July 8, 2011 § Leave a Comment
War time Manga first published in 1973 and finally available in our country offers World War 2 from the viewpoint of our enemies. In fact this is a fictionalized memoir — Mizuki calls it “90% true” — of the author’s service on a small island in New Guinea.
In Mizuki’s presentation, average Joe Japanese soldiers contend with the island’s greatest dangers — malaria and alligators — until the American army shows up and begins to push inward. Young and inexperienced, with a focus more on their tummies and libidos, the Japanese soldiers don’t take seriously the cultural expectation of their military careers — an honorable death in service to their country. Their commanding officers take it very seriously, though, and the reality of a suicide charge clashes with their personal fears.
Mizuki peppers the tale with an amiable goofiness that captures the period and his experience, but it is filtered through a graphic rage at what he and his fellow soldiers experienced. Sometimes grim and gruesome, “Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths” is a powerful revelation of the price of war on all sides, and the expectations of national service that hold countries above men.
April 16, 2010 § Leave a Comment
In a new book from photographer Barry Goldstein, the Iraq experience unfolds through the eyes and minds of the armored battalion of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team
As the end result of a project that has taken five years, Goldstein’s book, “Gray Land,” was recently published by W.W. Norton. It is more than a photography book. Combining Goldstein’s portraiture work with his journalistic efforts on location in Iraq, the book also allows the soldiers to speak for themselves. When all the parts are brought together, it stands as a documentary in book form that captures the real lives of the troops in Iraq with dignity and compassion.
Goldstein visited Iraq with the platoon in the summers of 2007 and 2008 for a month at a time. Part of his mission was to rise above the politics — obviously as a human being and an American citizen, he has his own opinions of the war, but the point of the project was not to express those, but to present the stories and experiences of the people who fight it. Goldstein felt that was important information to know — it turns out the soldiers he became involved with did also. He found that one thing the soldiers had in common was the desire to be understood.
“They don’t get a choice in where they are sent or what war they get to fight in,” he said in an interview this week. “The points I think that they would often try to convey is that, regardless of where they were sent, they were just trying to do the best they could, both for their colleagues in terms of protecting them and very often the people in the area where they were working. There was a really genuine sense of wanting to improve their lives, both in terms of providing security as well as civil improvements.”
In getting to know the members of the battalion, Goldstein had worked documenting their training at Fort Benning, Ga., taking portraits and interviewing them about their backgrounds — it was never in the plan to go to Iraq. It was during a training session in California that he had accompanied the battalion on that he realized going to Iraq was a crucial part of the project. The training involved simulations of Iraqi villages, with people playing the parts of insurgents and villagers the soldiers had to deal with.
“I realized how different it was hearing all these stories and experiences involving people and activities and equipment, and actually seeing it,” Goldstein said. “At that point I realized that I probably should go and see them do what they spent all this time training to do. I made that decision, and of course training is very different from being in Iraq because nobody’s shooting at you.”
He went ready for the danger — he took a course designed to prepare journalists for conflict areas as part of his preparation — and was confident he was in good hands. If he was well prepared for the actual physical threats, though, he had not anticipated the toll they take on a person psychologically, without even ever happening.
“What I was unprepared for was the level of constant stress that exists in the war zone,” he said. “Of course this exists if you’re out on patrol or in a vehicle riding around, but it even exists if you’re in a relatively safe place like a base, because the base would be subject to mortar fire, random harassment fire. While you eat and sleep and wash and do all the things you would normally do on a day-to-day basis, there’s this constant stress. That was a new experience for me.”
Goldstein went out on a number of patrols, both in vehicles and on foot, and spent some nights in combat outposts. He also attended District Action Council meetings — liaisons between local neighborhood organizers and military representatives that tackle the job of the day-to-day running of the neighborhoods. The meetings covered everything from hygiene to security to budgets, and gave Goldstein a chance to meet with some of the locals.
“You get to see this whole other side of the Iraqi people and the sense of dedication of the people who would come to these, because obviously they’re at great risk from the people who didn’t want this to happen, and yet they’re quite passionate,” he said.
His mission was to capture the more routine elements of war that would usually not be the interest of war photographers — the grind of war. He would be less apt to seek out combat shots and more likely to spend a day with vehicle maintenance workers, capturing their role in the process and how they deal with that.
“I got a real appreciation for the idea that while some jobs are more dangerous than others, none of them are going to be easy,” Goldstein said, “and if you’re a clerk working in a hardened building, you’re away from your family for a year and you’re working seven days a week. We talk about 24/7 in the civilian work, but on deployment, that’s reality. People are working around the clock on generally very little sleep and have a lot to do. When you add on top of that the physical demands and then the dangers, you get to see how difficult this job really is.”
Goldstein was careful about the places he chose to go with patrols. He wasn’t tailgating the horrors of war and so consciously chose not to capture the evidence of them. His concern was with the inner life of these troops — the outer life figures into the work only in regard to how it affects the psychology of the people who live it. Besides, Goldstein never felt the amount of time he spent there really justified deep analysis of the actual situation of war.
“I’m always clear to point out that I was just a tourist there,” he said. “A couple months doesn’t begin to educate you about the complexities of this.”
One thing he did talk about with soldiers was conduct overseas — specifically how their approach toward Iraqis affected the job they were there to do. One young platoon leader expressed the maxim of “be professional, be polite, be prepared to kill” explaining the correlation between courtesy, the ease of their job and the probability of getting it done correctly and safely. Courtesy might be the area most difficult and crucial for a soldier.
“The most important thing where you need to use your head is to be polite, because not only is this the right thing to do, it’s also tactically valuable,” Goldstein said he was told. “They replaced a unit in this neighborhood that was very ‘kick butt and take names,’ and the people just didn’t trust them. When there were people outside the neighborhood who came in, the unit never heard about it, and their casualties were high.”
The platoon leader explained to Goldstein that his unit make it a policy to be as open with the Iraqis as possible. For instance, if a situation demanded a door being knocked down, the platoon would return the next day to explain and compensate — the idea was to promote trust and cooperation as a way of avoiding violence.
“That really had a big effect on me,” Goldstein said. “This was coming from someone in his mid 20s, and for someone at that age to have that attitude was pretty impressive, and it was representative of the attitude that I generally saw in all my interactions.”
With the project behind him, Goldstein has been busy with some promotional work in conjunction with the book and reflecting on his experience privately. After devoting so much time to the experience, he is now in the position of looking toward his next thing — and what that might be is currently a complete mystery to him.
“After an experience like this, some things that were interesting before are not interesting now, but I know that something will come up — and when it does, I’ll know it,” he said.
August 28, 2009 § 1 Comment
The title to the new film “In The Loop” refers to the inner highway surrounding downtown Washington, D.C. But it also hints at the swirl of perpetual activity that runs that government on an inevitable course that circles back on itself.
In the halls of government, you get nowhere except to that place you have been before. That’s what members of the British government find out when they are brought over to the U.S. to play patsy for opposing sides in a war debate.
The British minister for international development’s poor skills at improvisation before news cameras and at official meetings has him stumbling into importance with a Chauncy Gardener style ascent that places him decidedly over his head. While on a radio show, he describes a war as “unforeseeable,” and all hell breaks loose within the British government, which claims the minister is not towing the official line. It’s impossible to tell exactly how he’s not towing the official line, but others are pretty worked up about it.
Soon, though, the minister is invited out to Washington, D.C., to make an appearance in war hearings. He finds himself in a multi-tiered tug of war that involves not only political battles between the players, but also career and personal ones.
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April 17, 2009 § Leave a Comment
There are many unusual aspects to the Iraq War, and most of them are well discussed in public, but one that is not dealt with so commonly is the conflict’s importance to the changing role of women in combat. Tackling that issue head-on is “Lioness,” a documentary by Meg McLagen and Daria Sommers that originally aired as a segment of the “POV” series on PBS.
“Lioness” follows the post-deployment lives of five women who constituted “Team Lioness,” a group of female support soldiers who found themselves thrust into actual combat situations. This reality of battle showed in real-life terms a woman’s mettle in war, although it also caused their superior officers to consciously break military regulation as part of the normal improvisation of war. Iraq is different from any other war in that it requires female soldiers be up front with the men because of cultural requirements. Foremost is the issue of searching civilian women — within a Muslim society, male soldiers could do no such thing without adding immense insult to injury. Female support teams for raids and interrogations are mandatory. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 28, 2009 § Leave a Comment
That war is hell is hardly up for debate anymore, but that doesn’t seem to stop it from happening, even among the saner of nations. And though we still pay continual tribute to the brave soldiers who do their duty, we’re still more inclined to towards Memorial Day or Veterans Day than concocting something like Civilian Casualty Day.
Why don’t we organize remembrance of those trapped in the horror for whom hell meant a final, horrible demise that they had no control over? Why can’t we think about them?
The animated documentary “Waltz With Bashir” is about exactly that, but it comes to the subject via the testimonies of soldiers, solicited by director Ari Folman as he goes on a quest to recover lost memories involving Israel’s War with Lebanon in 1982. Folman’s investigation is spurred on by a chilling flashback he has about the war, but a scene that he is hard placed to put into real context. He realizes how little he has retained of the war in his memory and the realization of disassociative thinking in regard to Lebanon has him seek out old Army buddies who were there with him to fill in the gaps. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 27, 2008 § Leave a Comment
The phrase “comic book journalism” isn’t one that is bandied around very often, but Joe Sacco has proven it can be done and in such a way that it puts a good bit of traditional journalism — as it exists today — to shame.
“Safe Area Gorazde” was duly lauded when it was first released — it was a New York Times Notable Book in 2001 and Time Magazine named it “Best Comic of 2000.” Sacco, who had previously won acclaim with his book “Palestine” has moved on to work for publications such as Harpers and The Guardian UK, in which he chronicles the War in Iraq.
This new edition of his timeless report on his experiences in the Bosnian War mixes cold facts and analysis with heartbreaking biographies, amusing slices of life and disturbing depictions of worst in human nature to present something of fearless compassion and scholarship. And as skilled as Sacco’s writing is, it’s his artistic prowess that draws you in, whether he’s rendering the friendly faces of the people he hangs out with or the intensity and destruction of the war that has hijacked their lives.
Sacco is generous with clear explanations of the situation in Bosnia, covering the history, the factions and the troop movements, as well as details of the kinds of atrocities so many thought had disappeared with Nazi Germany. He brings it all down to earth by chronicling his daily life in Gorazde and presenting his lighter moments with the denizens. As you get to know these people, he brings in their stories — it’s a jarring narrative construct as you witness these friendly people struggling for their lives as their own neighborhoods fall down around them. It’s a depiction of war as something that happens to real people — an example of what it would be like for you, the reader, or for the people out there trapped in wars now, whose lives are an abstraction of the wider implications of any conflict.
Sacco’s tale is also one of Twilight Zone absurdity at its most grim level — what if those you once called friends and neighbors suddenly want to wipe you and all your people out of existence, sadistically punishing you prior to your murder and waging the genocide in your own homes? What if your grandmother’s house was turned into the scene of a military battle in order to save the existence of your entire nationality? No zombie tale can compare for sheer terror.
This new edition is a timely revival, a reminder of the pre-Bush years and the gray world that existed before this one of absolutes, a work of elegant power that demands your attention.
March 29, 2007 § Leave a Comment
In the annals of heroism, the criteria for the act usually involves saving lives or protecting freedom — gathering information is not often held in high regard, if acknowledged at all. The role of the photojournalist is to do just that, however, and to accomplish the task by throwing himself into some dicey situations that require as much skill for survival as any soldier. The point of this action is be a witness for those of us who can’t be or can’t bear the burden of being, to provide the needed information to understand some of the darkest places in humanity, to come up with solutions other than pummeling each other into non-existence. It is a different sort of service than what a soldier or a policeman or a firefighter provides, it is a far more abstract one, but the dangers are just as real and the resolve necessary to perform the job is just as vital.
In the documentary film “Shooting Under Fire,” photojournalists for Reuters covering the disputed territories in Israel are followed, examined, spoken to and revealed to be — surprise, surprise — men who lead dangerous lives and grapple with death every day. Why do they do it? To reveal the truth — something that can be harder to sink your teeth into than, say, fighting for the American Way, but no less vital to our lives.
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December 7, 2006 § Leave a Comment
The word “mercenary” seems ancient at this point, like something more appropriate for “Pirates of the Caribbean” than any sober documentary about the Iraq War. As the new film “Shadow Company” shows, mercenaries are still very much with us but remain hidden in modern times thanks to a kind of linguistic political correctness.
Filmmakers Nick Bicanic and Jason Bourque have put together a thorough and lively examination of the role of contracted security workers — the mercenaries of our time — in Iraq. In an era of documentary film as political commentary, the film’s even-handedness is remarkable considering the subject matter. The filmmakers are more concerned with examining the history, context, psychology and business of mercenaries, giving so much information that there is no need to manipulate the viewer with a political outlook. Further, including not just experts and analysts but actual, professional security contractors who have made careers as private soldiers, Bicanic and Bourque present a fascinating insight into a world few of us will ever enter.
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May 4, 2006 § Leave a Comment
American isolationism is a passive/aggressive exercise that offers insight into our understanding of the world around us. We act as isolationists in regard to some of the worst atrocities in the modern world, like the genocide in Darfur, while we are positively hands-on and gung ho about liberating Iraq. If we are to be the police of the world, surely there should be a more logical way to flash our badge. Julia Newman’s “Into The Fire” suggests that it may be best left to individual choice rather than government policy when saving the world. This riveting documentary of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 chronicles the decision of 80 American women to throw in with the International Brigade, a collection of 40,000 volunteers from 50 countries who saw the events in Spain as a first and crucial battleground in the war against fascism.
Some 2,700 Americans joined that fight, a scenario that is the exact opposite of the current situation in Iraq. The U.S. government was not interested in participating in this conflict, despite the involvement of Hitler and Mussolini, who leant forces and arms, and despite Generalisimo Francisco Franco’s move to overthrow the newly elected democracy of Spain.
American volunteers felt that to ignore this situation was to commit the country to a larger, more horrible war — a message had to be sent to the fascists. The fact that innocent civilians, the elderly, children, were being brutally murdered certainly didn’t hurt their motivation to go to Europe and do what they felt was right.
The American government and its isolationist citizens sat out the conflict and waited until the situation in Europe was far more dire and would cost many more American lives.
As Newman points out, the Spanish Civil War may be the very last time that participation in a war was an individual choice and, as such, the landscape is scattered with brave and liberal souls who put their lives on the line for others and for what they feel is right. It is not their duty to do so, as it is a soldier’s — it is their gift.
In telling the story of this moment in time and the people who throw themselves into it, Newman weaves new interviews with older footage, photos, and readings of journalistic accounts to paint a grim and frightening account of a conflict that, if remembered at all, is largely romanticized a la Hemingway.
The thread throughout these stories is that a good portion of the Americans fighting in this war were underappreciated by their own country — women, Jews, black Americans, they all find something personal in the situation in Europe that reminds them too much of home.
“Here’s the thing that brought everything to me,” said Salaria Kea, a black American, “it was the way Germany was treating the Jews. What Hitler was doing with them, it was like the Ku Klux Klan.”
For the Jewish women, the connection was a lot more obvious, but still apparently no incentive for American citizens to want to be involved.
These brave women were not soldiers — many were nurses, slaving in mobile medical facilities during battle, facing the possibility of their own deaths each day and performing minor miracles in impossible situations.
With the inclusion of drivers, journalists, and other participants, “Into The Fire” challenges the deification of soldiers as the sole heroes of battle. War is, if nothing else, a shared experience with many non conventional attendees in the mix.
Newman’s film not only celebrates the lives of these brave souls, but casts a grayness on the nature of war, liberalism, and humane efforts.
In this day and age, it is easy to paint a hawk as a hawk, a humanitarian activist as a humanitarian activist, and so on, but prior to World War II, it is obvious that such distinctions were not as clear and by the numbers, and the individual decisions that people made in regard to what was the right thing to do is as lost to us as the weekly radio dramas of the time.
In this way, “Into The Fire” reveals that there actually were once good old days and laments their passing.
July 8, 2004 § Leave a Comment
“Zippo Songs: Airs of War and Lunacy,” a new musical work from New York City based musician Phil Kline, uses lyrics culled from the engraved Zippo lighters of Vietnam GIs and the public statements of Donald Rumsfeld to examine what it means to be a soldier at war.
Kline has worked with electric guitar, string quartets, violins, tape loops, and boom boxes in his compositions, which have been performed in venues from the streets of Greenwich Village to the stage at Lincoln Center.
His current work, “Zippo Songs,” began life in 1997 when Kline first read about the engraved Zippo phenomenon. It was a common practice for American GIs in Vietnam to inscribe their lighters with short poems addressing such topics as war, death, hell and drugs. No one knows how it all started, but by the end of the war, they became such collector’s items that there is a lucrative industry in Vietnam for fakes.
“They were clearly the bumper stickers of Vietnam,” said Kline. “I think Zippos were as close as you can get to a car, which is to say it’s your durable status symbol that you can take around with you.”
Kline says that collectors speculate that most of the lighters were left behind in Vietnam, having been bartered away for services. Plenty of them have been found in the possession of prostitutes.
Collectors’ catalogs gave Kline access to hundreds of poems. He chose his favorites and began writing songs incorporating the poems, sometimes combining two shorter ones to create a larger piece. Originally, he conceived of a big multimedia piece, but began to down scale the more the words sank in.
“Something just instinctively told me that less was going to be more here in a big way,” said Kline. “You’ve got a very loaded grenade in your hand, don’t shake it. And the words are so beautiful, don’t add subjective baggage to them that you don’t know, just take them at face value and let them communicate.”
The specter of death never left Kline’s consciousness as he composed the pieces and this informed his sense of who were the protagonists in the words.
“I’m not hearing this from people, I’m hearing this from anonymous voices who have expressed themselves on a lighter,” said Kline, “so I did have a feeling almost that I was working with ghosts or angels or spirits or something.”
Kline felt the words needed a neutral voice to best express their depth. Heavily influenced by medieval and baroque singing, Kline knew all along that he would be crafting the songs for vocalist Theo Bleckmann, a singer who gave Kline the opportunity to craft “long, slow, unfolding lines which, quite frankly, most singers cannot handle gracefully.”
At some point, however, the voice of Donald Rumsfeld entered the chorus alongside those of the mysterious GIs.
“I thought maybe inasmuch as it’s kind of a journey of life and death going on, and of the spirit, that maybe I might represent the forces of the underworld or the other world or whatever that launched them on this journey,” said Kline.
Originally, Kline looked into General Westmoreland, but found little of interest musically. One day, he stumbled upon the Secretary of Defense’s statement that begins with “As we know, there are known knowns” and felt immediately that this was the voice he had been searching for.
“I just suddenly thought ‘Wow! Gertrude Stein!’” said Kline.
By including Rumsfeld’s words, Kline’s work entered into the realm of the political, though he doesn’t feel any implied political sentiment overshadows the emotion of the lyrics.
“My politics are there, it’s not that easy to mistake my politics if you talk to me, but I don’t really believe in agitprop and most the time I find it unconvincing,” said Kline. “There are those rare occasions where you want to grab somebody by the collar and tell them what to do, but not very often and especially not these days, it doesn’t do any good.”
As Kline explores the social aspect of war and the often unexplored connections between soldiers and their homes, he thinks back to the kids of the Vietnam era who wore buttons and hung posters with popular phrases in a ritual that he finds very similar to the Zippo lighter phenomenon.
“We often forget, inasmuch as our GIs had a very different experience from what any of us will ever have, they also had a parallel experience to us,” said Kline, “because they were Americans growing up, they were getting older everyday, they knew about events in America, they had opinions, and the fact that they were in Vietnam didn’t keep them from being in other ways average Americans.”
With a CD now released, Kline and his band are performing the song cycle live with vocalist Corey Dargel. Kline expects to sing a few songs himself, as well. He also plans on writing a few more Rumsfeld songs to add to the set.
As Kline looks back, the power of hindsight offers a uniformity in the creative process of his song cycle, as much as it does with disparate poetics on multiple Zippo lighters.
“Now it seems entirely organic,” said Kline, “it seems impossible that I could have ever thought of using any other three musicians and that, of course, we were going to do it the way we did it.”