Jun 06

(Article contains spoilers about the new “Watchmen” film.)

I’ll be honest. I did not have high expectations for the new Watchmen film. As was evident in yesterday’s post, I consider Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s graphic novel to be pure genius, and pure genius is a tough thing to translate across any medium.

I wrote the draft for that article a month or two before the film came out, and at the time I made a note to myself to write a follow up post on the film. I feared the movie would translate complex characters and themes into black and white, good versus evil, protagonists and antagonists simplifications. Specifically, I thought they would make Rorsharch heroic. And although I had some major criticisms of the film itself, I have to say Zack Snyder, David Hayter, and Alex Tse translated Rorsharch to the screen perfectly.

The Rorsharch of the film, as critics and my friends have remarked, is insane and a fascist, just as he is in the graphic novel. I didn’t have the comic book with me but I believe some of his scariest, craziest monologues are transcribed word for word to the screen. And though they sounded a pinch melodramatic when spoken out loud, it conveyed the essence of the character.

Fanboys, including me most of the time, criticize comic book movies whenever and wherever they stray from the source material. My complaint is usually that the change is either needless or it violates the source material thematically. Rorsharch’s insanity, whether depicted on screen by chopping a pedophile with a butcher knife or setting him on fire, it doesn’t matter, his insanity is clear.

And I'm glad they portrayed him right.

Jun 05

(Spoiler Alert: This post reveals plot details about Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s wholly wonderful Graphic novel, “The Watchmen.” The post below discusses the graphic novel and tomorrow we will post our thoughts on the recent film.)

There are no traditional comic book heroes in The Watchmen.

Dr. Manhattan, the one man with super powers, observes the world from a detached, scientific perspective; he lets innocents die. He is more God than man, and his actions are as incomprehensible. He lacks the easily understood compassion of the stereotypical superhero.

Ozymandias, arguably the only other character with super powers, actively kills innocents. At the end of the book, he asks Dr. Manhattan if he has done the just, honorable thing. If he were a hero, he would know whether what he did was right or wrong. He lacks the moral assuredness and confidence of the stereotypical hero.

The Nite Owl is so paralyzed by fear he can’t act or even make love. When he finally does don his costume to do the right thing, he surrenders to his enemy. He lacks the bravery of a hero.

The Comedian. His only agenda is nihilism and laughter at the world. He is the hero we fear, the man we hope never receives super powers.

Then we have Rorsharch, along with the Comedian, the most violent character in the book. Whereas the Comedian’s violence is shrouded in a devil may care pathos, Rorsharch’s violence is driven by his own sense of morality and that is truly frightening.

Being a moralist and believing in right and wrong is not itself a bad thing. But when morality becomes moral superiority, as when Rorsharch places his values above the laws, the rules, and the mores of society, it becomes fascism. If there is one picture of evil in this book it is the changing black and white face of Rorsharch.

By his own words: “They [society] could have followed in the footsteps of good men like my father, or Truman . . . Instead they followed the droppings of Lechers and Communists . . . all those liberals and intellectuals and smooth talkers.”

The Watchmen was the first to ask: what if comic book heroes attacked not just “criminals” but all people they thought were evil? It is not just Rorsharch’s methods which are disgusting -- he tortures and kills his enemies -- it is also his vanity in choosing his enemies. Ask yourself: do you feel communists deserved to be tortured? Intellectuals? Liberals? Homosexuals?

Perhaps Alan Moore (who I think disapproves of Rorschach) answers the question by taking Rorscharch, and vigilantism, to the most logical extremes. Rorsharch is clearly insane. (Many people ask if Batman is insane. Moore uses Rorsharch to answer that question in a clear yes.) Rorschach is a fascist. He rails against communists, intellectuals and perhaps most tellingly, homosexuals. About Adrian Veidt, Rorschach narrates “Possible homosexual? Must remember to investigate further.” What if he were? Society’s values means nothing to Rorsharch. He is above society and the its values. His vigilantism is inherently self-serving and self-centered.

Ultimately, it is all a question of “watchmen.” Society can never trust one person or one group for our mutual protection and no one person or group exist above the others. No one owns morality.  Not Rorsharch, Barack Obama, the republicans, politicians, District Attorneys, Police Officers, the media, the governement nor you. Even if Rorsharch were fighting the right people, his ends -- breaking the social contract -- would never justify his means.

There are no heroes to watch this world for us; we wouldn’t want them to.

Jun 03

While many pundits, critics and reporters have covered Blackwater’s (recently renamed Xe) many controversies, including Blackwater’s disregard of the military’s rules of engagement (ROE) and their nebulous legal status, I can’t help but think of the question they are failing to ask: how can the State Department find it cheaper to farm out its security to contracting firms than US soldiers?

Military contractors make upwards of 350 to 1,500 dollars a day working in Iraq. A soldier on the ground can make as low as 80 dollars a day. When the State Department can pay contractors ten times as much as the Department of Defense pays soldiers, and those contractors still run a profit, then the DoD has a problem. Having lived and worked in the military for a few years, I understand why contractors are so affordable; the military is a massively inefficient bureaucracy. When looking at the situation, politicians can conclude only one thing, if they bring in contractors they will save money.

Why?

The Army is quite literally huge. With nearly 550,000 service men and women, the Army is by far one of the largest organizations in the country, and indeed the world. Few other government agencies or private businesses even come close to this size. Each of these employees multiplies the Army’s costs. The DoD is even larger with over a million employees.

Second, the U.S. Army does not fire anyone or remove positions unless congress mandates the change. The U.S. Army still speaks the name Bill Clinton with disgust for his “military drawdown” during the nineties. (This ignores the fact that Republicans controlled the Congress and Congress controls the budget.) Clinton’s critics in the military should also look at themselves. Congress restricted funds and forced the military to draw down troop levels. The Army could have chosen to keep up its number of maneuver brigades and slashed jobs at the Pentagon and other service-support jobs. Instead, the Army kept the Pentagon jobs and lowered its fighting capabilities.

Third, the Army’s large bureaucracy costs money in wasted time, paper and efficiency. Almost every officer at the Pentagon is an officer not leading soldiers. He supervises the Army. This costs money. With thousands of officers managing desks, but not troops, needless requirements and bureaucracy filter down to soldiers. This hurts the Army’s most valuable resource: time.

The result is Blackwater. Only employing a few thousand soldiers, every dollar brought in goes directly to the organization. The more they save the more the owners of the company can keep. By keeping an organization small, they keep it efficient and they can charge the State Department ridiculous sums of money, and still underbid the military.

The solution for the U.S. Army, and the Department of Defense as a whole, is to slash the highest costing jobs and cut down on the bureaucracy. Only by trimming itself to the bones can the DoD hope to survive against lean organizations like Blackwater. Our country needs a military, but it needs an effective and efficient one.

Jun 01

When we invaded Iraq, America and the Army did not understand counter-insurgency. Our soldiers -- lacking proper guidance -- developed tactics, techniques and procedures that don’t work. The upper levels of command do not condone or talk openly about these tactics yet they exist. 

We fail to deal with these tactics because admitting that soldiers use them means soldiers have committed immoral acts. Indeed, the majority of soldiers have never used the tactics described below, and the use of these tactics occurred much more in the initial invasion and first few years of the Iraqi occupation. But they have been used and we need to discuss that reality. These acts are tactically ineffective and more importantly, morally wrong. We need to do more than eliminate them; soldiers and the Army need to know, and understand why, they are ineffective.

Drop weapons: A drop weapon is a spare AK-47, RPG or other stock weapon of the insurgency, confiscated on the battle field that U.S. soldiers or Marines keep in their vehicles. After making contact with a suspected enemy who turns out to be innocent or unarmed, the soldiers place the weapons on the victim. The weapon becomes the stated “hostile intent” of the dead civilian. While no manual dictates this policy and U.S. regulations expressly prohibit it, many Sergeants in the Army will admit they use drop weapons. Many Lieutenants and Captains in our Army know of the policy, have used it, and support it. Again, this practice occurred more frequently during the beginning of the invasion into Iraq.

Baiting: Another variant on this theme is the process of baiting victims. A common practice reported in The Army Times and The Washington Post, snipers place illegal weapons, explosives or other material in a controlled location and observe them. When someone goes to pick them up, labeling himself as an “insurgent”, a sniper kills him.

Military Age Males: The U.S. Army uses the phrase "military age male" to determine who it searches during operations. The use of this term expanded to the point that during operations if a unit came under fire and could not locate the source but then found "military age males," they would engage as legitimate targets. The soldiers discount the fact that they are unarmed under the belief that they abandoned their weapons.

Positive Identification at a Distance: The key to most encounters with the enemy is gaining Positive Identification--in Army lingo PID--where a soldier identifies a hostile target. Once identified as hostile, soldiers may engage. Soldiers often abuse PID, declaring persons to be combatants at distances where accurate positive identification is impossible. This occurs frequently in Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain.

In 4th Generation Warfare (4GW), the positive support of the population determines victory. Drop weapons, the "baiting tactic" and the use of terms like "military age male" ensure the military will kill innocent civilians. When a civilian dies, the population knows and reacts, a reaction rarely favoring foreign forces. It is much easier to blame an invading, high-tech military for the death of your brother than your fellow countrymen.

U.S. soldiers and Marines believe that they protect themselves by using these methods. They do lower the risks to U.S. soldiers in the short term, but raise them for innocent Iraqis in the long term. They provide soldiers more opportunities to fire their weapons and, by extension, kill more of the "enemy." The U.S. Army values American lives more then Iraqi lives. Agree or disagree with that point on its moral terms, but in 4GW it will keep us from winning.

May 29

In the Bourne Supremacy, a wily CIA director talks about the CIA rendition program, the NSA wiretapping program and a super secret assassination squad as beneficial programs. What bothered me about this scene wasn't the programs themselves (though they do), it was the justification for them, “These are the measures we have to use now; Washington can’t be too slow to act and let the bad guys get away.” This quote is not exact, but the general justification used in the film. Portrayals like this, of a government agency forced to break the rules to keep us safe, became ubiquitous in pop culture post-9/11.

Of the most recent generation of spy, the most disturbing is Jack Bauer on Fox’s 24. 24 is the closest many Americans will come to studying terrorism or national security issues. Jack Bauer, “an adrenaline fueled counter-terrorism agent who doesn’t play by the rules,” will torture any suspected terrorist, including eventually, interrogating the President of the United States. Jack Bauer, the prototype for the type of special agents some Americans have come to believe our country needs, believes the imminent threat we face requires him to take action now without any moral or ethical constraints.

It is easy to see the origin in the new spy, the one who doesn’t play by the rules. In the wake of the fear 9/11, many believe that terrorism cannot be stopped unless the officials in charge have the ability to act quickly, decisively and without oversight. Donald Rumsfeld purposely advocated sacrificing individuals for the greater good. Following 9/11, America faced the tough decision between security or freedom. Judging the newest generation of spy, they choose security.

The one critique of my theory is James Bond’s license to kill. The difference is Bond always had a sense of humor and fought egomaniacal super villains that didn't exist in the real world. Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer and even the new James Bond of Casino Royale, lack the humor and fun of the old Bond flicks.

Hollywood created a new hero for the post-9/11 era. one I don’t like. I don’t agree with letting the government break the rules: it scares the hell out of me and in the long run it will not make us safer. It is too bad Hollywood flicks make it seem so appealing.

May 27

Will a surge of combat troops work in Afghanistan? In short, I don’t know.

When discussing my wartime experience with friends and family, this question always comes up. My answer illustrates the limits of any one person’s experience during war. It may sound trite to say that I am a cog in the machine, but I am that small compared to the enormity of an Army at war.

My own experience in war changed drastically when I moved a mere dozen or so kilometers east. Counter-intuitively, as my platoon moved closer to Pakistan the war became increasingly less violent. The cause was one simple geographical feature, a giant river valley.

In Afghanistan, as I think is the case in Iraq, each village in each district of each province has its own cultural and religious nuances. As a nation, we fail to appreciate these nuances, even though they also exist in America. In Los Angeles County, you have a multi-ethnic metropolis that votes primarily democratic. Abutting it south, Orange County votes primarily Republican and is extremely wealthy. In this small county, though, each city or small section looks and acts differently. Some parts are more Caucasian, others more Hispanic. Some are urban, others suburban.

All this relates to my two different areas of operations. One had paved roads, the other didn’t. One had barely six thousand individuals. The other had over forty-thousand families. One was largely flat, the other was mountainous.

As my two areas of operations differed dramatically, so too does Afghanistan itself differ widely from province to province, district to district. Some places speak Pashtun, some speak Dari. There are dozens of ethnic groups with as many different levels of economic development from rural-nomadic to emerging industrialization. Some places are influenced by Pakistan and some by Iran. Some areas are Shia, some are Sunni.

Counter-insurgency boggles the mind in its complexity and the factors that can influence a battle. Did the surge work in Iraq? Yes, but it was coupled with so many different changes in tactics and political shifts that historians could never isolate whether it alone caused the decrease in violence. I do not know enough about Afghanistan to determine if more forces will “work” in quelling Afghanistan’s insurgency. Every unit could use more troops. Every commander wants more troops. All I can say, is a surge by itself will not solve the country’s problems only deep historical and political change.

May 25

During my last visit home the inevitable happened, a fight broke out. From our stools in the corner of our favorite bar, my friends and I watched two young men rage at each other, throw glasses and then punches until a bouncer broke it up. I wondered, who was to blame for this fight?

From what I’ve seen, most post-bar fight scenes are the same. Both sides plead innocence. Whoever swings first accuses the other side of some lesser physical contact, like a shove or they claim that the other guy was “coming at me.” Each side will accuse the other of being overtly aggressive, like he "got up in my face." Both sides will justify themselves by saying their opponent was “talking trash.” Frequently, the classic justification is the “other guy” called their female companion a bitch, or some other derogatory comment.

Each side in a bar fight appeals for innocence through inevitability; be it the other person’s verbal or physical actions, most fighters believe they are justified in their actions. Yes, I am taking fist fighting to legalistic, academic extremes but the point remains: in the vast majority of fights, neither side believes they were in the wrong. At this point, three possibilities could be true:

    1. One side is at fault.
    2. Neither side is at fault.
    3. Both sides are at fault.

Usually only the third option makes sense. People who get in fights tend to get in fights frequently.  Few people are this honest about their intentions. When asked, it is insults and perceived “disrespect” that motivates people to start brawling. The vast majority of people do not get in fights; the difference is when the average person is “slighted” they don’t use it to justify fighting. Therefore, when it comes to bar fights, both sides must have some degree of blame.

Why this meditation on bar fights? Because when soldiers and upper level brass talk about the Global War on Terror, they tell us, "We had this fight thrust upon us." Or as President Bush called the Global War on Terror, "A war we did not start."

I have ignored opportunities to fight before, could America have ignored the terrorists? Could we have treated them as criminals instead of starting a Global War on Terror? If we can metaphorically get in a bar fight, can we metaphorically walk away?

Iraq tells an oddly similar tale to a bar fight. More than misperceived aggression, it was America’s first preemptive strike.  We had dozens of options about how to respond to Iraq that did not involve war. We had no impending threat; we had a justification to fight and we took it.

Often, the police give up on assigning blame on calls about fights and declare them “mutual combat.” Police officers understand a truth about fighting: each side is to blame.

May 22

As happens most times when I talk with my brother and one of his fellow officers, the conversation turns to the army. More specifically, it turns to war. Recently, the spark of the conversation was the first line by Yossarian from perhaps the second most popular passage of Catch 22:

    “They're trying to kill me," Yossarian told him calmly.
    "No one's trying to kill you," Clevinger cried.
    "Then why are they shooting at me?" Yossarian asked.
    "They're shooting at everyone," Clevinger answered. "They're trying to kill everyone."
    "What difference does that make?"

Yossarian’s argument is both rational, and insane; it reads like something Lewis Carroll would have written, had he written poetry about modern warfare. The situation, and modern war, is contradictory, both impersonal and personal. The soldiers are mechanically and spatially separated from the battlefield and yet affected in the most personal and intensely psychological ways possible. No one is trying to kill Yossarian in particular, yet the anti-aircraft gunners firing at yossarian as he flies bombing runs over Germany certainly are.

War, as the passage relates, is absurd.

What affected me were the responses of my brother and his friend. Each related a tale of paranoia in Afghanistan, someone they had seen lose it. One told of a Sergeant who stayed up for watch every night, meticulously, obsessively, double checking the work of others, despite having a non-combat job. The other told of a Private who never took off his body armor, even inside protective bunkers. And I thought of a Vietnam war veteran who told me that a symptom of PTSD is running a perimeter check at night; double checking every lock on every door in the house at two or three in the morning.

How deep does this paranoia penetrate? It is impossible to hear these stories and not both pity and understand these reactions. The essence of this clip of dialogue and these simple stories is that Yossarian and these soldiers are essentially right. They (be they insurgents or Germans) were trying to kill them. And this, if you are human, is a terrifying thought.

We can’t help bringing up the cliche of paranoia: it’s not paranoia if they ARE out to get you. It’s not paranoia; it’s fear.