Screening Room: ‘Combat Obscura’

During 2011-2012, cameraman Miles Lagoze tracked the lives and deaths of his fellow Marines as they battled the Taliban, boredom, rage, ennui, and bafflement at what the hell they were even doing in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. When he came back home, there was a lot of footage the Corps didn’t want the public to see.

The result is his documentary Combat Obscura, which is playing now in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

The best and most vital documentary about front-line combat in the never-ending Wars on Terror since Sebastian Junger’s Restrepo (2010), Combat Obscura comes in swinging, with something of a chip on its shoulder…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘War Machine’

One of the biggest feature film plays yet attempted by Netflix, War Machine is an Afghanistan War satire based in part on Michael Hastings’ nonfiction book The Operators. Brad Pitt (who also produced) plays a hard-charging general loosely based on Gen. Stanley McChrystal, though reportedly his character was eventually fictionalized to avoid legal hassles.

War Machine debuts this week on Netflix and in select theaters. My review is at PopMatters:

Things kick off in 2009, when McMahon, aka “The Glenimal”, charges into Kabul like George S. Patton’s less patient twin. Surrounded by a platoon of intensely loyal hangers-on, McMahon is looking to repeat the success he had decimating insurgent networks in Iraq. A cannier movie would have stood back a bit and allowed the audience to get sucked in by the presence of McMahon’s West Point, Ranger school, Yale graduate, warrior with a degree, armored carapace of confidence before making apparent his pride-blinded cluelessness…

Here’s the trailer:

Quote of the Day: Memorial Day Edition

A casualty is ready for transport from the front line during the battle for Guadalcanal. (Library of Congress)
A casualty is readied for transport from the front line during the battle for Guadalcanal. (Library of Congress)

For this Memorial Day, a reminder from one of our great novelists of warfare and what it does to the men who take part in it, willingly or not:

This book is cheerfully dedicated to those greatest and most heroic of all human endeavors, WAR and WARFARE; may they never cease to give us the pleasure, excitement and adrenal stimulation that we need, or provide us with the heroes, the presidents and leaders, the monuments and museums which we erect to them in the name of PEACE.

That’s from James Jones’ The Thin Red Line (1963) which follows the battle for a fictitious Pacific island and draws heavily upon Jones’ combat experience during World War II. Although his dedication shows a tongue planted firmly in cheek, the novel that follows is one of the deepest felt, most bruising things a man ever put to page.

New in Theaters: ‘American Sniper’

Bradley Cooper (right) as Chris Kyle in 'American Sniper' (Warner Bros.)
Bradley Cooper (right) as Chris Kyle in ‘American Sniper’ (Warner Bros.)

americansniper-cover1Before Chris Kyle was murdered at the age of 38, he had amassed a legendary kill record as an army sniper; possibly the most lethal one in American military history. His bestselling memoir, American Sniper, was originally planned as a Steven Spielberg project, but the film was ultimately directed by Clint Eastwood, no stranger to squint-eyed dramas of force and will.

American Sniper hit theaters today. My review is at Film Racket:

Bradley Cooper is rarely the sort to grab one’s attention at center stage; he only truly lights up films like American Hustle or The Hangover series when there’s a co-star for him to bounce his nervy patter and blue eyes off of. But Cooper’s performance as Kyle delivers the proper mix of humility and bottled-up frustration called for in a soldier from whom so much is expected. The film starts off with Kyle on a rooftop in Iraq, covering a column of Marines advancing through a city. He sees a woman hand a grenade to a young boy, who runs with the weapon towards the Marines. No other soldiers have eyes on the pair. His spotter reminds him that if he gets it wrong, “they’ll burn you”…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘Zero Motivation’

Nelly Tagar tries to be all she can be in 'Zero Motivation' (Zeitgeist Films)
Nelly Tagar tries to be all she can be in ‘Zero Motivation’ (Zeitgeist Films)

The new Israeli film Zero Motivation—which played the film festival circuit earlier in the year—is a smart, dour comedy set in a military office where little gets done. The military satire is punched up with the occasional flash of surrealism; it’s a fantastic mix.

Zero Motivation is opening this week in limited release. I reviewed it at the Tribeca Film Festival for PopMatters:

On a base that feels as removed from any actual war as Sgt. Bilko, the human resources office is a den of sloth and ineptitude. Commanding officer Rama (Shani Klein) is frazzled trying to get any of the women in her command to care even remotely about their assignments. Her best friends Daffi (Nelly Tagar) and Zohar (Dana Ivgy) can’t be bothered to do much besides complain and play Minesweeper, as they all survive in a casually sexist division, where the men are assigned all the combat roles and so ascend to higher ranks, and female soldiers fetch coffee and bicker…

Here’s the trailer:

Quote of the Day: No Armistice for the Dead

ww1trench

Today marks the signing of the armistice in 1918 that put an end to the First World War. The United States marks the occasion as Veterans Day, while in England it’s Armistice Day.

Although the day is meant to commemorate all the men and women who have served and died in the armed services, something particularly tragic and horrific remains in the collective memory of World War I. An official statement of Congress ending the war included this aside:

Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals …

Over 8 million soldiers and nobody knows how many civilians died in the four-year conflict. Some 36 percent of all British soldiers, and 65 percent of German soldiers, were either killed or wounded. And still nobody still quite understands why it was fought.

Siegfried Sassoon
Siegfried Sassoon

One of the war’s great poets was Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967). He served with the Royal Welch Fusiliers in France. In 1917 wrote a protest letter to the House of Commons, refusing to fight anymore: “I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.” He was hospitalized later that year.

Here’s his poem, “Absolution“:

The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes
Till beauty shines in all that we can see.
War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,
And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.

Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,
And loss of things desired; all these must pass.
We are the happy legion, for we know
Time’s but a golden wind that shakes the grass.

There was an hour when we were loth to part
From life we longed to share no less than others.
Now, having claimed this heritage of heart,
What need we more, my comrades and my brothers?

Book Flashback: The Iraq War ‘Gamble’

American tanks patrol Baghdad on April 14th, 2003 (U.S. Marine Corps)
American tanks patrol Baghdad on April 14th, 2003 (U.S. Marine Corps)

thegamble-coverAs the ISIS campaign to topple Iraq’s government roars on, it seemed worthwhile to look back at the many books written on Iraq to see what predictions had been made about what could happen after the last American unit moved out.

I posted “The 2009 Book that Foretold the (Possible) Collapse of Post-American Iraq” at Re:Print:

For years, especially after the American troop drawdown, it seemed as though Iraq would muddle along in a chaotic but eventually stabilizing way familiar to many Middle Eastern countries with oil wealth. Although the bombings continued, it was possible to believe that the conflict was in fact done. What the recent events have proven is that [Thomas Ricks’s The Gamble] was right: the 11-year-old Iraq War is far from over…

Quote of the Day: Veterans’ Edition

vietnam1To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true. Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead. You recognize what’s valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what’s best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost. At the hour of dusk you sit at your foxhole and look out on a wide river turning pinkish red, and at the mountains beyond, and although in the morning you must cross the river and go into the mountains and do terrible things and maybe die, even so, you find yourself studying the fine colors on the river, you feel wonder and awe at the setting of the sun, and you are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not.

– Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

 

New in Books: ‘Invisible War’

invisiblearmies1Earlier this year, up-and-coming military writer and think-tank-er (if that’s a term) Max Boot published a pretty incredible piece of writing. Invisible Wars: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present is one of the best, most thoughtful books on military history for a general readership to come along in some time. (Even if calling itself “epic” in the subtitle seems a touch hubristic, though correct.)

Don’t let its length and breadth of scope throw you, this is as readable as any magazine essay, and definitely worth your time. My review is available at PopMatters:

In this grand survey of what one could term irregular warfare, spanning from the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66 AD and earlier to the present day, Boot shows that a good reading of the historical record leaves little room for old stereotypes. He has no truck with the romantic heavy-breathing that writers of his ilk can slip into when talking about generals and battles. He also doesn’t waste time in this book repeating the old army-groupie saw about how some particular war might have been won if only the media/politicians/concerned civilians had just gotten out of the way and let the guys with guns take care of the problem…

You can read an excerpt from the book here.

Reader’s Corner: Sci-Fi Goes to War

slaugherhouse5The military has ever been one of the structural supports of much American science fiction. Whether they’re heroically battling off alien invaders or corrupting scientific research for their nefarious and war-mongering needs, the boys in green have a long history in the genre.

That’s why it’s particularly interesting whenever you run across a science-fiction writer who actually served in the military and then brought that sensibility to their writing. The responses can vary widely, from the jingoistic Reagan-era militarism of Jerry Pournelle to the ironic action of David Drake to the highly satiric and jaundiced Kurt Vonnegut.

Over at i09, Charlie Jane Anders does a superb job of studying all of the ways these authors brought their experience of war to bear in their fiction, as well as other fantasy and sci-fi authors who were less vocal about their military service (from Tolkien to Clarke).

New in Theaters: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

zero-dark-thirty1Between the various Navy SEAL books and films flooding the market, Mark Bowden’s riveting The Finish, and the all the video games crafted around Special Ops strike teams, you’d think commando fatigue would be setting in. Hopefully that won’t be the case once Zero Dark Thirty hits theaters:

Zero Dark Thirty (military jargon for a half-hour after midnight) is an epic take on the Central Intelligence Agency’s hunt for the 9/11 mastermind. Working on a dusty Afghanistan forward operating base, Maya (Jessica Chastain) then shifts to analyzing the intelligence from the American embassy in Islamabad… As the casualties mount and the years tick by, the shell-shocked Maya’s worldview narrows down to a millimeter-wide slit that recognizes only her quarry. The film recounts the agonizingly particular step-by-step analysis of baffling and contradictory information. It just as convincingly relays the sickening sense of urgency in the hunt, a fear that after all the bombings and rhetoric and fear and war, their quarry may simply get away. “We are failing… Bring me people to kill,” seethes Maya’s CIA superior…

Zero Dark Thirty opens in limited release on Wednesday, expanding wider over the several weeks to follow. It’s already been racking up awards from critics’ groups and attracting controversy over its depiction of CIA torture of prisoners; watch for it when the Oscars are announced.

My full review is at Film Journal International.

You can see the trailer here:

DVD Tuesday: ‘Where Do We Go Now?’

 

Filmmakers run all kinds of risks when they try to update the classics; for all the universality of some of the great dramas, they can fail miserably when downloaded into new and sometimes incompatible formats (witness what happens when studios try to dress up Austen and Shakespeare as candy-colored high school comedies). Nadine Labaki’s zesty Where Do We Go Now? has to navigate two minefields: updating Aristophanes’s Lysistrata and setting this comedy amidst modern Lebanon’s murderous religious strife. The result isn’t a new classic, but stands nevertheless as a potent and lively satire about how the violence of men tears societies down and the lengths to which women go to staunch the bleeding…

The Oscar-nominated Where Do We Go Now? comes out today on DVD. My full review is at AMC Movie Database.

 

Reader’s Corner: John Keegan (1934-2012)

Another passing of a literary great was reported Friday. In short, John Keegan was the preeminent military historian of the modern era.

A believer in writing for the popular audience, Keegan bore some comparison to Niall Ferguson, particularly in staking out contentious theories, such as his support for the Iraq and Vietnam wars (thinking both were the least bad option) and his dismissal of the classic Clausewitzian definition of war as “politics by other means.” He was also a consummate gentleman to any who were lucky enough to hear him read.

Starting with his 1976 classic, The Face of Battle, Keegan helped turn the discipline from one that cared only about mass troop movements and the decisions of great generals to one that embraced a more holistic view of conflict, in particular how it affected the individual soldiers on the ground.

In this typically vivid scene from The Face of Battle, which studied the day-to-day experiences of British soldiers in three battles: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, Keegan wrote about an officer who fell asleep the minute the march was halted:

…[he] did not think of food until later in the night, when he woke to eat some chops cooked in the breastplate of a dead cuirassier (meat fried in a breastplate was very much à la mode in the Waterloo campaign, rather as rats spitted on a bayonet were to be in 1871 or champagne exhumed from chateau gardens in 1914).