ready for fake inspection.

Then our master walked in, lower lip protruding, filled with tobacco. He was shorter than me. He looked like a hundred sergeants I had seen before; grizzled, confident, angry. He was white, with close cut hair, crows feet around the eyes. He wore a white t-shirt, jeans, and old combat boots. Hands in his pockets, he walked past us, looking us up and down.

“Fix your helmet, it’s fucking crooked,” he said to one of us.

He moved down the line, stopping at another, looking down at his boots. “Seriously,” he asked, “tuck your pants into your boots. Goddamn, marine!”

He passed me without making any comments, thank god.

He was the on set military advisor. An ex-marine that somehow found his way into the most amazing job in the world. His role was to ensure that everything military seemed realistic, or at least as realistic as possible. It is the job that only a grizzled junior sergeant could do. Someone whose eye was trained for stupid details, things that other people would think insignificant, but would ruin the movie for veterans and military folk. He also served as the de facto mother-fucker-in-charge for all of the extras playing military roles on set, something he seemed to enjoy. We liked him and admired him, but were also deeply jealous that somehow he landed that job, and we didn’t.

He appeared on set between shots to make sure our uniforms still looked right and to suggest we stand a certain way, to make sure we looked like we were really marines, and not just ex-Army guys trying to play a marine in a movie.

My biggest moment came late in the week, when a panicky production assistant came into our room and pointed to me, splayed out on the floor reading a book about Vietnam. “You, Marine, follow me,” he said. I quickly got up and followed. The others looked at me jealously.

The on set military advisor fitted me with fake body armor and a fake helmet. They looked real but had none of the weight. He also gave me a fake 9mm pistol which went in a leg holster and a fake M4 rifle which I held.

He gave me a once over once my kit was on. “You were Army, right?” he said in a thick southern drawl, lip full of tobacco. “Yeah,” I said, not wanting to take any shit.

“Don’t make us look bad, roger?”

“Yeah, roger,” I said. I wasn’t in the Army anymore and this wasn’t even the military. This was stupid.

I was whisked onto set and placed in front of a door. My production guidance was to “guard the door” which meant standing in front of it, looking natural – don’t stand completely still, move around a bit, but not too much! Really, it meant me shifting as much as possible to try to get in the shot so that I might see myself on the big screen when the movie comes out.

I stood in that hallway for a couple of hours, shifting, but not too much. It was hot and I began to sweat. The fake body armor wasn’t heavy, but it fit tight against my body. Finally, we were put on break and I walked off set and into a hallway, finding a folding chair to sit down in.

As I sat down, the body armor slid up slightly creating a small pocket of space between my chest and the armor, forcing up a super-charged hot stream of air that swooped into my nostrils.

Boom.

For an instant I was whisked away from this fake zombie world straight to bright and sunny post-apocalyptic Baghdad, 2003. The smell of body armor, uniform, and human perspiration, compressed for hours and suddenly released straight to my nose fucked me up. It’s not that it’s a bad smell. It was just painfully familiar. The smell hits hard and only lasts a second. The air is hot and it smells like me, scared and gross. Primal.

I sat there in the chair for a moment and looked around, suddenly dizzy. I laughed slightly, because of how weird it felt. Here I was, a well-adjusted veteran, in graduate school in London, playing a marine in a movie, suddenly weirded out because of a stupid smell from underneath some fake body armor.

That smell activated feelings inside that were dormant for years. Bio-chemical feelings. Visceral stuff inside of my bones, muscles, and cells that knew just what to do in terrible situations. Feelings that helped me survive in one environment that had no place in this one. My body ached dully for a moment, and then it was gone.

The production assistant came in, “We’re starting in a few minutes, come on in,” he said, waving me forward.

I stood up, adjusted my armor, and stepped back on set and in front of my zombie door. Shifting, but not too much.

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Jacob’s Ladder and the need for “serious talk” for veterans

I watched Jacob’s Ladder last night. I saw it once when I was a kid, probably around ten years old. My parents had HBO and it was on one day. It was a sleepy Saturday afternoon and I had control of the television and it was rated R. I remember being chilled to the bone when I saw it then and I was surprised by how much of it stayed with me some twenty years later. It all felt very familiar.

It’s a great movie and before its time. Seeing it now, as a veteran, it gripped me in a way it didn’t – it couldn’t – the first time. The movie is still terrifying, but less so because of the psychological/horror aspect of it and more because of the similarities some veterans face on homecoming.

The scene above (not in its entirety, unfortunately) [Don: 2020 – video no longer available] was especially powerful for me. Here are two Vietnam veterans in New York City who haven’t heard from each other in years. One calls the other and pleads, saying he has to speak to him. Without question, they meet at a bar. They speak in whispered tones, and admit to each other that they are both being chased by demons that others can’t see. Worse, they can’t talk to anyone about it, because no one else understands.

But they understand.

You can sense the relief they feel, just knowing there is someone else out there that gets it.

It reminds me of one of the key findings from my research, that many veterans need “serious talk” in order to successfully transition from military service.

There’s another scene – of which I can’t find the clip – that demonstrates this perfectly. The group of vets are together at the funeral of a buddy and Jacob begins to talk about the demons. Most of the veterans pause and look up at him, wanting him to say more, to confirm that what they’re facing is real. One of them nervously makes a dick joke, not wanting to deal with it. None of them find it funny. The time for jokes and war stories has passed. These are older men now, out of Vietnam and trying to get on with their lives but still haunted by demons from the jungle. They want to get better and figure out. They want to move on.

I don’t want to spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it – so if you want to call me out on some major plot points, don’t bother – I know.

For a movie that really isn’t about war or homecoming, it manages to capture both of those things in a way most movies don’t. There are some stereotypical Vietnam images in the film, but nothing that stood out as offensive.

Sometimes fiction speaks the truth better than the truth.

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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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