16 September 2014

Two New Films Report on Afghan War, 2007 & 2011

Two new documentaries hit store shelves last week, each potentially key to updating viewers' on how U.S. troops have fought in Afghanistan in recent years. The first, "Korengal," is a companion to the 2011 Academy Award-nominated "Restrepo," by film-makers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington. Both films follow a platoon of 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.) soldiers in Eastern Afghanistan's Kunar Province in 2007.

The second new documentary, "The Hornet's Nest," compiles the Emmy-winning experiences of father-and-son journalists Mike and Carlos Boettcher, during a year-long embed in 2011 with 3rd BCT, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) in Kunar Province; and Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, Eighth Marines in Southern Afghanistan's Helmand Province.

(Readers of the Red Bull Rising blog may remember the special place "Restrepo" had in the 2010-2011 deployment of the Iowa National Guard's 2nd BCT, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division to Eastern Afghanistan. As the feature film neared its 2010 National Geographic Channel release—and recognizing that the Iowa troops were heading to potentially similar terrain later that year—the film's media relations crew forwarded a preview copy of "Restrepo" for use during the unit's pre-deployment training.)

Where "Restrepo" depicts the daily challenges faced by a small group of soldiers, without much time for analysis or reflection, "Korengal" offers space enough to let its subjects (and its viewers) breathe. The content is often just as dramatic as that of the first film, but now, we hear and see the soldiers' struggles to render meaning from their experiences. Topics range from dealing with boredom and adrenalin, to racism and tattoos in the military.

Watching "Korengal" feels like finally catching up with some old Army buddies. The soldiers are a few years older now, better groomed, and better fed. But you can see how Afghanistan is still a constant in each of their lives. Some apparently continue to serve.

The dramatic peak of "The Hornet's Nest" involves Operation Strong Eagle III, which took place in March and April 2011. The helicopter-borne "air-assault" operation reportedly involved 400 U.S. troops and 300 Afghan National Army soldiers, on a search for Taliban targets that included al Qaeda leader Qari Zia Rahman. (For an ABC News report on the operation, including text and video, click here.)

Both "Korengal" and "The Hornet's Nest" depict in high-definition the dangers created by steep slopes, lack of cover, and highly motivated enemies. And, through the lenses of each of their respective reporting teams, also come the stories of the journalists themselves. "We only do this to make a difference," 60-year-old Mike Boettcher tells the camera near his film's completion. "That's why you constantly keep going back. Keep fighting, keep trying to tell these stories. Otherwise, my whole life's been for nothing ... You know something? It's been for something. It has."

Where "Korengal" probes the interior motivations and reactions of its subjects, "The Hornet's Nest" goes further afield in its exterior explorations. Viewers hear the angry buzz of incoming sniper attacks, and witness detonations of Improvised Explosive Devices (I.E.D.) through soldiers' windshields. They see the grim-faced courage of soldiers, searching for mines with hand-held devices, and running to aid of their wounded comrades. The scenery ranges from the hard-scrabble mountains and lush valleys of Eastern Afghanistan, to the sandy, marshy lowlands of the south.

In short, each of these new documentaries provides a key piece toward promoting viewers' understanding, not only of the who-what-where-and-how of soldiering in Afghanistan, but of the intellectual and moral ground we inhabit today.

Watch these movies, before America pulls up stakes.

Watch these movies, to remember the tolls taken, and prices paid on our behalf.

*****

Purchase "The Hornet's Nest" on DVD or Blu-ray, or via streaming services.

Purchase "Korengal" on DVD and Blu-ray, or via streaming services.

Purchase "Restrepo" on DVD or Blu-ray or via streaming services.

"Restrepo" co-producer Tim Hetherington was killed in April 2011 while covering conflict in Libya. A documentary of his life and work, including his experiences in Afghanistan, has also recently been released via streaming media. Purchase "Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington."

09 September 2014

A FOB-themed Eatery? 'Welcome to T.G.I. FUBAR's™!'

No joke. Chris and Daisy Oswalt plan to open a FOB-themed restaurant near 
Camp Pendelton, Calif.
In a news report recently highlighted by author David Abrams' ("Fobbit") official Facebook page, former Lousiana National Guard soldier Daisy Oswalt and her husband Chris discussed their plans to open a military-themed restaurant near Camp Pendleton, Calif. The "FOB Bunker Bar and Grill" will serve items such as burgers, fried fish, and (wait for it) "M-WRAP" sandwiches, "Napalm nachos," and homemade Meals, Ready to Eat (M.R.E.).

The acronym "FOB" stands for "Forward Operating Base."

"We’re about the survivors, the guys who went through hell," Chris Oswalt told the Marine Corps Times. "For this generation of desert warrior, they’re going to see a lot of the things from the FOB to make it like home as much as possible."

Sounds great, except for the fact that you don't want a FOB-themed restaurant to seem like home. If anything, you want it to feel like a FOB! That, and that a FOB isn't so much of a hell, as much as it is a pergatory.

Here are some of our suggestions to help take this casual-dining-under-fire concept to the next level:
  • Staff will make announcements of birthdays and incoming mortar rounds over a Big Voice loudspeaker, which long-time patrons will come to ignore.
  • Retired sergeants major will serve as maitres d'. No one will spell the plural of either term correctly.
  • "No blouse? No boots? No prior service."
  • "Try our Boomin' Onion(tm)!"
  • Complimentary service of "disinfected / non-potable" water; ration of 2 lbs. of ice per customer per day.
  • Complimentary MRE crackers at table. Under no circumstances should these be taken internally.
  • Take-out containers will be Styrofoam clamshells. Non-uniformed personnel will not be authorized take-out.
  • Catering by Mermite available upon request, not less than 72 hours in advance.
  • "Do you want live-fires with that?"
  • Dining room patrons will be required to open-carry an unloaded and cleared weapon at all times.
  • Reflective Safety Belts will also be required. Especially in front of the salad bar.
  • Big-screen televisions will display patrons' favorite sports events via Armed Forces Network. All air-times will be offset 13.5 hours.
  • Restrooms will consist of portable chemical latrines and hand-washing stations.
  • Kitchen personnel will wear hair nets and "beard arresters."
  • "Warning: Pork chops contain pork."
  • Battle captains and NCOs will be entitled to "buy-one, get-one" special on so-called "TOC-O Tuesdays."
  • "Join us for salsa dancing Saturday!"
What should we to call our new restaurant enterprise? Here are a few ideas we're knocking around:
  • "Kentucky FOB Chicken"
  • "Iraqibee's"
  • "Hard TOC CafĂ©"
  • "Groundhog Dave's"
  • "Red Lobster Rising"
  • "There-and-backagain's"
And, finally, our current favorite:
  • "Hooah-ters"

04 September 2014

Mil-Poetry Review: 'Letter Composed During a Lull ...'

"Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting" by Kevin Powers

In a 2014 poetry collection titled "Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting," Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers successfully bridges between stories of service and sacrifice, and explorations of an individual's place in society, geography, and history.

The poems are often short—many are just a page or two, and only a few clock in at more than three. Without losing any richness of word or meaning, Powers' language seems somehow less lyrical, less breathless, than his critically perfumed 2013 novel, "The Yellow Birds," which is set during the Iraq War. Rather than sweeping readers along in rapid and burbling rivers of prose, page after page after flowery page, the poetry collection delivers discreet dispatches of experience—bite-sized and chewy.

As a result, the work is accessible, approachable, and eminently shareable. Believe it or not, this just might be a poetry book you could read aloud in the barracks, without starting a fight.

The book comprises 33 poems, and is divided into four parts. The first half contains government-issue titles such as "Blue Star Mother" and "Meditation on a Main Supply Route." In these poems, Powers unfolds and unpacks the drab nomenclature in ways that resonate with soldiers and those who love them. In "Improvised Explosive Device," for example, he re-imagines the poem first as a bomb to be detected, then gradually expands the metaphor in waves of heat and smoke and jagged metal. Even before he lights the poem's figurative fuze, there is a desperate need to detect the threat, to perceive the unseen, to see where things lead. It begins:
If this poem had wires
coming out of,
you would not read it.
If this words in this poem were made
of metal, if you could see
the mechanics of their curvature,
you would hope
they would stay covered
by whatever paper rested
in the trash pile they were hidden in.
But words or wires would lead you still
to fields of grass between white buildings. [...]
Powers' poetic explorations of the military experience include eyes on the home front. In "Separation," his narrator rails against a group of "Young Republicans / in pink popped-collar shirts," and then moves on to consider the loss of youth, identity, and even his weapon:
[...] I want to rub their clean
bodies in blood. I want my rifle
and I want them to know
how scared I am still, alone
in bars these three years later when
I notice it is gone [...]
In the book's second half, Powers relocates his reconnaissance of dread and isolation to different times and different terrain. There is fire here, as well as earth. He takes the reader to Dresden, Germany, seconds before the flames of World War II, and to the pre-apocalyptic moments before our sun goes supernova. He tells the story of a bloodied working-class Toughman competitor, losing to win a way out of West Virginia. He revisits a broken lock and canal on the James River, a place of childhood memory, which has twice failed to bring about an economic boom.

In all of these tales, Powers continues to probe questions of where and how an individual is rooted, whether in time or place, history or dirt. In "Grace Note," he writes a dirge familiar to any weary traveler. It does not explicitly mention war, but one can easily read war into it:
[...] Yes, we're due:
a break from everything, from use,
from breath, from artifacts, from life,
from death, from every unmoored memory
I've wasted all those hours upon
hoping someday something will make sense:
the old man underneath the corrugated plastic
awning of the porch, drunk and slightly
slipping off into the granite hills
of southeast Connecticut already, the hills sheaved off
and him sheaved off and saying
(in reply to what?) "Boy, that weren't nothing
but true facts about the world."
That was it. The thing I can't recall
was what I had been waiting for. [...]