Thursday, August 18, 2005

Catching up on "Over There"

Monday I finished reading John Crawford's "The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell." It's a quick, real, and compelling read -- Crawford writes from his position as a junior enlisted infantryman, pulled from his honeymoon and just two credits short of his bachelor's degree into the invasion of Iraq, where he and his Florida National Guard unit stayed for more than a year, jumping from one division to the next.

I'm sure Crawford's book will be subject to some derision when it's given a look-see by the conservative blogosphere, but I think the book should be taken for what it is, and in that context, it's got a lot of merits.

Crawford doesn't write about the reasons the United States is in Iraq. He doesn't talk about the "big picture" or the greater purpose for which soldiers are fighting there. In his book, he writes about the visceral experiences that soldiers go through.

Part of that, of course, is the horror of warfare -- the blood, gore, and fear. But it's been said that war is interminable periods of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror, and many of Crawford's thoughts revolve around the former.

Soldiers, after all, are simply people, and to deny Crawford's characters the defects and mistakes they make during his narrative is to blind oneself to the failings of the flesh experienced by young men everywhere in our society. The soldiers barter for cheap Iraqi whiskey with the natives, and Crawford himself enjoys handfuls of Valium to keep his nerves from fraying during long guard stretches.

He's resentful toward officers, who, from his standpoint, seem to be distanced from the actual doings of the war and more interested in submitting recommendations for awards -- usually for themselves. This is probably not completely accurate, but anyone who's been around a lot of junior enlisted guys will probably be able to confirm the latent hostility toward just about anyone who's paid more. I certainly can. As a junior enlisted guy myself, I'll admit to have done my own fair share of bitching.

At any rate, I'd recommend Crawford's book, not as a commentary on this war, but as a memoir of any war. It's one man's experiences in a war, and the anecdotes that make up the book range from hilarious to horrifying. All are very well-written.

Now, in the name of research, I figured out a way to see the episodes of the FX Network's war-drama "Over There." When the show premiered, I wrote a post responding to several comments left on Blackfive's blog -- but I hadn't had a chance to actually see the show's pilot.

I've caught up now, including last night's episode, and I think I know what the show's about.

"Over There" does indeed take a lot of missteps in its pilot -- military members must have been appalled at the technical glitches, such as the usage of ranks and names in radio communication, the Huey helicopter (I guess the Army isn't letting anyone other than Ridley Scott use Blackhawks) for the MEDEVAC, etc.

The characters were almost cartoonishly stereotypical, particularly "Sergeant Scream," the salty NCO who yells all the time and is permanently pissed since he's been extended 90 days to watch over a squad of "virgins," the clueless lieutenant who's far too attached to the letter of the law, and most amazingly, "Pfc. Smoke," the rebellious black street punk who constantly damns "whitey" and seems as if he was lifted directly out of the phony and forced racial conflict of "Hamburger Hill."

And the premise of the program, as it's progressed, is rather simplistic. The show focuses on various missions, which provide action in the form of gun battles, explosions, death, and destruction, and in the context of these missions the audience gets to see some of the "moral dilemmas" supposedly facing soldiers in war.

The good news is that the soldiers aren't evil. The worst of the lead characters is probably "Smoke," with the rest ranging from gung-ho to fatalistic. Most seem to have a vague sense of pride in what they're ultimately doing, even if given opportunity to question it in the face of the horrors they're witness to.

Here again you'll see the distrust between officer and enlisted -- in one ridiculous example from last night, a general wants the squad to find a mortar spotter in a village so he can move a convoy of container trucks through the town. They're carrying the American Standard toilets he says he needs, and he's willing to put men into a position where they have to "draw fire" to accomplish this.

Whatever tension actually exists between real-life enlisted soldiers and officers, it's played up to Wile E. Coyote levels in some places in "Over There."

The acting is a mixed bag. Sergeant Scream seems to hit his stride by episode three, Dim's freakout at the roadblock in episode two is enough to ruin any suspension of disbelief, and Smoke's still Smoke.

The theme song "Over There" is a study in the underwhelming, and I couldn't help but wonder if they'd deliberately tried to rip off M*A*S*H's "Suicide is Painless."

All the same, I'm interested in where they'll go with the series. It may be one of those shows where it takes them some time to strike a balance between drama and accuracy, but it's piqued my interest enough to keep watching, despite its gaffes.


UPDATE: Check out the Mudville Gazette's Dawn Patrol for a great roundup of military news.
UPDATE: Blackfive's got more on fictionalizing the war in Iraq.
UPDATE: Open Post at the Indepundit.