Sunday, August 16, 2009

Armed Bohemian

I have a new project - Armed Bohemian, a blog on some specific ideas about war, culture, warriors and related thoughts, problems and snarky comments.
This will let me leave Rum & Donuts as the personal forum I've created it to be. The ideas and questions that will be shaping Armed Bohemian are rather constant for me, and I'd rather give them their own playground than dominate this space with them.

Stay tuned - More to come, here, there, and elsewhere!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Complexes of Gehenna

That vast and the black stretches
beyond the weakness of the light's play
A silence of depth, so boundless
as to be a leonine roar of absent sound
These wanton cries of Abaddon, terrible
in their compulsion, and loneliness
Forgotten in the works beneath the stone
where the pipes and tunnels of men run
unto ends where the picked tunnel comes
to ruin in the unknowable definitions
between worked stone and Earth gaped wide
A great work abandoned, and un-wrought
by the smashing weight of miles of rock, tumbled upon
the emptiness of man's will, the hollow drifts
crumbled to water and the Earth's relaxations
One meets the other and disappears into their forces
Whether Earth's own pocket or vast stope
toil and tectonics come to a whole
so far beyond reckoning
Where now I stand, solid footed above the howling
vast and empty rooms and halls
in the complexes of Gehenna

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Bright Idea from The Atlantic

Not a new idea, but a bright one none the less. In Unleash the Dogs of Peace editor Gibney makes the excellent suggestion of using private military companies (PMCs) instead of UN Peace Keepers in difficult regions. There is great merit to this idea for varying reasons, only one of which is the UN's seeming inability to actually keep, never mind create, peace.
Gibney isn't the first to suggest this. Obviously, PMC's themselves have always suggested this. Still a good idea. Maybe a better idea now than it was when Executive Outcomes was suggesting it for Rwanda (prior to the great machete party) - Today's contenders seem to offer more stability, and despite the media's efforts less mercenary stigma.

From the Atlantic piece:
"There is a different, more robust approach to making peace in nasty places: deploy private military companies like Executive Outcomes, whose small, highly trained force defeated insurgencies in Sierra Leone and Angola during the 1990s. Executive Outcomes is now out of business. But as researchers like Peter Singer have documented, the private-military-company marketplace now fields scores of firms (including the U.S. giants Xe—formerly Blackwater—and DynCorp) that take in billions in revenue. Put them on retainer, and they’ll go where they’re paid to go—unlike every one of the 19 countries that had pledged troops on a standby basis for UN peacekeeping and then refused, in 1994, to send them to Rwanda."

Monday, August 3, 2009


The other day I read a review of the new film “The Hurt Locker” on a movie blog and it started me thinking. The film, which I've not seen yet, is about Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) Technicians in Iraq, and by all accounts is not a typical (linear and plot-driven) film, rather being character driven. The blogger took issue with it for this, and several more reasons which, save one, I wont go into. Both because I've not seen the movie, and I don't care about his other complaints. Also, I commented on his blog and left a link back but have no desire or intention to attempt a cross-blog war. His post, and my response, simply prompted further though an idea. An idea I want to share, where I've the room to do so.
The issue at hand that was taken in this review I read, was with the portrayal of the characters. The blogger did not feel that they were worthwhile or compelling, and seemed to feel they weren't fitting representations of US servicemen. The reviewer felt that they lacked higher minded motivations, and acted as hero's out of personal issues, being adrenaline junkies, rather than out of any particular goodness.
I'm not going to (extensively) quote the review, as this is less about the review, or the reviewer, than the idea of “hero's”, but in paraphrase his objections were: A specific leading character's heroism was driven less by a solid moral fiber, than by being an adrenaline junkie. Most of the character's were in fact lacking positive motivations (“anything but upbeat and inspirational”, to sneak a quote in). They were there and fighting merely for selfish reasons, not some greater struggle against evil, or to protect the oppressed and innocent. He found it hard to support, much less care for, the character's he thought were arrogant, and would've rather been rooting for characters driven by “goodness” - Using Batman, Spiderman and Superman as examples of characters driven by goodness, and the audience' ability to invest in them for the people of character they truly are.

I cannot help but feel that this reviewer has mistaken his favorite fictions and imaginary hero's for real ones. It seems that his real objection is that this film doesn't present his hero's in the fictitious, idealized, light to which he's accustomed to seeing them. It doesn't present them as Supermen, or even as Batmen (tortured, but ultimately idealistic and good intentioned). It presents them as realistic, human, men. Given this, I have to wonder if the reviewer who brought these ideas to the fore in me, isn't the only one who suffers this idealism of hero's.
Has it ever occurred to these folks that their hero's, many of history's (military or otherwise) hero's, were in fact no more high minded than the men in The Hurt Locker? That same people put themselves into situations that make hero's of them not because it serves the common good, but because it serves their needs and desires?
The accounts written after the act(s) of heroism, or after any act, are rarely the truth. This is not to say that all hero's are bastards who were in the right place at the right time, but that not all of them aren't that.
Many hero's, as people visualize them, are actually fictions and in the bright light of day, they are just men and women. People who fought, warred, struggled and killed, less out of patriotism, less out of belief in something greater, than out of a simple skill and enjoyment. Even, without enjoyment, no greater drive than a pragmatic assessment of their abilities, opportunities and situations. At times too, just sheer futility and "fuck it" attitudes. Not everyone who does these jobs does them for upbeat or inspirational reasons - Some do them for the blackest reasons possible.
That does not make them incapable of heroism, or invaluable to society. Quite the opposite. It may be that in these positions (from war to wildland firefighting), where people who have no use for most of society find an escape from it and a great satisfaction in hard work and high risk, they are actually of the most benefit to the whole. An accidental (maybe) symbiotic relationship between the misanthrope, and the masses.
Not everyone who stands on the lines between disaster and safety, between the great hordes and the great civilizations, is a sheepdog guarding the flock. Many are just another type of wolf – One's evolved in a manner where they'd rather bloody their fangs on other wolves.
They may not be people to know, and certainly not the kind of people to have to tea, but they're no less valuable, and when the pressure is on, no less gallant for it. Such men and women need, and deserve, as much celebration as the patriotic, service oriented, and high minded.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Market Forces

Imagine a world where corporate interests outstrip government. Where executives are celebrities. Where the division between the poor and the rich, the haves and have-nots, is enforced by law, and walls, and an economic standard soaked in blood. A world where executives compete with one another - for promotions, to win contracts, to settle disputes - via murderous road rage in specially designed and armored "battle-wagons". This is the world of Richard K. Morgan's "Market Forces", a character driven science fiction thriller set in the near, and all too believable, future of late 2040's London.
Market Forces protagonist (hero would be the wrong word) Chris Faulkner is an up and coming executive, or "driver" as he is one of the select few who can both afford to drive and are among the ranks of road-rage competing corporate agents. Faulkner, at the book's opening, has just been drafted into the ranks of Shorn Associates, Conflict Investment division. Riding on his work at a previous firm's Emerging Markets division, and the highly controversial yet celebrated kill on the road that won him that position, Faulkner meets immediate challenge. His coworkers and the partners at Shorn are far more bloodthirsty than Faulkner believes necessary, demanding that every roadway dual end in a positive kill. Faulkner is able to deliver extreme violence, as in his celebrated kill in which he ran over his competitor five times, but comes to Shorn with a preference for less bloodthirsty business approaches. This puts him at odds with other Shorn executives; Rivalries which only become worse when he proves successful in the division.
Conflict Investment is no nice thing – It is investment in, and guidance of, small wars for maximum profit. Shorn Associates is as bloodthirsty and greedy here as anywhere, and it pays. Conflict Investment is a money-maker, and success in the field means great gains, recognition and advancement for Faulkner. Being less bloodthirsty still does not give Faulkner clean hands, and as the pressure mounts, he becomes more and more blood-soaked. And he likes it – Every victory, every risk won out, is validation for the way he does business, and the ideals he brings to the game.
At the same time, it is his idealism that runs him aground. Faulkner is no mindless greed driven power player. He's come from the very bottom to get to where he is, and has built the beginnings of a good life. His wife, Carla, is a loving and kind force in his life, always encouraging the best of him. She holds him to be the better man, and not succumb to the sheer greed and immorality of his work.
As Faulkner rises to the top in the most cut-throat area of a cut-throat world, his professional drive and personal conscience conflict more and more. As he struggles with these disparate halves of himself and his life he is forced (or forces himself) into a decision between two paths, one of harmony in his family, and one of unbridled success.

Market Forces channels American Psycho with a Road Warrior ethic and a Dogs of War sensibility. The world created by Richard Morgan for his corporate samurai is one of merciless competition, bloody corporate affairs, unabashed profiteering, riding on a current of warfare and class oppression. In short, Morgan writes a world that, while exaggerated, doesn't seem too impossible or even too far off. In examining this potential future what the reader must ask themselves is if that is a good thing, and what role they want to play. These are the questions that are at the heart of the novel, driving its biting political dialog and fast paced action alike. The choices faced by Faulkner and those surrounding him are more than political, or monetary: Their very lives are at stake on the physical, moral and even human scale.
Market Forces is not an uplifting read. Faulkner is a great anti-hero, and is surrounded by similarly flawed individuals and their mistakes. Very few of these characters are merely two-dimensional, as Morgan is unafraid to delve into the vulgar depths of personality. These are very human people, and will force the reader into uncomfortable territory. At times it is like being in the room while your friend and his wife have a screaming argument. All you can do is watch as people you want to care about debase themselves and one another, screaming themselves into the deafening silence of mutually assured destruction.
Yet while not an uplifting read, it is a fundamentally good read. Morgan's characters resonate with that level of richness throughout, flowing effortlessly with the tautly woven story. Market Force is a book that draws you in, each page pulling you deeper into the quagmire of morality, violence and lust that consumes its characters. It will leave you breathless, and with the sensation that you may be accomplice to something awful, yet wanting more. A unique and masterful work of speculative fiction, Market Forces is a must read.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Faith of Taps, Hand Dug Graves, and Cold Beer

The mystery that gives Catholic services their captivating effect is ruined, at least a measure, by conducting them in English. I watched, an outsider at the rear of the little church, resting my shoulders on the cool adobe wall. Walls witness to greater than one hundred years of such goings on. My heart rose to the twangs of Spanish guitar, and I rose with others, but never knelt. The priest did his stumbling best, and got us through it.
Bearing his coffin out, at the doors of the church they stopped. A deacon and a pall bearer removed the Catholic raiment from the coffin. Beneath the barely patterned white shroud, stripes of blood red and snow white, cornered with the star bearing field of blue. All holiness supposed of the ceremony just passed, stood miniscule in the face of the flag. Tears welled at the corners of my eyes.
As we followed the procession out the doors of the church, the flag gleamed all the more brightly in the desert sun. I looked across the graveyard of bare earth, at the miles of rocky, dry, hills. Standing in the corner of the graveyard, silver piping glimmering on his dress blues, was an Air Force bugler. Alien to the surrounding dust but mute and still as the native stones. The honor guard stood crisply at grave side. One of them a very pretty young woman, I could see a bead of sweat break on her forehead and roll to her eye with nary a blink.
A strong hand gripped my shoulder, almost painfully, as an old friend came to stand at my side. We watched quietly as the priest finished his graveside services. As before, he stumbled through it. His corpulence shaking beneath his robes as the heat tolled on him, he managed to carry it out. Looking around those gathered, most appeared to be holding their own court and ignoring the man. When he finished, an old man stepped forward. A man I've known all my life, tall and thin, his frame often bent by extreme age, he stood tall and stepped with his chest out. His shoulders back he lead the gathered mourners in prayer for a fallen veteran. His voice carried strong through the churchyard and echoed back from the rocky hillside and adobe walls. His eyes shone with tears, and his voice, thick with pride, broke only once. Finishing, his frame stiffened further, his starkly blue eyes straight ahead. Behind us in the stillness of the empty hot desert, a tongue wet dry lips. The slow strain of Taps filled the air, perfectly played. I stood stiff as hot tears welled to the music, and beside my old friend's eyes glistened. By the time the bugler had finished, and the honor guard had begun folding the flag, tears had flowed freely down both our cheeks.
As the honor guard marched smartly to the edge of the churchyard, the pallbearers lined up and began to slow move to take up the coffin, and then lower it into the earth. The gray box slid slowly down on the ropes, past the rough edges of the hand-dug grave. As the pallbearers pulled up their ropes and moved away, the mourners began to line up. Each taking a handful of earth from the shovel held by the funeral director, we cast it into the gave. Each handful raising a hollow echo to greet the next as it fell. And then everyone moved back, and the shovels came out. A handful of us handed our hats off to the side, and grabbed the shovels. Sweat pouring, each of us threw our backs into it and shovelful by shovelful gave our friend his rest. A lifetime cannot be buried, but a coffin can be covered and a grave mounded in a remarkable hurry. I stood back at the end, when the dirt was so little as to only require a final shovel to move and neaten and handed my shovel to its original owner. Hot and breathing hard, someone stuck a dripping, cold, Budweiser into my hands. Achingly cold from the cooler full of ice, I rolled it between my palms and across the sides of my neck before opening it. The first sip was cold, wet and perfect. The best beer is sometimes the cheapest, when its that cold and hard earned.
After that we just stood in the churchyard – The living among the dead - Shaking hands, clasping shoulders, and drinking beer.

My faith, my religion, is these things - Hard hands, dusty soil, hand dug graves, flag draped coffins, a bugle slowly aching Taps and the community of others who understand the same. If there is holiness, if anything is sacred, it is there.

Beer for my Gravediggers

That first cold sip of beer
grave dust dry on your lips
is a miracle
payment for doing Gods work
Heaving the soil onto the hallowed emptiness
each shovelful echoing dully
around the small shape inside the box
The emptiness that used to be a man
After that work, a cold beer is something holy
The can sweating, you roll it's unopened coldness
between dry hands and across your neck
It's cheap beer, but cold
you welcome that rushing hiss and the following
long drink of chilly wetness washing away
the parched, dust dry, cotton mouth
of grave-digging in the desert sun
Filled, you look at the mound you've made, higher,
the volume of a box, than the surrounding earth
The women place flowers, and the men stand leaning
on shovel handles, and old men on their sons
The honor guard quietly away, silver piping rippling
glittering across their blues in the coming-noon sun
as they slip off, duty done, strangers as they came
Rough hands at your shoulder, grabbing, squeezing
You smile, nod, shake hands and drink your beer
A man, alive, standing among men
in the little desert churchyard, tens of miles from a town
Grave dust on your hands, covering your boots
a promise