16 August 2017

The Quest for Combat Kelly & The Red Bull Story

And, just like that, my quest for my comics holy grail was over: "Combat Kelly," issue No. 21, published in 1954. Thirty-two pages. Original cover price: 10 cents. Potentially jam-packed full of racist attitudes and Red Bull history.

Granted, my quest had been a passive one. Something to look for at comics conventions and dealers. Something to browse through Internet auction sites, whenever I had trouble sleeping. A year or two ago, I'd almost successfully purchased a copy—fair condition, yellowed-but-readable pages—but that had somehow slipped through my keyboarding fingers. The seller's asking price had been about $20.

Imagine my surprise, when I randomly found the whole issue had been posted for free on-line. I had been clicking in the dark, and, suddenly, there it was.

Having grown up in the early 1970s, I'd never read any Combat Kelly comic books. Closest I got to war books was a few hand-me-down copies of Sgt. Rock ("Our Army at War") or G.I. Combat. Maybe an issue of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandoes.

Combat Kelly? Until researching the topic for the Red Bull Rising blog, I'd never even heard of him.

Combat Kelly was a character first published by Atlas Comics—one of the ancestors of Marvel Comics—from November 1951 to August 1957. The setting was the Korean War, which was fought between June 1950 and July 1953.

My search for issue No. 21 had little to do with Kelly himself, but in a secondary "back-up" feature, one that contained, to my knowledge, the only comic-book mention of the U.S. 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division.

Although the unit patch is correct, the story doesn't call the "Red Bull" by name. Instead, it uses as its title an earlier moniker: "The Sandstorm Division." When it was first formed in August 1917, the unit took its first nickname from the weather and terrain surrounding Camp Cody, N.M. Most references say the name changed in World War II, to better reflect the unit patch designed by artist and citizen-soldier Marvin Cone.

The comic-book story accounts for only six pages of the 32-page issue. Ten pages (including inside- and back-cover) are advertisements. There's also a 2-page prose (text-only) story. In the 6-page main story, Combat Kelly and his pal Major Thorn get double-crossed by a South Korean they've rescued from execution, who turns out to be the notorious North Korean agent "Red Mary." Kelly and Thorn escape by flying a liberated MiG jet fighter. Asians are depicted in racist caricatures—agent "Red Mary," for example, is a cross between the Dragon Lady stereotype and Disney's Creulla de Vil. The lesson I take from all this? This comic is a document of its time. I should not be expecting high levels of artistic achievement, nor historical accuracy.

There are three other stories, other than the main Combat Kelly story. One is a retelling of a German horse cavalry during the First World War. "True War Stories that Made History … Told by Combat Kelly" opens with the narrator's statement: "The story of the Battles of Belleau Wood is in all the history books, but it's be a different story if it hadn't been for a couple of Marines who loved horse, and hated heinies!"

Filling out the issue: a 5-page story, art by Robert Q. Sale, regarding Cpl. Cookie Novak's rescue of a Korean child and later capturing the guerrilla "Bloody Mary." The plot—not to mention the naming the principal baddies as "red" or "bloody" something—feels a bit repetitive, even within a single issue.

And, what of the plot of "The Sandstorm Division" story? Drawn by Dave Berg—an artist who would later work for Mad magazine—the story takes place in World War II, during the division's crossings of the Volturno River in October 1943. In history, the operations were in the offensive against the southernmost German defenses in Italy, the Volturno Line. In the comic, the "Red Bull" patch appears five times in six pages—twice in caption boxes, and three times on the right-shoulder sleeves of Combat Kelly and Captain Thorn. (Thorn wasn't promoted to major until Korea.)

Here's how one comics database summarizes the story:
Combat Kelly is on a mission with the Sandstorm Division 34th Infantry Division battling Nazi forces under the command of Captain Thorn in Italy. Fighting Nazi soldiers, Combat spots an enemy boat along the Volturno River and tosses a grenade into it, it explodes just as it is passing under a bridge just as a German supply truck filled with ammo passes over it. The resulting explosion destroys both vehicles and destroys the bridge, hampering the Germans' abilities to get supplies into Rome. However it also eliminates their ability to get over to enemy lines.

However, Captain Thorn calls for steel boats while a pontoon bridge is built to travel across the river with supplies. Along the way Combat and Cookie's boat is attacked by German soldiers. Pinned down by enemy artillery fire, Combat and Cookie use a boat to cross the river and sneak up on the enemy base using dynamite to blow them up, allowing their forces to sends tanks and other vehicles across the water safely.
Unfortunately, other than thrill of seeing a "Red Bull" patch on the pages of a four-color comic, there's not much else that's special about the story. The writers might have plugged any unit connected with the Volturno River into the story. Apparently, they did just enough research to properly emplace their characters in both time and terrain.

The story invites a question, however: I wonder if they somehow got it right that the 34th Infantry Division didn't take on the "Red Bull" name until after the comic's publication date of 1954?

That sounds like another quest!

09 August 2017

Re-run: Review of 'Citizen-Soldier' Documentary Film

Film review: "Citizen-Soldier" (2016)

[Blog editor's note: This review originally appeared on the Red Bull Rising blog on Aug. 31, 2016. The movie is currently available on streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.]

Before I offer a few insights and impressions regarding the new documentary "Citizen-Soldier," a few caveats up front:

1. The movie explores a recurring theme in U.S. history: How citizens routinely pick up their muskets to become soldiers. This is a theme fraught with tensions, between state and federal powers, and between those who argue that the United States must at all times maintain a large, standing, "professional" military, to those who who argue for a smaller active-duty military, augmented by citizen reservists in times of need. This is a central engine that drives much of my own research and writing. [Blog editor's note: The book "Reporting for Duty: U.S. Citizen-Soldier Journalism from the Afghan Surge, 2010-2011" was published in November 2016. The book collects reports and photos from the Iowa unit described below.]

2. The documentary depicts a unit that replaced the Iowa Army National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division shortly after my media embed with the latter in May-June 2011. For a 9-month period, Oklahoma's 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (I.B.C.T.) was made responsible for all U.S./coalition missions in Eastern Afghanistan's Laghman Province. Together with Iowa's 2-34th BCT and Vermont's 86th IBCT, this represents the only times a brigade-sized U.S. National Guard unit was assigned as a "battlespace owner" during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

3. There are other connections. Afghanistan was not the first time, for example, that the Red Bull and Thunderbird fought and trod the same ground. In World War II, both units were at the battles of Anzio, Solerno, Sicily, and Mount Cassino. To my particular delight, each unit boasts unique artistic pedigrees, too. The Red Bull shoulder patch was designed in 1918 by Marvin Cone, a citizen-soldier who would later become a well-regarded regional artist. Famous World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin was a Thunderbird.

I am, in short, a big fan of the 45th IBCT. I am probably genetically predisposed to like this movie.


*****

I like this movie. A lot.

That's not to say, however, that it's easy to watch. Or even fun. It is, however, necessary.

Released earlier this week on DVD and Blu-ray, the documentary "Citizen-Soldier" accurately captures the trials of people just like you and your neighbors—police officers, marketing directors, X-ray technicians—who are routine trained and transformed into soldiers. With this deployment, they tasked with fighting waves of unseen enemies, while traversing unforgivingly brutal terrain. Along the way, they adapt, improvise, and overcome.

"[O]ne thing the Guard is able to do very effectively," says Sgt. Jared Colson, who is a corrections officer on the civilian side. "We're able to look at things practically, and not just according to a manual."

Members of Oklahoma's 1st Battalion, 179th Infantry Regiment (1-179th Inf.), deployed to Combat Outpost ("COP") Najil in Laghman Province. Through footage shot by Oklahoma and attached combat camera soldiers, as well as other sources, "Citizen-Soldier" tells the story of a few platoons, follows them through various dismounted and mounted patrols, as well as an air-assault—Operation Brass Monkey, into the Saygal Valley. There are laughs, and there are tears.

An important note: Not everyone introduced at the beginning of the film survives the deployment. It does need to be said, however, that the violence is edited tastefully, and the reverence and respect Oklahoma has for its fallen is apparent throughout the journey home. These are sights that may be unfamiliar to active-duty communities: Patriot Guard motorcycle escorts and flag-bearers. Highways lined with Guardsmen and women, rendering final salutes. Citizen-soldiers have their own traditions, their own customs.

The "Citizen-Soldier" project was managed by the directors of "The Hornet's Nest" (2014), which told stories of Eastern and Southern Afghanistan through the eyes of an embedded civilian reporter. The Oklahoma documentary, however, is framed by two elements: First are scenes of present-day Thunderbird soldiers taking part in a live-fire training exercise, which provides a thematic connection to the National Guard's "Minute Man" history and culture.

Toward the end of the exercise, and at the end of the film, Command Sgt. Major of the Army National Guard Brunk W. Conley addresses a group of Oklahoma soldiers. "Think about 1775 […]," he says. "'The British are coming, the British are coming.' And blacksmiths, and inn-keepers drop their hammers, drop their plates and towels and bedding. They drop what their doing. And they run to the greens at Lexington and Concord […]"

"We've been doing this stuff since 1636 […]" Conley tells the troops. "We need you […] to keep the title of 'citizen-soldier.' There is something noble, something honorable, something romantic about that term."

The second framing device is an off-duty gab session among former platoon mates. A casual conversation alongside a river creates a space for reflection. There, the soldiers joke, for example, that their mobilization station of Camp Shelby, Miss.—a relatively flat place located near the Gulf of Mexico—was exactly like Afghanistan, except for maybe the all the mountains.

As Colson says earlier in the film, "Everywhere is up. Everywhere you walk is up." And the bad guys hold the high ground.

If you are an adult friend or family member of a U.S. National Guard or reservist who deployed to Afghanistan, you will want to see this film. If you are a veteran of Eastern Afghanistan, you might also enjoy the added bonus of seeing some of your old stomping grounds. (The usual trigger-warnings apply, however: While the film is rated "R" only for language, there is plenty of bang-bang and roadside boom here. The kind that might keep your mom up at nights. Depending on your own deployment history, maybe you, too.)

If you are a U.S. citizen and taxpayer, seeing this film should be a requirement. This is what you sent your neighbors to do, on your behalf: Leave their jobs, their friends, their families, the comforts and safety of home. Engage an enemy. Climb mountains. Search out bombs. Build a nation.

More important than what they did, however, "Citizen-Soldier" shows you who they are.

02 August 2017

Comics Journalism Book Review: "Rolling Blackouts"

Book Review: "Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq" by Sarah Glidden

Sarah Glidden's "Rolling Blackouts" is an essential exploration of what it means to ask questions and tell stories. You should experience it.

I say "experience," rather than "read." Or "view." Because "Rolling Blackouts" is what other people might dismiss as a comic book.

What should one call, however, a 304-page illustrated navigation of national identities and communications theory, one that crosses borders and shares private experiences, and that seeks concrete answers while also celebrating ambiguity and complexity? Is the preferred term "graphic non-fiction novel"? A work of "Comics journalism"? To the uninitiated, these terms seem dismissive, inadequate to the artistic and rhetorical accomplishments at hand.

Although it defies easy labeling, Sarah Glidden's second book is imminently accessible. Each page is designed on a 9-panel grid, and filled with elegantly drawn pictures, warmly colored with watercolors. Action and exposition is primarily driven by dialogue—interactions among characters—rather than by authorial narration. To put it another way: There more word-balloons more than text boxes.

The illustrations offer setting and mood, giving readers a more-immersive experience than what might be possible via text, or even photo.

The book relates the 2010 story of four friends who make up a Washington-based non-profit journalism enterprise called The Seattle Globalist, who travel to Turkey, Syria, and Iraq in search of stories regarding the Iraqi refugee experience.

Glidden goes along for the ride, intending to observe and report on the process itself. Dialogue and events depicted in the book are based on her recordings, impressions, and memories of events. She notably and explicitly avoids labeling the work as memoir.

Multimedia journalists Sarah Stuteville and Jessica Partnow are life-long friends, who also knew former Marine artilleryman Dan O'Brien from high school days. As a military veteran, O'Brien goes along to file occasional video impressions of what it's like to return to Iraq, having deployed with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines to Ramadi in 2007. Alex Stonehill is the team's photographer.

Via Stuteville and others, Glidden learns about nuts-and-bolts journalism terms like "lav-mics" and "B-roll," and experiences first-hand the embarrassing, excruciating pain of transcribing interviews from digital recordings. Meeting other journalists in the field, she explores the limitations and advantages of embedding civilian journalists with U.S. military personnel, and how various types of sources are sometimes limited in their abilities to directly tell the stories of the refugees they're trying to help. Language is sometimes a barrier to effective reporting, a problem that Glidden's own visual, sequential medium seems uniquely able to depict.

Stuteville's standards of journalism are appropriate to all forms of non-fiction storytelling, whether blogging or Tweeting or writing for an old-school print publication. As such, "Rolling Blackouts" would be a useful text in journalism and communications classes:
  • Is it informative? Is it trying to inform people about a topic or a time or a person?
  • Is it reliable? Is it true and can we find out that it's true?
  • Is is accountable? Do we know who did it, and if we find out that something was untrue, will they take responsibility for it?
  • And is it independent? So did the person report this for no reason beyond getting to the truth, or did they do it because they were paid by an interested party?
"[Journalism's] not a medium and it's not a result and it's not a voice," Stuteville tells Glidden. "It's an expectation."

For the most part, Stuteville and her team are pragmatically idealistic, recognizing the freelance realities of marketing stories to editors. Some stories are necessary, because they'll help pay the bills. Other stories just won't sell.

Some of the dramatic tensions lay between individual team members as characters. Stuteville, for example, openly wants to leverage the powers of journalism to document a narrative change in her Marine friend O'Brien, but is repeatedly frustrated by her professional and personal inability to make that connection:
Dan O'Brien: "I feel a lot of pressure to give you good sound bites right now. I feel like the fate of your entire project is resting on me and I'm just blowing it and you guys are like, 'This guy hasn't said anything cool yet.'"

Sarah Stuteville: "Not at all. A good journalist doesn't go into a story already knowing the conclusion. People never say the stuff you want them to say … and the revelation that happens is never the revelation you were expecting. The story never goes the way it's supposed to. Which makes it kind of fun!"
Contrast this statement of editorial zen, however, with a later conversation between Stuteville and Alex Stonehill, the photographer:
Stuteville: "To me, the story of Dan is in the things he asserts that aren't true. The louder he says, 'I'm not that f---ed up veteran, the war didn't define me, I don't have bad dreams or anxiety …' the more I know it's true." […]

Stonehill: "Yeah, the best way for this to go from an editor's perspective is for Dan to meet some Iraqis and then have a nervous breakdown and be like, 'Oh, I'm so f---ed up over what I did and I have PTSD and war is so terrible.' That's the Hollywood narrative they want. But that's so f---ed up!" […]

Stuteville: "Dan was a little hippie kid from Seattle who was completely seduced by the bravado and romance of the military. He went in and he felt like he became a man, and some guys died, but he's glad he did it. And I don't get the sense that he will ever be un-glad that he did it. And you're not supposed to tell that story. No editor wants that story."
In a work full of professional trade secrets, clear-eyed self-examinations, and celebrations of ambiguity, Glidden has told a series of stories that is simultaneously behind-the-scenes, and insightful meta-commentary. She has effective captured the journalistic yin-yang by showing, not telling. As a non-fiction storyteller and as a military veteran, Stuteville's struggle is my own, as is O'Brien's. Glidden has provided a bridge, which privileges each perspective without judgement.

That's not just story-telling. That's art.

"Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq" is available in hard cover via Amazon and other booksellers.