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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Infantry, the Infantry, With the Dirt Behind the Ears...

You'll never stop the infantry in a hundred million years...


At any given time, I'm in the process of reading 5-20 different books.


Now granted, some of them may take years to finish; some of them months; some of them weeks (the ones I need to write reviews for are priority). Well, here's one of them. I bought House to House by David Bellavia for my Kindle a while back, for no particular reason other than I was curious about conventional combat in Gulf War II and this memoir about the battle for Fallujah seemed like it might enlighten me. (Obviously I bought it when I wasn't swamped, like now.)

It sat on my cyber-shelf for quite a while, collecting dust, but then I began working on the sequel to Hell and Gone. The sequel has some house-clearing action, and my own limited MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) experience is probably as outdated as the technology... and, well, heck, everything else my creaky old civilian self remembers. Now where can I find some reference material on this subject? Why, right here in my Kindle! Sha-zam!

Just in case I've fooled some of you into thinking I have half a brain, let me confess that I began my military service as an E-1 in the Airborne Infantry. I volunteered for it. In fact, once my ASVAB results came back, the recruiter told me I could choose any MOS the Army had--you know, all those nifty ones in the commercials that have plenty of overlap into civilian occupations.

Nope. Not me. I wanted a dead-end slot in the one MOS with absolutely no civilian application: Grunt.

Strip away all the extra alphanumeric characters from my MOS and what I am is an old 11B. Eleven-Bush. Eleven-Bulletstopper. I was trained to get there by parachute, but once I got there, I was a ground-pounder. Line doggie. Light infantry, baby. Hoo-wah! Woof, woof! Ui, ui, ui, aaaaah-uhhhrrrrr! We like it, we love it, we want more of it, blood makes the grass grow greener!

Ahem. Yeah, okay, I was stupid. If I had the youth and health (and inclination) to join the military today, I guarantee I'd do everything different.

But ya know what? I'm kinda' proud I did what I did, too. And so, while reading the prologue of Bellavia's book, he struck a chord with me. He was a leg, and mech, at that; but I couldn't help but feel some cross-generational solidarity with him when I read this:

Dust cakes our faces, invades our sinuses, and stings our eyes. The heat bakes the moisture from us with utter relentlessness. Our body temperatures hover at a hundred and three. Our ears ring. On the edge of heat exhaustion, we get dizzy as our stomachs heave. 

We have the spastic shits, with stabs of pain as our guts liquefy thanks to the menagerie of local bacteria. Inside our base's filthy outhouses, swarms of flies crawl over us. Without ventilation, those outhouses are furnaces, pungent with the acrid smell of well-cooked urine.
All this, and we get shot at, too.
Welcome to the infantry. This is our day, our job. It sucks, and we hate it, but we endure for two reasons. First, there is nobility and purpose in our lives. We are America's warrior class. We protect; we avenge. Second, every moment in the infantry is a test. If we measure up to the worst days, such as this one, it proves we stand a breed apart from all other men.
Where we work, there are no cubicles. There are no break rooms. Ties are foreign objects; we commute in armored fighting vehicles.
Our workplace is not some sterile office or humming factory. It is a stretch of desolate highway in a vast and empty land. A guard tower burns in the background. Shattered bodies litter the ground around us. Vacant corpse eyes, bulging and horror-struck, stare back at us.

The stench of burned flesh is thick in our nostrils. This was once an Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC) checkpoint, designed to regulate traffic in and out of Muqdadiyah, one of the key cities in the Diyala Province. Thanks to a surprise attack launched earlier in the morning, it is nothing more than a funeral pyre. We arrived too late to help, and our earnest but untrained allies died horribly as the insurgents swept over them. One Iraqi soldier took a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). All that's left of him are his boots and soggy piles of bloody meat splattered around the guard tower.
This is our workplace. We began to acclimate to such horrors right after arriving in the country. 

While on our second patrol in Iraq, a civilian candy truck tried to merge with a column of our armored vehicles, only to get run over and squashed. The occupants were smashed beyond recognition. Our first sight of death was a man and his wife both ripped open and dismembered, their intestines strewn across shattered boxes of candy bars. The entire platoon hadn't eaten for twenty-four hours. We stopped, and as we stood guard around the wreckage, we grew increasingly hungry. Finally, I stole a few nibbles from one of the cleaner candy bars. Others wiped away the gore and fuel from the wrappers and joined me. 

As for the rest of the book, I'll see how it shapes up. And for all you other grunts who might find this blog post, young and old, Army or Marines, Airborne or Air-Assault, straight leg or mechanized, Gulf War II, Gulf War I, Panama, Grenada, Vietnam, Korea...and everything in between, I salute you as a brother.

You can take a man out of the infantry, but it's hard to take the infantry out of the man.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Red Dawn...Revisited

It's pretty amazing a movie like this was made even once, and if there was ever a flick I was sure would never be remade, Red Dawn was it.

John Millius wasn't trying to make a political statement with the first one. He was basically reliving childhood games he used to play in the woods with other kids, based loosely on the WWII resistance depictions they'd seen on film, and a "what if" concept of a Russian invasion of the continental US in the future.
  Statement or no, the content was offensive to the film elite, and Hollywood never forgave Millius for making it, despite good box office and a subsequent bonanza in video rentals.

This time around it's not the Cubans, but the North Koreans, assisting the Russians in the invasion. That's right: Russians again, not the Red Chinese, as previously reported (though perhaps that would have made more sense). And this time the Wolverines are not in Colorado but Spokane, Washington.

As much as I like John Millius's work (director of Conan the Barbarian, Flight of the Intruder, The Wind and the Lion, The Rough Riders, plus screenwriter for Dirty Harry, Magnum Force, Apocalypse Now, Extreme Prejudice, Dillinger, Farewell to the King...), the original Red Dawn had plenty of room for improvement.

I'm pleased to report that probable one-time director Dan Bradley, and his writers, did improve on the original--particularly when it comes to acting and dialog. No groans or rolling of the eyes for me this time around due to those aspects. And there was an attempt to update the plot/increase the plausibility, which I believe was mostly successful. The first few minutes of exposition via news clips, however, I found to be fairly lame, and probably not even necessary.

Long story short, major US population centers are blacked out by non-nuclear EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) weapons, followed by a ground invasion, including an airborne component. Don't ask me why vertical envelopment would be necessary for Spokane, Washington. Maybe nearby Fairchild AFB... I suspect this plot element was retained simply as homage to the original, and perhaps also to The Longest Day, which obviously influenced Millius, as well.

I was going to insert a clip here from TLD, from the scene of the St. Mere Eglise jump--specifically a shot of a US paratrooper firing his Thompson while still under canopy on his way to the ground, duplicated in Red Dawn 2012 during the initial airborne assault. But alas, the only Youtube clip of that scene is modified to the point you can't even see that shot.

Of course, most of the familiar moments were from the Millius version: the ambush scene in which the wolverines pop out of spider holes; the deer blood drinking scene (but with a twist); and some others.

Dan Bradley didn't add a lot of character development, but what he did add was good. The writers took Robert's character on a different course, fleshed out a little more, but I'm not so sure I like it better. A nice touch was making Jed a veteran of Iraq this time, home on leave when the stuff hits the fan. With his experience, he's able to train these high school kids, including his little brother, into an effective guerrilla unit in short order. More than once he points out his role reversal--now he's on the insurgent side, interdicting on the occupiers.

Whereas the 1984 version took place in the Rockies, most of the combat here is urban. I don't want to go into a lot of detail about what was realistic and what wasn't, but I was pleased by the thinking that went into how a resistance movement could get going on a local or regional level. Lots of nice touches. As I've said before, I can pick apart pretty much any Hollywood movie or TV show on technical points, but I'll refrain here because they made an intelligent effort for the most part, while keeping the entertainment factor high throughout.

My biggest complaints about this movie can be confined to just two areas. First, it was hard to understand some of the dialog, particularly from the Josh Peck character. But honestly, some of this was due to noise in the theater, while most of it was probably due to my poor hearing. The other problem is one I won't let them off the hook so easy for: shaky-cam.

This is such an overused cinematic "technique" for action flicks these days, I guess other moviegoers must really like it or think it's cutting-edge.

It kinda pisses me off.

Saving Private Ryan used some handheld shots to nice effect (which, ironically, Steven Spielberg was inspired to use because of its effective use in John Millius's Rough Riders). But this wasn't just handheld work in RD 2012. They evidently had the cameraman overdose on caffeine, mounted him on a pogo stick and dumped a colony of ants down his underwear prior to shooting every action sequence.

I'm still glad I watched the movie. And I'm still amazed it was re-made. With the dominant ideology in Hollywood, I'd sooner expect it to be titled "Red State Dawn" and feature an invasion of diabolical Tea Party protestors, ruthlessly oppressing undocumented voters and welfare recipients. The actors and crew will probably emerge unscathed after this project. But pay attention to some of the propaganda snippets in the film--it's obvious that Dan Bradley has offended a lot of powerful interests by maintaining the spirit of the original.

As for the overall premise of Red Dawn, I'll let the words of President Lincoln hint at my opinion on the matter:

"Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step over the
ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! -- All the armies of Europe, Asia
and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own
excepted) in their military chest; with a Bonaparte for a commander,
could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the
Blue Ridge, in a trial of a Thousand years. At what point, then, is the
approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it
must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction
be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation
of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide."

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Task Force Desperate by Peter Nealen

Hello again, Two-Fisted Blogees! As you can see, I'm running late, or I would have had this review up on Veteran's Day. Oh well, most days are Veteran's Day here on the Two-Fisted Blog and at Virtual Pulp Press, anyway.

I have good news for you: I have more competition, which means we have more guns-blazing fiction to consume. I'm officially announcing the debut of two-fisted novelist Peter Nealen, who has just burst on the scene with the military thriller Task Force Desperate. Here's Nealen's pitch:

Written by a former Reconnaissance Marine and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, Task Force Desperate is the gritty, fast-paced beginning of a new series of military thrillers.

Jeff Stone and his team of Praetorian Security contractors are marking time on counter-piracy duty aboard a freighter in the Gulf of Aden when the boredom ends abruptly. A major US base on the Horn of Africa is overrun in a well-coordinated terrorist attack, and those base personnel who survive are taken hostage. With the world economy tanked, and most of the Western militaries dangerously thinned, the Praetorian operators find themselves to be the hostages' only hope of rescue.
The mission wasn't going to be simple, or easy. But as events in East Africa accelerate, and outside players start to show their hand, the Praetorian shooters start to realize just what a desperate gamble they are embarked upon, and what this particular job is going to cost...

One unique aspect of this novel is that it's narrated in first-person. Not much military fiction I can think of does that. Well, not any, to tell the truth. And since I've drawn attention to the writing itself already, I'll add that this is a very well-written book--way, way, way above average in this age of self-publishing. Jeff Stone (call sign: "Hillbilly"), the narrator/main character, has a voice well-suited for this sort of tale.

The good guys in this novel are mercs; the bad guys are pirates and terrorists (which can be said for my novel-in-progress, too, sort of. Here I was gloating that I'd get a modernday pirate story published before Jack Murphy does, then out of nowhere comes this Nealen dude and beats me to the punch. Ahem). Jeff is a contractor in a PMC working in the third world's hottest spot, along with some other seasoned professionals. The story takes place in the near future, after the collapse of the US dollar, and the chaos in North Africa and the Middle East is probably no worse than it is back in the US. You get the idea that the Praetorian Security shooters are orphans of a sort; men without a country. They choose to live by the sword because they like the warrior life, but also because there's nothing to go back to...nothing else left for them. It bonds them into a tightly-knit unit...almost a family. That's the impression I got.

You won't be disappointed in the action. There is tension on every page from cover to cover and it only gets higher as the plot drives on. Through no fault of the book, I had to read it piecemeal over a period of weeks, and yet I consider it a fast read. And the details were right.

When I wrote my debut novel, also a military thriller, I was shooting for the feel of the old paramilitary paperbacks, combined with believable characters, accurate details and plausible action (none of which was evident in most of those novels from the heyday of men's fiction), told at grunt's-eye-view. I had never found any such book up to that point, and believe me, I tried! Looking at the new wave of military fiction, however, this very form of hybrid I described seems to be a trend growing in popularity--possibly because so many of the new action/adventure authors are veterans. They want to make a buck just as much as the old cigar-smoking mid-list genre writers banging at their typewriters in a Manhattan efficiency apartment did, but there remains a level of pride in their former profession which compels them to sweat the details.

They want to get it right.

Pete Nealen strikes me as just such an author; and he did get it right. I recommend Task Force Desperate to everyone who likes military fiction.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Apocalypse Then: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Thanks to audiobooks, and a job which requires long road trips, I've been able to "read" a lot more than normal. And because of the selection, I've been "broadening my horizons" beyond the books I would normally choose. Case in point is Heart of Darkness--I've had a hardbound copy of it for over a decade, collecting dust in my "classics" section, but just never got around to reading it. When I found an audiobook version in the library, though, I figured there's no time like the present.

What intrigued me the most about this book was that I knew Apocalypse, Now was a film adaptation of it--transposed into South Vietnam circa 1969.

Believe me, I can find faults with Apocalypse, Now. Yet I still consider the original theatrical release of Coppola's film a masterpiece. I hold it up there with John Ford's The Searchers. Both are about epic journeys undertaken by disturbed antiheroes toward a showdown with not just a larger-than-life villain, but their own inner demons as well. BTW: I don't care for the Redux cut at all; as the added scenes just ruined the dark magic of the film as a whole.

So I had great expectations for Conrad's source material. It was interesting seeing how the "unsound methods" argument came about in the book, as well as Kurtz's obsession with "the horror." I also placed the Dennis Hopper character fairly easy.

In Conrad's book, the setting is not Vietnam, but the Congo during colonial days, and Kurtz was not a rogue SF commander, but an ivory supplier. Written in 1902, it very much follows the style so popular in those days. The entire plot is contained in a flashback. Conrad's vocabulary and grasp of English is deft. People, on average, were much more literate then than now (despite what you may have been taught), and it shows here.

But despite Conrad's intricate and flowery prose, the book was surprisingly short. And I hate to knock a classic, but I found the whole thing anticlimactic and lackluster. The version I checked out is supposedly unabridged, so after-the-fact editing can't really be blamed.

The problem, as I see it, has mostly to do with the Kurtz character. In the movie he is almost god-like, and the anticipation is pretty high by the time we meet him. In the book a couple characters talk him up a bit, even the narrator to an extent. But the build-up is half-assed. And Kurtz himself is dying of a disease by the time we meet him. He's supposed to be a great man; a charismatic leader who inspires fanatical devotion in his followers; and so brimming with other-worldly wisdom that mere mortals are mesmerized by his words. "You don't talk to him; you listen." And indeed, a couple characters are enamored by him this way. The natives will gladly kill or die for him, just for the privilege of remaining close to his greatness. Well, Kurtz only speaks a couple complete sentences in the whole novel, and none of his words struck me as profound or exceptional in any way. Maybe he lived up to the hype earlier in his life, but we don't meet him until he's almost dead.

I think director Francis Ford Coppola and Screenwriter John Millius were far more effective, not only at presenting Kurtz; but by selling Willard's journey to the audience as a worthwhile undertaking. They also made it easy on themselves setting the story during Vietnam, because of the drug culture. The film is like a mystical LSD trip, into which the eccentric characters from the book nicely fit. In fact, they ran with that theme, portraying some level of insanity in every scene.

As forgettable as I find the novel, I'm fascinated the film makers saw something in it in the first place. But whatever the seed of their inspiration, they nurtured it, watered it, and turned it into a towering redwood.