Sunday, 28 February 2016


Concerning Deadpool...

And by "concerning" I mean "concerned about," as we knew the Yeshua ha-Nazari Fan Club would be. Deadpool is awesome – a bit rough in places, especially the part where he saws off his own hand to escape Colossus's handcuffs ("Seen 127 Hours? Spoiler alert!" – I just can't handle self-inflicted shit, which is why I've never watched the whole of the Saw series, no matter how much that epically complex plot calls to me). Despite that it's awesome, the role Ryan Reynolds was born to play (every bit as much as Christina Ricci was born to play Wednesday Addams and Johnny Depp was to play Jack Captain Jack Sparrow), the role that's been fighting to come out ever since he played Hannibal King in Blade: Trinity and had the epiphany that Wesley Snipes didn't give a shit about this movie so why should he? But you didn't need me to tell you that because you've probably seen Deadpool more times than I have.

Deadpool and the church go way back.

So of course the Christian Mutaween are all over it like a priest on an altar boy. Someone called Phillip Holmes as an article up entitled, Seven Questions to Ask Before You Watch 'Deadpool', which as always is just a passive-aggressive way of saying, "Don't watch Deadpool." But those questions are revealing. They are, in order:
  1. When will I tear our my eye, if not now?
  2. Am I longing to see God?
  3. Do I care about the souls of the nudes?
  4. Would I be Glad if my Daughter Played this Role?
  5. Am I assuming nudity can be faked?
  6. Am I assuming nudity is necessary for good art?
  7. Am I free from doubt?
There's only two categories of question there: sex, and personal purity. Not a peep about the graphic violence or whether revenge is healthy. That's what it means to be a modern Christian: outrage over genitals, and working diligently to ensure that you, personally get a seat on the Ark. This is probably a good moment to point out that yes, you should feel bad for these people. It's a joyless, desiccated lifestyle they've signed up for, and they spend most of it trying to avoid bad stuff on the idea that morality is about the bad stuff you avoid. The idea that Jesus might not give a shit which movies you watch, because morality is about what you embrace rather than what you avoid – feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, freeing the enslaved and lifting those with heavy burdens – isn't something they can afford to contemplate, lest they realise they're the ones stealing food from the hungry, banishing the homeless, enslaving the free and placing heavy burdens on the people and not lifting a finger to help them.

So they're not likely to forgive Deadpool, which is a shame because it confirms everything they suspect about the Gay Menace.

Huh, I hear you ask? Well, Deadpool is (kinda sorta) part of the X-Men universe, and the first couple of X-Men movies were blatantly, anviliciously about gay rights. You knew that, right? Surely I'm not stirring up any controversy by pointing out this scene was written to resemble a coming-out speech, right?

Given that, the origin of Deadpool's fast-healing ability is a bit troubling. In the comics he was given an injection of Wolverine splooge, but in the movie they just tortured him until any "latent mutations" manifested themselves. Combining that with the gay rights themes makes the worrying case that we all have a bit of teh gay inside us, and under the right conditions it'll pop out. Basically, exactly what the opponents of the Safe Schools Coalition are afraid of.

To be fair, I might be on the turn myself.

...and I.S.IS.

Once again late to the party, but a couple of Cracked articles got my attention: the first, We Built Their Death Squads: ISIS's Bizarre Origin Story, which is worth a read but still doesn't quite bring out the Shia/Sunni divide and so fails to make Gary Brecher's brilliant analogy that I.S.I.S. is a modern version of the KKK, a crew of thugs defeated militarily now using terror to bring to heel an uppity population they're used to ordering around. Being the majority the Shia now run Iraq, and the Sunnis who used to stand with Saddam like the plantation owners in the Deep South are not happy about it. They haven't got the numbers to take their country back, so they formed the hard core of I.S.I.S. and started calling for volunteers instead.

The second, 7 Things I Learned Reading Every Episode of ISIS's Magazine, is mind-blowing. Stop reading this right now and go follow that link. Don't worry, I'll wait.

Good. Welcome back. Feeling a bit light-headed? I sure did. And there I was thinking Adam Hills's focus on mocking them was actually accomplishing something. They might make use of pious imbeciles, but there's a core of very clever people in I.S.I.S., and they're media-savvy as all hell. The thing that shocked me the most was finding out that a Western army on the ground in Syria is exactly what they're hoping for. It'd generate exactly the same whooping euphoria as Ban Ki Moon declaring World Government at the U.N.

So, I don't pretend the Middle East is my problem to solve, but I have to wonder now who do we use to fight them? Much as they'd welcome it, and as Leftist as I am, I really think killing them all is the only thing that can end this. But who do you get to do it? Syria? Syria's gone, and the Alawites are now too weak. Turkey? Turkey's on their side, a fellow Sunni power trying to stomp down an uppity population (in their case the Kurds). Israel? Israel is very carefully cultivating I.S.I.S. as the Welchia to the Blaster that is Hezbollah. Israel doesn't fear I.S.I.S., who have about as much genuine combat power as a Woodstock revival, but they're pants-shittingly terrified of Hezbollah. Iraq? The Shi'ite Iraqi national army has tried and failed; they don't have the stomach to stand up to their former overlords. Iran? Maybe, but only if you're ready to see Iranian regional power expand dramatically, which will put Israel and the Saudis in a hell of a panic.

Recently our best weapon's been the girls of the YPJ. A glorious death is a lot less glorious when it means being shamed by a woman.

But how about this: we get no-one to fight them? They're mostly young guys, and what do young guys want? Blood (as in sex and combat), and glory. What they don't want is to deal with the boring day-to-day admin of running a failed state. And indeed, according to the above article, that's exactly where they're failing – Islamic State, to borrow Voltaire's observation about the Holy Roman Empire, is neither of the above. They get all the cannon-fodder glory-hounds they could ask for (to the point they're now estimated at over 200,000 strong rather than the previous estimate of 35,000), but they're struggling to get any skilled personnel to join them. And they're utterly horrified at the number of refugees fleeing for their lives from the war-torn hellhole they've created.

So it seems the way to beat them is to, A) let them stew in a boring wasteland without electricity or military glory, until the recruits stop coming and their parents start calling them in for dinner, and B) welcome in as many refugees as we can get our hands on. Syrians are seeing that the West isn't actually looking to pick a fight with them, and are actually willing to show kindness and get them through a tough time which – let's be honest – we started for them. "Gratitude" probably wouldn't be the right word, and rightly so, but at least they'd see we're not the crusaders I.S.I.S. makes us out to be. And what happens in a few years when a couple of million Syrians return home and take with them the understanding that the West is corrupt and decadent, sure, but they also have clean water and air conditioning and, more important than all of that, their own shit going on?

Someone made an I.S.I.S. flag out of dildos and butt plugs. A beautiful, beautiful thing.

But that won't generate megabucks for the pollies and billionaires who own shares in defense contractors. And meanwhile our rednecks are howling that we're letting in evil Moslems and calling for a crusade to wipe them out once and for all. No wonder I.S.I.S. is winning. With enemies like us, they can't lose.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

American Ambiguity

So, true to tradition, about 18 months late I'm finally weighing in on American Sniper. And I'm left with a feeling like I'm trying to feel out the contours of a pebble while wearing boxing gloves. There's something in there, but I can't quite find the edges of it yet.

But first things first: it's very well done – Bradley Cooper really can act, Clint Eastwood really can direct, and it doesn't pull any punches about what really went on over there.

As far as I can tell, it's a Rorschach test. It doesn't really have a message, it just throws paint against the canvas and lets you imagine whatever picture you like. So when the movie opens with that old chestnut about the world being divided into "sheep, wolves and sheepdogs," is it supposed to be sincere or sarcastic? Are we supposed to see that ideology informing Kyle's quest to be a good soldier (sailor? What's the correct nomenclature for a SEAL?), or are we supposed to see his military career as an complete indictment of it? Paul Bibeau over at Goblinbooks has a pretty good takedown of that whole ideology, On The Stupidity of #Sheepdogs: personally I just find it suspicious that nobody who says the world is divided into sheep, wolves and sheepdogs ever seems to believe they're sheep or wolves.>

I really don't know what they wanted us to think. Director Clint Eastwood is a registered Republican, but he was against going to war in Iraq; it's so finely balanced I don't know which side it's going to come down on. I'd say they were trying to withhold judgement, to merely show Chris as he was, except they change so much about him (mostly by papering over his scarier side) that that's not really true either.

But I really think a lot of the movie's message is hidden under the skin, quietly implied rather than stated outright. Let me take you through the segment simply called "First Tour." It starts off with a scene of Hummers rolling down Iraqi main roads, with an officer giving us the following pep talk:
Welcome to Fallujah, new Wild West of the old Middle East. AQI put a price on your heads and now extremists from around the globe are flooding the borders to collect on it. You snipers are gonna be paired with a Marine to watch your back and inserted along the main road to do overwatch for 1st Marines* going door-to-door. Your job is to protect those Marines at all cost. The city has been evacuated. Any military-age male who is still here is here to kill you. Let's bring these boys in safe, and get our asses back home.
It's hard not to hear the line, "Any military-age male who is still here is here to kill you," and not think of Full Metal Jacket: "Anyone who runs is a VC! Anyone who stands still is a well-disicplined VC!" But American Sniper puts its own spin on that cliche, because what follows is one of the few moments they make Chris look worse than he really was. He gets his first two kills and – spoiler alert – one's not military-age, and the other's not male.

Anyway, the keywords here are "Fallujah" and "1st Marines." Know what that means? That tells us we're heading into the First Battle of Fallujah. Now I know it's been 12 years, but have we maybe forgotten what "Fallujah" means? One of the biggest fuck-ups of the entire war? I'll let Gary Brecher tell the story.
We zoomed into Fallujah way back in April 2003, all fired up – and ready to smoke anything that moved.

Fallujah was a classic “Sunni Triangle” town, with about 300,000 people. They’re usually called “Saddam loyalists” and most of them are, for the simple reason that in a gangland country like Iraq you better stick to your own people. But from what I hear, Fallujah was more like a country town, more old-fashioned than anything. What counted most was family, but not the nuclear family thing, the older version: the clan. You belong to a clan, like a real big family or a small tribe, and you stand up for your clan. If people mess with it, you mess back.

Killing is part of the culture, the way it’s part of every culture if people had the guts to face that little fact. In Iraqi culture, just like it was for the Vikings, killing somebody is a commercial matter. It’s like the sign in secondhand shops: you break it, you own it. Only it’s “You kill my kin, you owe me money.”

The invasion was going well back in April 2003, and we were pretty cocky. The 82nd Airborne, which did an outstanding job in the charge to Baghdad, rolled into Fallujah, did a few victory dust donuts in the town square (I hear the Bradley does a pretty good dust donut, too) and decided to make the local schoolhouse our HQ. Well, since Iraq has a birthrate like Mormons on ecstasy, this pissed off the local parents – millions of kids hanging around the house, no summer camp to send ‘em to. So on April 28, 2003 they staged a typical Arab demonstration at U.S. HQ. By all accounts a typical Arab noisefest: a lot of yelling and posing, a lotta shoes being waved and thrown, annoying as Hell. Nothing to be afraid of.

Except somebody in the chain of command wasn’t feeling cool, calm & collected that day. Maybe pissed off at not getting enough kills on the Hellride up the river, maybe tired of Arabs yelling – God knows I can sympathize with that. So we started shooting. And by the time we stopped there were at least 13 locals dead. Turned into 20 dead by the time May 1 rolled around.

Even then, we could’ve fixed it up. This is the weirdest part of the story: after the killings, the clan leaders for the 13 dead apparently contacted the U.S. officers in charge for blood money. That’s how it’s done: “You owe us for 13 dead cousins, dude!” It’s not as cheap and moneygrubbing as it sounds. Just like with the Vikings, paying bloodmoney means “OK, I admit I got out of hand with the ol’ battleaxe at the party last night. Um, real sorry about your wife and kids an’ all... so that’s, what? 20 gold pieces per wife, and for the kids, 40 per boy and 5 per girl?” (Face it, they were sexist and proud of it back then).

It’s a way of saying “Sorry, man.” It’s polite.

Maybe if we hadn’t been lying to ourselves about what we were doing there, we’d have paid up. “Yeah, sorry – got a little out of hand with the 25mm cannon there. You understand – 9/11 and all, had to work out on somebody. Now how much is it per dead teenager?”

But nope. We were too snotty to pay up. I mean, think about all the hundreds of billions we’ve poured into fake “aid” to Iraq – and we were too dumb to pay a few thousand in bloodmoney.

So surprise, surprise, Fallujah turns into Dodge City for American troops. Even the Principal at the Fallujah school we’d turned into our HQ got interviewed and said he was looking forward to driving a car full of HE into an American patrol.

From May to July 2003, so many GIs died or were wounded in Fallujah that we did our first whipsaw move: now we were willing to pay the bloodmoney. We paid out $1,500 per dead demonstrator and $500 per wounded. And to pour it on, the U.S. put God knows how many millions into, get this, “civic improvements” for Fallujah. I love that phrase, “civic improvements”: “Gosh, looks like your town could use some nice median islands, maybe some oleander plantings, and diagonal parking spaces to get more retail traffic in your downtown area...”

You can imagine the effect this had on the locals in this country town. They might be slow, but they ain’t stupid. They drew the right lesson: when we ask the invaders for proper compensation, they give us the high hat – but when we start killing their soldiers, they’re suddenly all over us, offering all this CalTrans beautification crap. And they weren’t buying. They took the money, but they kept the guns and RPGs coming at us too.

By this time, see, it wasn’t just the locals. Everybody from Tangier to Islamabad knew that if you wanted a nice, jihad-friendly small town with some of the best American-game hunting in the world, all you had to do was come to Fallujah. And they came. The whole “Have Quran & Burial Shroud, Will Travel” crowd took the next bus there. – Gary Brecher, Fallujah I: The Gaza Strip Snap-On Kit, 8 Jul 2004
The cycle of ambush and counter-raid – just normal ambient violence in an urban guerrilla environment – went on for a year before the insurgents won a big propaganda victory. On 31 March, 2004, the local insurgents ambushed and killed four "private military contractors" (read: Blackwater thugs) while they were escorting a food convoy. A mob set their bodies on fire then dragged them through the streets before hanging them up on a bridge across the Euphrates, resulting in those classic pictures you can't unsee:

That was a big score for the insurgents, because the whole reason Rumsfeld was using mercs was because they're invisible. Their deaths don't appear in the public casualty lists, it's nobody's business but the shareholders and next-of-kin. But far from being invisible, the burned, mangled remains that only barely resembled human bodies became the most famous photos of the war (after the staged photos of that Saddam statue coming down, maybe).
That wasn’t just high spirits, that was strategy. The Fallujah insurgents wanted to get the Marines angry enough to come in blasting. The first ambush was just a way of setting up a way bigger ambush – an old, old guerrilla tactic. Rumsfeld was on TV next day promising we’d “find and punish” the killers.

The Marines hit Fallujah hard on April 4.

It was a tough fight. The Fallujah insurgents have played it smart all the way, daring us to fight them on their own terms, in the crowded little dirty alleys they know by heart. It was a messy fight. Urban combat is just naturally gory and sloppy...

The Marines were fighting well in Fallujah, but losing men for every street they advanced. And things were going even worse in the rest of Iraq. On April 6, we lost 12 Marines in a classic urban ambush in Ramadi, next door to Fallujah.

Then Bremer shut down al Sadr’s newspaper – now there was a smart move! – and every Shiite slum in Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf turned on our troops. We were involved in urban combat on two fronts, a commander’s nightmare. In two days, April 11 and 12, we lost 23 men.

Bush decided to cave under the pressure. On April 11, Marines were ordered to accept a “truce” in Fallujah. The next week, Bush’s people were desperately looking around for somebody they could make a deal with. On April 19, Bush’s people announced that we had an agreement in Fallujah. The U.S. would call off the Marine snipers (who were doing a great job picking off insurgents – like I said, city fighting is a sniper’s dream), and in return the people of Fallujah would turn in all “heavy weapons”: surface-to-air missiles, mortars and machineguns...

The “heavy weapons” deal didn’t work all that well. Gen. Kimmitt – you know, the skinny guy who gets paid to tell Saigon lies at Baghdad press conferences – said: “There’s been some intangible progress, even though we did not see a tremendous number of weapons turned in.”

I like that bit about “intangible progress.” How do you get “intangible progress” with machineguns? A machinegun is pretty tangible. Love may be just a state of mind, but a machinegun – that’s pretty tangible. Another great line of Kimmitt’s: “...we did not see a tremendous number of weapons turned in.” Turns out that was kind of an understatement: “On Wednesday, [April 21] police officers [in Fallujah] delivered a pickup truck filled with rusty and largely inoperative weapons, not the modern equipment military officers had wanted.”

It was so ludicrous even Bush’s people had to face the fact that the only way to pacify Fallujah was to let the Marines do their job and take the city by storm. Even Rumsfeld admitted that the old men we’d made this phony truce with had no power over the insurgents.

On the April 24-25 weekend, Bush and Rumsfeld flew to Camp David for a videoconference with the Brass in Iraq on what to do with Fallujah. The Marines were psyched, finally sure they’d get the chance to do what they were trained to do.

This is the key moment in the battle for Fallujah, and I suspect for the whole war. And in the end, it came down to one simple fact: Bush chickened out. He or his handlers decided they couldn’t risk casualties on the scale this battle would take while they were going for reelection. Sometime that weekend, they decided the Marines weren’t going to get the chance to win the battle. They were going to be called off in favor of some cheap PR face-saving strategy. Monday, April 26 – and as far as I’m concerned, this goes down in history as Black Monday – the announcement came from Bush that “the U.S. has opted to delay the Fallujah offensive... in favor of joint patrols” of Marines and local Iraqi security forces.

“Joint patrols”! That was it! Bush went on TV to tell the suckers that, “the situation in Fallujah is returning to normal.” Well, if “normal” is leaving the enemy in possession of the city, letting them ambush any Marine patrol they want, then Hell yeah, Fallujah was as normal as it gets. He also said the joint patrols would make the city “secure.” But to be fair, he did admit there were, and I quote, “pockets of resistance” still operating in Fallujah. Yeah. Like there are pockets of gambling in Vegas.

So the battle of Fallujah was over, and we lost. The Marines were ordered to withdraw from the city. From now on they went in only as part of these ridiculous “joint patrols.”

I thought that was the ultimate humiliation for American arms. But I was wrong. There was worse to come: these miserable ex-Saddam soldiers we stuffed into uniform and sent to patrol Fallujah under the command of an ex-Republican Guard general started to whine about having to patrol with the Marines. They said the Marines would draw fire, and that affected their safety. Poor babies. – Gary Brecher, Fallujah II: Bush Bushwhacks the Marines, 22 Jul 2004
Chris Kyle wasn't such an exceptional figure in this environment; even the normal Scout Snipers the Marines had brought averaged 31 kills each over the duration. But Fallujah continued to get hotter and crazier, and by September the Americans were staring to make a lot of noise about the infamous Zarqawi, the Mister Big who was supposedly behind it all.
The poster boy for the “foreign agitator” theory these days is Zarqawi. I admit, he’s a better candidate than Saddam was. He’s a real guerrilla operator, with a solid mujahedeen resume: born in Jordan, probably to Palestinian refugee parents, grew up in the town of Zarqa (his alias means “The Guy from Zarqa”), went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets and got radicalized.

But there’s no sign he’s anything more than a small-time recruiter for suicide-bomber volunteers. Zarqawi’s face has been all over the Net for years now, and there’s a $25 million bounty on him. Like they say in spy movies, his cover is blown. No way he can be really useful as a guerrilla leader. That job puts you out on the street all day, moving through checkpoints, changing your identity non-stop.

The reason that both sides in the war – the Pentagon PR corps and these Jihadi websites – keep making such a big fuss about Zarqawi’s every move is that he’s good PR for both of them. The Al Qaeda fundraisers need a Mr. Big for their propaganda as much as we do. Except their version is a hero, Zarqawi as Robin Hood in a greasy skullcap, always outsmarting the big, dumb American crusaders. He’s a great gimmick, a cross-eyed poster boy, for Al Q.

The Pentagon wants to put an outside agitator’s face on the insurgency. America will do anything to avoid having to face the most obvious fact about Iraq: they hate our guts, all of them. Pasting Zarqawi’s face all over the Net also hides the fact that our so-called intelligence units still don’t know a damn thing about the insurgency. It makes it seem as if we’re hot on the trail of the one demon responsible for the whole mess.

Which suits the real insurgents just fine. They must get down on their knees every night and thank Allah for the Z-man, because he keeps the heat off them.

So who are the real leaders of the insurgency? Based on what I know about other insurgencies, I can give you a profile. First of all, none of them are Mister Big. There is no Mr Big in this insurgency. They’re more like a few thousand Mr. Middles, a whole crowd of ex-Army officers and local clan leaders in every Sunni town or village who have some kind of loose control over some of the insurgents. Nobody controls the whole insurgency. There are hundreds of insurgent groups fighting, and they don’t answer to Al Qaeda or anybody else. They started the fight for local reasons, like the demonstrators killed in Fallujah, and they stay in it out of local loyalty, to their clan or the Sunnis or some patriotic idea of Iraq, or Islam.

The most effective leaders will turn out to be the type who rises to the top in any insurgency: solid, intelligent, young-ish men. Guerrilla war is a young man’s game. The leaders are usually in their 20s, early 30s. They’re the cream of the neighborhood, the guys who always got respect – homegrown Alpha-males with real standing in the clan and tribal networks that really run things in Iraq.

They’ll turn out to be downright shy by Arab standards, coolheaded types. Guerrilla war kills off the glory-seekers pretty quickly. The leaders who last will be anonymous until the new regime gives them their medals when we finally give up on this mess. – Gary Brecher, The Insurgency – Neighbourhood Watch, 2 Aug 2005

At the time the Americans said Zarqawi was in Fallujah and at the head of 5,000 trained killers, most of them non-Iraqi, and his capture was now "the highest priority." So by 13 November the Marines gearing up to go big again and kick off the Second Battle of Fallujah. Gary wrote:
Anybody getting that “here we go again” feeling, watching the invasion of Fallujah? It’s like Take 2 of a real bad war movie. In the first place, we’re supposed to own Fallujah. We’ve been conducting air strikes on a city we supposedly took years ago. Rumsfeld’s cronies screwed up the occupation so totally that by April 2004 the insurgents had taken over the city, and we had the Marines, the same Marines who are hitting Fallujah right now, lined up on the outskirts ready to go in. And then, like I wrote in my column, Bush’s PR people called it off – wimped out, because they knew there’d be lots of gore, which would be bad for the boss’s reelection campaign.

So we’ve handed the insurgents six months warning that after the election when PR doesn’t matter so much, we’re going into Fallujah. I’ve had landlords who didn’t give me that much notice.

That’s not how you attack. You don’t give the enemy six months to get ready for you. That’s six months of preparing defenses – those air strikes on Fallujah targeted “enemy fortifications”, which means the insurgents have been digging in, organizing local militias, weeding out informers, plotting mortar zones – while our troops waited at the city limits waiting for Nov. 2.

Conventional guerrilla-warfare strategy says that if your enemy is massing a huge conventional force to attack you, you disperse – just vanish. Mao said, “Lose land and save people, land can be retaken. Lose people to save land, people and land both lost.” In other words, don’t risk your guerrilla force defending static positions.

The real pros, the brains of the insurgency, slipped out of Fallujah weeks ago. They’re already attacking us from the rear, just like Mao suggested, going after the soft targets, like the Iraqi cops. They grabbed a police station way up North and killed 21 poor suckers in uniform the other day.

Meanwhile, we’re running into “fierce resistance” in Fallujah. So who’s still in town, shooting back at us? Well, guerrilla armies are like any other armies; they’ve got their elite, and then they’ve got a lot of cannon fodder. We’re attacking the cannon fodder while the elite watches from a distance.

By cannon fodder I mean kids, local kids who can’t wait to get their 64 concubines in Paradise by dying for the ‘hood. On any other battlefield, they’d be pushovers. But here they’re fighting in their own alleys and back streets. And they’ve had all those months of training, plotting out the best ambush sites, ranging their mortars, burying IEDs under every intersection. Amateur troops with good morale can be very effective defending their home ground. And it’s urban warfare, where armor isn’t all that effective.

So we’re fighting in the worst possible situation: the people we’re really looking for have already left town, but there are still enough wannabe-martyrs in town to kill a lot of our guys.

We’ll take the town, sure. But we’ll lose men, piss off every Muslim from Frankfurt to Jakarta, and we won’t find anybody worth capturing. The serious fighters of Fallujah are in safe houses around the Sunni Triangle, munching pistachios with their big hairy feet up, watching the battle and laughing. – Gary Brecher, Iraq: The Brecher Victory Plan!, 13 Sep 2004
2nd Fallujah became the bloodiest single engagement of the Iraq War, the heaviest fighting for the Marine Corps since Hue, and it was fought entirely against insurgents – Saddam's former army was completely disbanded by this point. The Wikipedia page lists it as a "Coalition victory," but that's bullshit. The Americans were left holding the field, but they achieved none of their strategic goals because – it finally dawned on them – Zarqawi had fled before the shooting started, if he'd ever been there at all. That left it a stalemate, and in a guerilla war, a stalemate is a guerilla victory, because it pushes the occupier closer to finally getting sick of it all and leaving. And ultimately, long-term, Fallujah was a total defeat, because it "fell completely" to I.S.I.S. in 2014 (meaning it was totally and enthusiastically pro-I.S.I.S. before they even arrived, because I.S.I.S. couldn't storm a shithouse if you left the door open), leaving it with a decidedly anti-Western stance (gee, wonder why?).

But back up, remind me which four pebbles it was that set off this avalanche? Oh right, those char-grilled Blackwater goons that got hung up by the locals.
So take Blackwater. It’s shock‘n’horror time because a couple of ex-mercs blew the whistle on Erik Prince’s Onward Christian Steroid Casualties operation in Iraq.

The Blackwater defectors have filed a sworn deposition in federal court that Blackwater zapped Iraqis at random, aimed to kill Muslims anywhere and any time they could, paid little Baghdadi girls a dollar a head, so to speak, for sexual services and just generally behaved like cartoon baddies... – Gary Brecher, Blackwater: Stop Acting Surprised, 11 Aug 2009
This is the background upon which they're trying to paint Chris Kyle as a hero. It's not that heroes can't be had in defeat – I'll go for the eyes of anyone who says the Aussies who died at The Nek were less than heroes – but it's not exactly glorious, is it? Sleazy, bloody, dirty and ugly, more like. A typical guerrilla situation.

The movie does a fairly efficient job of taking us through the basics of this corner of the war, giving us that "Welcome to Fallujah" speech, showing us the the line between combatants and civilians was largely imaginary, followed by a car-bomber (I'd love to know if there's any hidden message in that number plate – can anyone help me out?), a roadside bomb and an enemy sniper – basically Fallujah 101. After some down time, it steps up again with the start of 2nd Fallujah detailed above, with a commander briefing us that Zarqawi is the target – but it never outright says they're chasing their own tails, wasting lives on a stupid and empty objective.

It's still an anti-war movie, though. I mean, look at this shit:

By the "Second Tour" the Punisher skull is showing up on uniforms and vehicles everywhere. How are the Iraqis (let alone a modern cinema audience) expected to see that and know the difference from this?

At the risk of setting off the Godwin Alarm, that's the badge of the 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf, or Death's Head – an insignia that technically predated the Nazis, but is pretty tightly bound with them in popular memory. You see dudes rolling down your street in a tank with a skull on the side, you're not going to be reminded of Woodstock, are you? When we pursued aggressive war in the Middle East, it's not hard to paint us (yes, Australia too, whatever America does we dive right in too) as a new generation of Nazis, with an updated design for the totenkopf.

But then they show us Chris being a hero – an actual hero, not just an efficient killer – by showing some younger, less-well-trained Marines how to do door-to-door properly. We get immediately get distracted when that goes ugly with the Imam and his family, which ultimately introduces us to The Butcher – a composite character, because there wasn't just one of him, there were hundreds ("Torture killings are now officially the national sport of Iraq," said Brecher with his usual gallows humour. "I hear Black & Decker is getting its own volume in the next edition of Jane's Weapons Systems").

But that moment is crucial to the redemption of this movie. Because it foreshadows the ending where Kyle finds a new way to be a sheepdog – by helping other veterans back home in the U.S. That's something Kyle really did, which means I'm not quite going to join the rest of the Loony Left in hating the man or his memory. What it does mean is that, as a fan of Lt. Col. Grossman's book On Killing, I'll forever think of him as one of the 2% of all people who are characterised as "aggressive psychopaths," who experience none of the trauma that normally accompanies killing (Grossman is at pains to point out no judgement is meant by the term "aggressive psychopath," since this kind of behaviour is highly desirable in a soldier, and in normal society these people are no more dangerous than anyone else. Go ahead, Ctrl-F that shit. Chapter 5 could've been written by watching Kyle with a clipboard).

Which is, in the end, my biggest beef with this movie. Bradley Cooper wanted to make a movie about how we're treating our veterans. This is not a small issue; you know some of these people. And you also know it's tricky, because with Iraq and Af-Pak, as with Vietnam, we can't tell them it was necessary and they did the right thing, because it wasn't and they didn't. And yet welcoming back the people who killed and bled for us and making them part of our society again, somehow, is a hugely important process that's largely being sidelined. But if you're going to make a movie about a soldier (or a sailor, or a Marine) traumatised by his experiences at war...


Kyle was emphatically not traumatised by his experiences in Iraq. He was good at what he did. He even seems to've enjoyed it. Right or wrong, Iraq it seems was just the place for him. If I was being completely cold-blooded about it, I'd take a resource-management perspective and say the real tragedy was that they ever brought him home (but I'm not saying that, because of the aforementioned redemptive ending. Chris found something to live for before he died, and I respect that. It's sure as shit a job I couldn't do). But there seems to be a complete mis-match between the movie's intentions and its subject matter, which matches the mismatch between the good that Kyle was doing in the middle of a great evil started by our side that was busy killing a million Iraqis.

No wonder it's a confusing movie.

I'll close by seconding what Bibeau said:
You’d think we would finally understand that yes, you need people willing to use violence to protect civilization from others willing to use violence. Yes, you use killers to stop killers... And we should therefore honor those who are willing to kill for us, to try to understand and appreciate what they do. But above all, we need to watch them.

* A bit of trivia: the U.S. 1st Marine Division's official marching anthem is Waltzing Mathilda, a quirk they picked up while they were stationed in Brisbane during the Pacific theatre of WWII. I didn't even know what Waltzing Mathilda sounded like with an American accent.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Valentine's Day Hypocrisy

Something that only occurred to me while taking in the celebrations this Valentine's Day.

I cast my mind back to the last time February 14 fell on a Sunday, a few years ago. My friends and I were all being fashionably cynical about it, lots of conversations along the lines of it's-just-a-commercial-holiday, why-bother-taking-part, etc, etc (the Americanism "Hallmark Holiday" doesn't get used here in Australia, but we certainly understand the concept). To his credit, our pastor at the time wanted to reverse that attitude: he delivered a nice little sermon that it was originally a Christian holiday, and we should celebrate it openly, warmly, uncynically. And, thinking about it, he was right. We should.

The specific St Valentine myth he was referring to (and there are a few to choose from) was that of Valentinus of Rome, a 3rd Century clergyman who was imprisoned and then martyred for performing weddings for soldiers, who in those days were forbidden to marry. Makes for a great story – a priest torn between his conscience and the law, any number of star-crossed lovers who just have to be together, Caesar standing unmoved by their plight, all culminating in a heroic stand against The Powers That Be that ends in said priest's execution. If you made it into a movie, you could even do the cheesy Hollywood ending where he gets thrown to the lions (even though that probably never happened) and his soul ascends to Heaven, still smiling down on those whose happiness he brought to full flower before being guided into the clouds by choirs of cherubim, or some shit like that.

Real-life martyrdom comes in only two flavours: messy, and painful.

Some variant of that story was no doubt told in any number of churches this 14 February, and that's a problem. Because this is the second Valentine's Day to pass since the Coalition reneged on their promise to hold a conscience vote over the legalisation of same-sex marriage. In fact, more than that, this February 14 was:

A). A Valentine's Day that passed while the Australian Christian Lobby (to borrow Voltaire's joke, none of the above) were busy drumming up opposition to the government's "Safe Schools" programme, because it might stop some gay kids getting bullied or catching an STI, thus keeping them from an early grave by disease or suicide. And also...

B). A Valentine's Day that passed while the Coalition were busy organising a plebiscite to find out how the people of Australia feel about same-sex marriage, while also doggedly making sure it would be non-binding. Stop and consider how fucking perfect that is: blowing $150 million of our money on a plebiscite they have no intention of following, because they've already know what's best for everyone. If that's not a summary of the modern Liberal-National Party, what is?

It's known both former PM Tony Abbott and NSW Premier Mike Baird are devout Christians. It's a pretty safe bet they both attended church services on Sunday; the odds aren't terrible that the clergyman up the front repeated some version of the St Valentine myth above. And it's certainly true that all the churches I keep in touch with celebrated Valentine's Day.

And they did it – celebrated a day started by the legend of a man who married those who were forbidden to marry – while making sure a segment of our population stayed forbidden to marry.

And they wonder why the world hates them.

Actually no, it's worse than that, they take our hatred as a badge of honour, twisting verses like John 15:18 into the doctrine that hatred is proof of righteousness, that if you're not drawing the world's ire, you're doing it wrong. And they come to this conclusion by reading the Bible "literally."

If we find St Valentine's headless remains anywhere, I vote we wrap him in copper wire and place a magnet on his headstone. With the conduct of the church, would could have him generating electricity.

A modern St Valentine hard at work (source).

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Remembering My Jams

Marking as it does ten years since 2006, in 2016 I'm drawn to ponder a strange phenomenon – ten years ago, all my favourite bands seem released weak follow-ups to classic landmark albums. I have no idea why, and given that "my favourite bands" is a pretty small sample there mightn't even be a why exactly, although I'm tempted to blame excessive touring off the back of aforementioned classic albums (insert "metal fatigue" joke here).

Example: in 2004 Cradle of Filth released Nymphetamine, soundtrack to a garden party for rich libertines the night before the French Revolution; 2006, and it's Thornography, which if not for the vocal prowess and, erm, other assets of Dirty Harry (aka. Victoria Harrison) it would've been completely unmemorable. Temptation is just a pop song with some guitars to fill in the background; the video isn't even R-rated.

Similarly, Killswitch Engage's As Daylight Dies. Funny as the video is, it says a lot that the most memorable song on it was a Dio cover:

Lamb of God? 2004 and it was Ashes of the Wake, an album that absolutely defined what American metal should sound like. 2006, and it's Sacrament, which was somehow nominated for a Grammy. Can anyone explain to me why? The songwriting that made Ashes so very very good is gone, this is just a bunch of riffs that whizz by too fast to really connect.

On the plus side Black Label Society gave us Shot To Hell, but given all Zakk Wylde albums sound exactly the same it's hard to draw any meaningful conclusions from that.

On the other hand there were a few albums that were unambiguously good, like Scar Symmetry's Pitch Black Progress. The reason? Because they weren't following up their big landmark album, this was their big landmark album.

And my favourite Evergrey album of all time, Monday Morning Apocalypse, dropped in 2006, and I didn't even realise that until I checked the Wiki page. Regardless, they took the muddy gloom of The Inner Circle and cleaned it up a bit, and the result is just a slab of classic rock. Every song on the album could've been the single, they were all just that good.

Honourable mentions also went to Strapping Young Lad for The New Black (Far Beyond Metal alone was worth the price of admission), Slayer for finally realising they were shit without Dave Lombardo on drums, returning to thrash metal and cranking out Christ Illusion before they lost Jeff Hannemann, and Rammstein for the wonderful evening that was Völkerball, although that last one's is a bit iffy because the live DVD was actually recorded at Nimes in – when else? – 2004.

Good times. And also some of my last times. Unemployment and waning interest meant it was about this point that I stopped buying Metal Hammer every month, so I lost track of the scene and my music collection just sort of stopped about here and hasn't moved since. And nothing makes me feel older than the fact that I am completely okay with that. When I tell you this was also the height of the Guitar Hero craze, it'll suddenly hit you how long ago all of this was. But it does give me the perfect way to close this blog:


Monday, 1 February 2016

Gentlemen, Cool Your Jets

Auto Action's Phil Branagan "isn't sure how he feels" about news V8 Supercars will be backing a programme to fund a female driver into the series, possibly as early as 2017.

Well, let me help you out there Phil: you should be stoked that a female driver somewhere will be getting such an opportunity.

In fact, let me get extracurricular and tell you how you should feel about yourself having vomited this sexist piece of drivel onto a typewriter somewhere in the Auto Action offices: deep and bitter shame that can only be redeemed by ritual seppuku. Of the testes, which you're no longer fit to bear.

Phil's real attitude is revealed by the cheap shot at the end of his feeble little screed: "If I see one headline that reads, 'Kardashians in Bathurst Bid?', I may not be able to be held responsible for my reaction." That's what Phil really fears, that the Old Boys' Club will find itself crashed by Barbie dolls who go around shunting their cars because they were checking their makeup in the rearview or squealing because they broke a nail changing to third.

I'm guessing Phil saw Anchorman and thought it was about the high-pressure atmosphere of the newsroom in the 70's.

Danica Patrick, looking smug and leaning on a big fucking trophy after winning the 2008 Indy Japan 300.

His objection, which he's good enough to state early on in the piece, is that the lucky recipient's "path into the premier category could be made considerably easier than it might be for a male of similar capabilities and experience." It's queer that he never grabs the other end of the stick and applies his own logic: that there might be female drivers out there equally talented, equally deserving of a seat, who so far have been unable to attract sponsorship or the attention of team bosses. He just assumes that any female given this helping hand will be less talented, less committed... just less. Less of a driver, and less of a human being.

He comes infuriatingly close, noting that: "In theory, motor racing is a meritocracy, as well as being one of the rare sports where both sexes can compete on an equal footing." And that's true: the fitness demands of professional motorsport are so extreme it doesn't really matter what sort of body you start with, they're all going to end up the same.

But he never puts this data point together with two others: that, in Australia at least, women make up slightly more than 50% of the population, yet only two of them made the V8 grid last year. Two drivers out of 54... let me check the math here...  is 3.7% of the grid, and even that was only at Bathurst, where Simona de Silvestro and Renee Gracie were entered as wildcards. For the bulk of the season, it was a big fat zero. I checked: if it hadn't been for Chelsea Angelo racing in the development series, the V8 paddock would've been a complete sausage fest (I almost gave them the benefit of the doubt over "Jesse Dixon", but a Google Image search confirmed that he, too, has a Y chromosome).

But even that 3.7% represents a stark mismatch with the more than 50% of the general population. Imagine the reaction if you told Roland Dane you were arbitrarily cutting off 50% of his possible talent pool. He'd throw a pink fit, and rightly so. And yet it's okay if you do it based on genitalia?

It's not like it never occurs to them. My ex-girlfriend told me when she was a little girl she wanted to be a V8 driver; my reaction was that I should give her a spin on rFactor with my racing wheel and pedals, thinking I might end up with someone to race against (I am an idiot). But somewhere along the line she either lost interest or absorbed the lesson that girls weren't supposed to drive V8s, and failed to take up the career path.

Which brings us to the real issue here: we'll leave aside the question of whether Phil is also homophobic, but does he actually realise why gay people down at the Cross are so flamboyantly out-n-proud? Because that's just how gay people are? Because, as the fundies scream, they want to turn our children gay? No, it's so, if there are any young people watching who are already gay, they'll know they're not alone. They're not recruiting, they're showing the world they're gay and fine with it, paving the way for the next generation to grow up mentally healthy and become stable, prosperous adults.

Same principle here: it's important – crucial – to show ambitious young girls out there that it can be done, you can totally grow up to race V8s. Do you know who Renee Gracie is? She's a Carrera Cup driver who's aiming for a ride in the main game. Do you know who Simona de Silvestro is? She's a former IndyCar driver who was courted by the Williams F1 team. That means, by the by, she has an FIA Superlicence. I don't have an FIA Superlicence, and I'll go out on a limb and guess neither does Phil, and neither do you. But Simona does. That makes her about a thousand percent more awesome than any of us, and the next generation has to see that. They have to hear how Leanne Tander came within a whisker of winning the Australian Formula 3 Championship. They have to hear that Christine Gibson nearly won the 1975 touring car championship (while two months pregnant, no less!), then went on to drive a car that scared the rest of the drivers on the grid witless. They have to see this onboard footage of Chelsea Angelo blasting past the 100-metre board at full throttle, braking hard for Griffin's, then making a hell of a save halfway through the Cutting.

It's also why V8 management was absolutely right to slap David Reynolds with a $25,000 fine for referring to the Gracie/de Silvestro car as the "pussy wagon." The offhand nature of the comment didn't make it okay, it was part of the problem. The next generation has to be shown that the Mad Men days are absolutely behind us and they'll be taken seriously as competitors.

Bluntly, we need to go out of our way to put women in top-level motorsport, just so the kids grow up seeing it as normal – and credit to V8 management for understanding that.

And if I hear one more peep from Phil Branagan that suggests whichever woman ends up getting some seat time will be less deserving of it than an equivalent man, well, I may not be able to be held responsible for my reaction.