“Do you know what a DUSTWUN is?”

I finally began listening to DUSTWUN on season 2 of Serial. I didn’t know about Serial until a couple of weeks ago when everyone in my social media started talking about it and acting very surprised that it was going to cover the Bowe Bergdahl saga – a topic I’ve purposely avoided writing about here.

Serial, for the uninitiated, is a series that premiered last year that tells a non-fiction story over a number of weeks, diving in deep for detail and drawing back wide for perspective. I only recently learned about it, but many of my friends seem obsessed with it in the way that some people grew obsessed with This American Life.

The cursory impression that I got is that the fact that Serial was going to cover this was weird because this is a military thing and that was outside of the supposed purview of Serial. I don’t know if this is true or not, it’s just the vibe I was picking up from reading all of the posts.

Part of the reason I’ve purposely avoided writing about Bowe Bergdahl is because 1) he’s still in the Army, and 2) the arena is loud an venomous. Havok Journal recently ran a short piece that summed it up pretty nicely.

But with the excitement surrounding the new season of Serial, I decided to give it a try and I listened to the first episode.

The crux of episode 1 revolves around a series of interviews conducted by Mark Boal. Mark Boal is the journalist/screenwriter wrote The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. He also wrote the expose about the Afghanistan “kill team” for Rolling Stone. I’ve always been a little put off by his style because, as I wrote a few years ago:

“Maybe I am off here, but there is something that rubs me the wrong way about a journalist who on one hand writes a story that needed to be written – The Kill Team in Afghanistan exposĂ© â€“ 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.”

The host of Serial, Sarah Koenig, addresses the non-chalance of Boal’s interview style, and it does make sense, as the interviews were conducted at length, over the phone, over multiple days. The interviews were not intended to be used in a radio program, but instead were to serve as source material for a film Boal is writing on the subject.

There comes a point in one of the interviews where Bergdahl is trying to explain his rationale for walking away from his post, essentially to cause a stir due to his absence in order to get an audience with a General so that he could explain in person how bad his unit’s command was. Before he begins, he needs to make sure Boal understands the context and terminology. The back and forth between them stops and Bergdahl asks “Do you know what a DUSTWUN is?”

There is a short silence. I can almost hear Boal stopping, suddenly more interested in what Bergdahl is about to say.

Again, from a couple of years ago.

“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.”

I’ve since listened to episode 2, and the series is well-produced and interesting. I’d recommend it for anyone who wants to learn more about what happened without the noise of the internet.

Also, Task & Purpose is covering the series in their own podcast. It features Lauren Katzenberg of T&P, James Weirick, a former USMC JAG, and Nate Bethea, a former Army infantry officer whose writing (and thinking) I admire. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I think it might be an interesting thing to put on after an episode.


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

navy seal giving an annoying look
“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 exposĂ© – 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.


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