"But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice – a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice – is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Getting some: Generation Kill

The house I'm currently renting has no cable or internet access, so when I come home from my long Marine Corps days, I'm limited in my entertainment choices to whatever DVDs my host left behind and those selections I brought from home. Since I always seem to forget to bring selections from home, that leaves my landlord's library as my sole source of relaxation. He's got some pretty good choices (though he also has an inexplicable love of "Frasier"; I don't know anyone else who loved the show so much that they were compelled to buy the entire series); and while, lately, I've been in the mood for some light comedy at the end of the day, I can't seem to find either copy of "Office Space" for which he has two empty cases (well, empty now that I've removed the Frasier disks inside and placed them back where they belong). So, partly because I can't bring myself to watch 8 hours of Frasier, and partly because it got a good review from the Accidental Blogger over at COIN-Yank, I've delved into the HBO series "Generation Kill", based off a book by the same name (which sits, unread, like so many other books, on my bookcase back at home).

Thus far, the series is of the high quality most of us have come to expect from HBO. The world that the characters live in - that of a Marine Force Reconnaissance battalion - is one that's somewhat alien even to Marines, with its own culture, language, and attitude. The show's creators haven't shied away from this; they've done their research and adopted the lexicon and worldview of Force Recon whole-heartedly, to the point where I can say that each character talks like I know Marines talk. They discuss their weapons, tactics, vehicles, and opinions the way real Marines do (profanity included). It's completely believable (though for those in the civilian world who need a little translation for all the jargon, the DVD package comes with a helpful mini-thesaurus to explain all the acronyms). Thus far, my only gripe is the occasional dramatic monologue which the writers insert to drive home some deeper point or issue. I haven't read the book yet, so I don't know if those appear in the text as well, but they always sound out of place wherever they appear. Perhaps the writers are condensing larger dialogues as best they can, or simply taking the opportunity to insert their own worldview; either way, they sound forced and out of sync with the way the characters usually think. That's not to say that things like "imagine the thousands of years of civilization we're standing on, the countless graves of the ancients" don't cross the minds of simple grunts; they do, and I've seen it. It's just not generally expressed the way the writers do. Pretty small gripe, I know, and otherwise I'm quite engrossed in the series.

And, Accidental Blogger, since you got me on to this subject, I went back and checked out that article which asks why there's been no "art" from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/blog/show/4275). I have a few thoughts on that. Mr. Grunstein's strongest point may be that there's already been a great deal of ink spilled on the subject in the realm of non-fiction. From the small unit to the theater level, many soldiers and Marines have written excellent books on their experiences and perspectives in both wars. The huge numbers of embedded journalists deployed to these units have also recounted their stories. Add that to the near real-time video feed from the front lines, and one could argue that there's little need for some sort of artistic work because virtually everything that can be said about each conflict has already been covered, and is updated almost instantaneously. Why invest millions of dollars in an Iraq version of "Platoon" when Americans are watching it for free every day on CNN?

I also found it rather telling that, when asking why no culturally significant books or movies have come out of the current conflicts, Mr. Grunstein cites only anti-war works as the 'standard'. That's not to say that some of his choices aren't relevant; "All Quiet on the Western Front" certainly captures the futility of what was arguably a completely pointless war. Odd, though, that he leaves out some greats from World War II like "Once an Eagle" or "Battle Cry", which feature some truly noble characters and address things like camaraderie and why, sometimes, the cruelty of war is sometimes necessary to vanquish a greater evil. I think he's right on the Korean War, though he might want to look into the works of James Brady whose "Marines of Autumn", a novel about the Chosin Reservoir campaign, matches anything from the Second World War. As for Vietnam, Grunstein seems to accept Hollywood's popular version of the war as the only one, ignoring books like James Webb's "Fields of Fire" and Hal Moore's "We Were Soldiers Once, and Young" (as well as the recent movie) that are more interested in examining how the soldiers actually fought, thought, and interacted with each other than reinforcing the drug-addled, baby-killing, quasi-psychopathic image that most of the movies he mentions foster. In that vein, Hollywood, at least, has attempted to re-do Vietnam in Iraq with a long string of movies of the "Platoon" genre ("Rendition, "In the Valley of Elah", and a half-dozen others), trying to keep the caricature of the American soldier as victim/butcher alive and well. In this, Hollywood has failed miserably; each offering was a bigger bomb than the last. I think this indicates that the American public is no longer interested in the victim/butcher story (if it ever truly was). It is no longer culturally significant because, thanks in large part to the 24-hour news cycle, independent outlets like blogs, and the volume of non-fiction written by a highly literate soldier class, that stereotype is demonstrably false. It's hard to paint soldiers as butchers when you see them take extra casualties because of restrictive ROEs, or when you read about their efforts to help and protect the civilian populace, or when their enemy uses mentally handicapped women to carry their bombs and cooks children alive in stoves to intimidate their parents. And you can't paint them as victims when the military is an all-volunteer force that's been at war for almost ten years, and you know that when you sign on the dotted line you have a pretty good chance of seeing some of that war yourself.

As for his argument that, because we're no longer conscripting poets and novelists to fight, we aren't getting the same creative minds in the military that we used to, I can only surmise that Mr. Grunstein has had little exposure to the men and women who actually wear the uniform or the quite vibrant creative culture that's grown out of our current wars. No, we don't have an Iraqi "All Quiet on the Western Front" (at least not yet); however, the volume of writing that's erupted from both conflicts shows a professional soldiery that's quite capable of telling a story. In addition to the wealth of books released by veterans of OIF and OEF, the digital world of milblogs has opened up an entirely new creative front for soldiers to express themselves. We may not yet have the culturally significant movies Grunstein desires, but that's probably because Hollywood no longer understands what the public finds culturally significant, if it ever did. "The Hurt Locker" and "Generation Kill" may be the first steps in this direction; there are also less well-known but very powerful films like "Taking Chance" that have demonstrated their appeal to a widespread audience because they resonate so much more realistically than "Lions for Lambs". Mr. Grunstein might also want to peruse shared media sites like YouTube, where troops have posted their various musical and cinematic creations. Granted, much of it is profane, not profound, but there's also a large pool of soldiers who've written their own songs, created their own music videos, and demonstrated genuine insight and biting humor in both. Finally, anyone who's spent some time in or about military types would be impressed by the graphic artistry found in the endless stream of unit logos, deployment plaques, and random decorations found on everything from squad bays to aircraft fuselages, all springing solely from the creative impulses and skills of the American soldier.

So one can find a whole new generation of combat "art" in our current conflicts; it just depends on where you're looking. Mr. Grunstein is missing out on most of it because it doesn't fit his own archetype of what meaningful wartime art is supposed to be, and he woefully underestimates the gifts of the American fighting man due to this blindness.

Oh, and Generation Kill is awesome.


催眠嗎 said...


Winefred said...

Sometimes you don't find things because you're not really looking for them. A serious hunt for war poets would produce Iraq vet Brian Turner (USArmy,ret., 10th Mountain Div.) whose 2005 collection "Here, Bullet" won various prizes and much praise at the time, and includes a poem called "Hurt Locker", which may be the source of the film title. On the non-veteran side is "The War Works Hard" by Iraqi Christian Dunya Mikhail, a woman who has been squeezing poetry out of the misery of life under Saddam since 1993, plus a lot of painful observations of life under invasion in 2004. And of course, there is the forthcoming "Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War" by Matt Gallagher (USArmy Lt., ret.) which is narrative that is consistently poetic. Not a lot of "rah-rah" from any of these people, but way more truth than Hollywood morons would know if it bit them in the ass.