Archive for the 'War' Category

DePalma’s Redacted Gets Redacted

Brian DePalma got into quite the public yelling match at the New York Film Festival this week. You see, the producers of Brian’s new film Redacted edited it against his will. Specifically, they put black bars over the eyes of folks in some very central, very real photographs presented therein, claiming the victims’ relatives could sue. DePalma accused them of being tools of the man. And that opened up the whole can of worms regarding use of war photography, stretching back to My Lai and beyond.

On The Media has a fascinating back-and-forth on the subject with legal scholar James Boyle. Discussion of the suppression of the JFK autopsy images and the Challenger space shuttle audio lead to the following exchange:

OTM: These were huge news stories. Why were they protected?

Boyle: Well, I think the argument was that hearing the pain and confusion and fear of people who were about to die adds nothing to the political debate.

OTM: But isn’t that the point of these photographs in DePalma’s case? Misery, fear, mayhem, horror — the very things that have been censored about this war. How can you on the one hand prevent that stuff on that basis and then permit it on the very same basis?

Boyle: If the whole NPR thing doesn’t work out, Brooke, you have a career as a lawyer. I would say that the answer there is that we knew the astronauts on the space shuttle, we knew that they died and it was an awful set of moments. I think that the answer here is that the pain of the Iraqis has not been making it to our screens, has not been making it to our newspapers. I think the claim here is Mr. DePalma is saying this is a necessary political comment.

Of course the question then becomes: what is relevant to the debate and what is just morbid curiosity and, well, what is just there for its entertainment value. Does DePalma’s film have more in common with JFK’s elaborate mythmaking or United 93’s meticulous fact checking? It seems the early critics are coming in right down the middle. Either way, it looks like Hollywood is going to take more than one high-profile stab at the Wag the Dog nightmare in Iraq. Surely we can all hope there is some way to honor the memories of those lost even as popular culture uses their images to raise awareness but, if the Redacted mess makes anything clear, it’s that balance sure ain’t easy.

Hear the whole Boyle interview (and Brian DePalma, too) at On The Media and visit the Redacted website.

image via

Gallery Baghdad: Art Among the Ruins

Iraq Gallery

There’s an art exhibit space in Baghdad, but good luck getting there. This week’s Studio 360 takes you on a trip across the the most dangerous city in the world in search of Madarat Gallery, and it ain’t easy.

The problems start early: simply finding a translator willing to make the journey is a challenge. And that translator, Abdu Ibrahim, has to do much more than navigate language: determining the best travel route, obsessively watching for people following them, even remarking that he was going to die with the Americans. Still, he develops a sense of giddiness as the the trip goes on, as the travelers slipped further and further into open roads, unsure of who might intercept them, and for what. After all, the going rate for an American is $50,000.

Some of the things they encounter:

  • Barricades everywhere. Nearly every side street blocked off by local militias (using burned out cars and office furniture) in order to protect what’s left of neighborhoods.
  • An American military convoy, which they must stay 100 meters behind at all times. If they do not, they will be shot immediately (Abdu has seen it before). The most dangerous thing to do on the road in Iraq is get too close to an American military patrol.
  • Stories of sniper ambushes along the very same road, targeting Iraqi soldiers, policemen, and perceived collaborators.

All this makes one wonder what it must be like to live in a place that’s been in this state for so long. What toll must it take to make your home here? It reminds of the Serb sniper attacks in Goražde, Bosnia that became so regular, residents cobbled together a shielded bridge to deflect the bullets. (see Safe Area Goražde)

Finally, they arrive. The gallery is at first a dark, humid place (there is no municipal electricity). Once a gas generator is switched on, though, the travelers step another world — a space that looks like something out of New York or LA — very different from the war-torn country that lies just outside. On show is a poster competition about violence against women. 35 posters, ranging from literal to abstract. Bravely, one of the pieces is by a woman. (more here)

One Iraqi artist explains the importance of the gallery this way:

People who are staying here, they find art in the bottom of their interest. It’s not prior to them. The most prior activity is how to keep your head on your shoulders. And that was the challenge Hasan faced. To have this gallery under this terrible situation is a bravery — is real bravery. So, this is why we help him voluntarily. […] Now there is very small role for educated people in Iraq. So, we catch this opportunity. Art is acceptable. But if you directly talk in politics, you will be subject for killing. But, if you paint something, whatever the meaning is, you might be excused. So we try, through art, to say many things that are not allowed if we directly say them. And then we try, gradually, to touch some political sides of our culture. And we don’t guarantee that the next season we will be here to continue. But if we are alive, we will start again.

Powerful stuff. A reminder of what it means to live in a war zone; desperately trying to retain some measure of normalcy in the most abnormal environment imaginable. And a reminder of why art still matters, even here.

Hear the entire story at Studio 360 and visit Madarat Gallery online. Don’t miss the hard hitting Iraq commentary of Battlestar Galactica, discussed in the same episode. And find more on growing up in Iraq at CNN’s Children and War.

images via nytimes and joe sacco

Mushroom Clown: Nuclear Destruction and Fun

See the clown face in that mushroom cloud? Ironic, no? Mixing childhood smiles and nuclear detonation to hock Playstaton 3. We’re supposed to read it as “atomic fun” but I can’t help but see it as a perverse commentary: laughter at death. Sexy bombs, slick fun, sick stomach.

Many who encounter “Mushroom Clown,” though, seem to focus on the (admittedly impressive) art direction rather than the twisted irony of its message (see discussion at aotw). And I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, “weapons of mass destruction” is part of our daily vocabulary now — more a slogan than anything real. What those weapons do to people seems an afterthought.

As a lover of unusual games, I very much want to see the industry push the envelope in every way imaginable. And sometimes that means offending folks. But Sony could have done better. Games like DEFCON and Balance of Power, for example, let us use nukes without ever letting us forget the damage they do. The specter of nuclear winter hangs over both in very different but equally potent ways. That’s important stuff.

It’s easy to trivialize nuclear war. It’s art to make it matter. Sony should learn from its mistakes.

Gummy Bear Genocide

What does it mean when genocide becomes a punch line? Lately, we’ve had a bunch of opportunities to find out. Example 1: Monday’s Attack of the Show starts off funny enough, as an unsuspecting gummy bear is dumped into potassium chloride and an impressive chemical reaction follows. Jokes all around. “We can hear your screams.” And, honestly, the gurgling in the video doesn’t sound too far from it. Giggles.

Then it gets interesting. Host Kevin Pereira goes on about powering cars with the chemical reaction: “Screw the Prius, why can’t I run my car on that?” [more banter] “Running your car on gummy bears would be just like, well, genocide.” Uhm. Still funny, or did we just get a little sick?

Want more? Have a look at the review of Lost Planet in February’s Wired:

In the opening scenes of the gorgeous sci-fi actioner, a green-eyed alien or some such has killed your father and you’re ticked off about it. Vent your wrath by going genocidal on an army of insectoids straight out of Starship Troopers.

Then there’s the Zombie Genocider achievement in Dead Rising. Edge picked up on that, calling Dead Rising its “favorite zombie genocider.” And so on.

I know it’s supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. Hell, maybe it’s a coping strategy. Still, I can’t seem to find the word genocide amusing in any context. And I find it particularly sickening considering there’s a genocide going on this instant. Not to mention all those in recent memory: Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo.

Let’s be clear: these are largely good folks. (Any channel that shows Ninja Warrior can’t be all bad, for instance.) Being a tech person myself, I typically find the folks in my field more thoughtful than most. Still, when I hear talk like this, it really makes me wonder if we are quite as in touch with the difficult things that are happening in the world as we should be.

And, to some degree, we should be thankful for that. Most of us don’t have contact with genocide beyond the headlines. But imagine how those who aren’t so lucky might feel on hearing it used as a punchline. Every once in a while, we need a reminder.

So, that’s how I spent my Fourth of July. Giving thanks that we are to live in a country where large scale horror doesn’t visit us daily. And remembering that we need to do more to change things for those who don’t share our fortune.

image grabbed from wikipedia

Kids Got Guns: Selling War Young in NYC

I’ve always been afraid of guns. Something about the ability to take a life in an instant. But seeing a gun on a street cop is pretty different from being surrounded by them. That’s what happened to me this weekend.

Family was in town and Fleet Week is sold as a family event. Navy ships pull into Manhattan’s west side and civilians board them for a tour of the latest in US military might — from VR simulations to machine guns to choppers and tanks. Heck, they even had an Osprey.

As much as I dislike weapons, I probably could have brushed it all off if it weren’t for the kids. When I saw a 5-year-old ogling bombs as we boarded, I got annoyed. When we got to the deck and whole families were taking turns smiling alongside a Huey-mounted minigun, my breakfast started coming up. When we got into the belly of the ship and I was surrounded by kids younger than 10 scurrying up and down on tanks and trucks, putting on helmets, and manning high caliber guns (all while parents cheered) I decided to cash out.

Nothing like a real war to take the fun out of a little military fantasy. Nothing like single digit kids acting out military fantasies on real military gear to make you full-on disgusted with the thinly veiled recruiting exercise that is Fleet Week. Get ’em young!

Thankfully, Iraq Veterans Against the War staged a counter-event that brought the reality of war to the city in more honest fashion. And Joe shot a beautiful photo of it, too. Wish I’d been there instead. But, then, real war ain’t family fun.

We last talked about Fleet Week in Jet Fumes and Frosted Flakes.

Letters from Iraq, Out of Thin Air

I’m getting email from people I don’t know in Iraq and it’s freaking me out.

Iraq has always seemed far away, probably because I’m not in touch with anyone on deployment there. That all changed a few weeks ago when I was inexplicably added to a mailing list meant for a team of contractors working in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace. (I sent mail asking to be removed but no luck.) Since then, I’ve been on the receiving end of a surreal stream of messages — each mundane mail (time sheets due tuesday!) followed by a completely disturbing one (fill this out if you’re injured, diseased or dead).

This week, the team was traveling to a local police station when they were attacked. It seems a “national” threw an anti-tank grenade at the last SUV in the convoy and it detonated on impact. Luckily (for the contractors, at least) it impacted the ground a few feet shy of them, but it did manage to shell shock several on board. How do I know? Well, I’ve got the injury reports to prove it.

It’s not like we don’t know that terrible things happen in Iraq — the media makes sure we hear all the most salacious bits. But there’s something about hearing day-by-day details, even the most boring ones, that really drives home what life is like there in a way big media just can’t. For these contractors, you see all the mind numbing bureaucracy of a typical megacorp punctuated by bomb blasts and blood. It’d be like a bad sci-fi movie if it wasn’t so undeniably real.

And there are tons of questions: What kind of training were they given? Is this operation really running on such a shoestring that folks are have to use free email services (like mine) to receive confidential information? Can they cash out and head home if the job turns out to be more than the bargained for? What in the world would drive someone to sign up for this? (Did I mention they’re working 90+ hours a week?)

Private military contracting in Iraq is scary. (Not that being a solider isn’t.) As a civilian, you’ve a comparatively soft target; tons of risk with not so much military backup. You’ve clearly waived any guarantees you might’ve had of a safe workplace (so much for employer liability). And, should there be any question about your actions, you no longer have the right to a civilian trial.

All this makes me feel a little dirty for reading through the details of the seriously dangerous work these folks are doing. But since I can’t get off the list, it’s hard to resist the messages as they come. And now that I’ve read enough to feel a connection, I almost look forward to them. It’s like overhearing someone talking on a crisis hotline — you can’t do anything but hope things turn out alright. And there’s no way to know how it turns out unless you keep listening.

For more on contractors in Iraq, see Salon’s Outsourcing the War, NPR’s Iraq Contractors Brave Ongoing Risks and Ellen’s Life in a private army in Iraq.

image grabbed from polaris

War is Hella Fun

Have you ever played an emotionally wrenching wargame? When was the last time a first person shooter made you cry? Ever spent weeks torn up over the pain and suffering endured by your troops in an RTS? Why not?

That question might sound strange, but stick with me a second… You see, over the years I’ve been addicted to all sorts of shooting games, exploding games, running-people-over-with-tanks games. Mostly because the good ones are hella fun, especially with friends. But part of me always felt a little weird about it. In January’s Edge, Lorne Lanning put it this way:

That’s when a medium really has power — the idea of the artist, mythologically, is to show us the way, or the wrong way, even. It’s showing the world something it needs to know, but for some reason isn’t necessarily able to see. You see it in a great movie, book, or play, but it’s not happening in games. What I see instead is we say: ‘Hmm, why don’t we take war, and make it as visually realistic as possible, then sterilize so that it’s just fun’, and there’s something very perverted about that.

And particularly perverted considering that my country is at war as we speak. How is it that so many games fetishize guns and ammo but don’t quite manage to attach the same import to people?

I’m certainly not looking to start up the whole murder simulator debate again (heck, I liked Manhunt). But I am hopeful that more will consider the fact that we are making fabulously fun games from experiences that are anything but. It’s not so much that I fear the folks are being desensitized to violence or that games like Battlefield or Quake 3 or Defcon shouldn’t exist. (I love that stuff!)

My point is more that game developers are missing a fantastic opportunity to help players better understand what troops really go through on deployment. That might not be as much fun but, then, neither is war. And as powerful a medium as gaming is, it seems a shame not to explore all its dimensions.

Update: Edge just put the full text of Lorne’s interview online. Worth a read — the guy makes points.

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