December 2007

Jeff VanderMeer


It's a Shooting War

The Iraq War, and the context surrounding it -- from the curtailment of civil liberties in the United States and the United Kingdom to the through-the-looking-glass insane discussion of torture by a sitting president, from the continued slaughter of Iraqi citizens to the emotional and physical brutalization (by and) of American troops -- has an element of satire and sad, even bitter, absurdism that can make a writer of fiction freeze up. How in the hell can you treat the situation with the necessary savagery, respect, contempt, and intelligence? How do you avoid lapsing into two-dimensional stereotype? How do you convey the complexity?

Anthony Lappé and Dan Goldman's online comic Shooting War, now available in a quietly stunning graphic novel format, tries and often brilliantly succeeds in conveying a sense of the absurdity of the current conflict. They do it by focusing on the news coverage and on the situation on the ground -- and by moving the action a few years into the future. This allows for extrapolation that should slap most readers out of the complacency caused by enduring not just five-plus years of war, but five-plus years of often repellent and knee-jerk news coverage. Sometimes, for the observer, being buffeted by continual waves of propaganda and views of the world that seem narrow enough to fit through the eye of a needle can be as corrosive as any bombardment of images of burning cars and bloody bodies.

In Lappé and Goldman's Iraq, the center has not held and factions run roughshod over the ambitions of the U.S. military remaining in the country. Robotic weapons innovations form a counterpoint to the tried-and-true methods of the insurgents, as reported on by left-wing blogger Jimmy Burns. Thrust into the spotlight by an accident of deadly timing, Burns enters Iraq as the media's latest phenom. The only problem is that he has to keep getting the sensationalistic stories and images for media outlets that have become ever more rapacious for shock and awe.

The style of Shooting War, which mixes illustration with photographs, blurs the lines between fantasy and reality in much the same way as media coverage of the war has created a "truthiness" that isn't really truth at all. Using a photograph of George W. Bush in a panel is much more effective, for example, than some artist's rendering. The combination of a regular narrative with news coverage helps vary the tone and effect of Shooting War, as well.

But, in the end, the success of Shooting War comes down to its protagonist. Burns isn't the most sympathetic character ever, and in making him morally ambiguous, in putting him into contact with Muslim extremists, ordinary Iraqis, military glory hounds, and other representative groups, Lappé and Goldman operate from a context complex enough for Shooting War to serve not just as incendiary and necessary but as something with more depth than didacticism. It's unlikely Shooting War will change anyone's mind about the war, but it might clear from at least a few minds the rhetoric of righteousness and hypocrisy. At the very least -- and this is the least of the things Shooting War does best -- it's an entertaining and provocative war correspondent story. Because reading this for the entertainment value is a little like a right-winger rocking out to early U2.
Shooting War by Anthony Lappé & Dan Goldman
Grand Central Publishing
ISBN 978-0-446-58120-2
192 pages

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