Friday, April 29, 2011
Old Trade Review: Garth Ennis' 303
Garth Ennis' 303 is one of those books that I really like but also really pisses me off. On the one hand it's full of Ennis' signature punchy dialogue, terse, effective narrative voice and fucking brutal violence. I love all that shit. Garth Ennis is one of my top ten comic book writers, mostly for his work on Punisher: Max. But I think he makes some major missteps here.
I'm going to spoil this book, so be warned.
The basic plot is like this: there's a Spetsnaz team walking through the Afghan highlands, heading towards the site of a crashed American plane. They don't really know what's in the crash, but they know that everyone else wants it. Ignore the fact that it's completely unrealistic for a Spetsnaz team to be in Afghanistan since they aren't part of the Coalition forces there - let's assume they're just that good, that they can slip into the country without the Brits or us noticing. See, I'm willing to suspend some disbelief here. Anyway, the commanding officer is some old, grizzled Soviet relic who's an incredible shot with pretty much any kind of firearm and has killed countless people with steely resolve. He's haunted by the ghosts of those he's killed, which is supposed to give him some humanity, or something. Some shit happens with some pussy young Spetsnaz soldiers, I guess to show that soldiers in general ain't who they used to be, blah blah. Except the SAS of course. There's an SAS brick going to check out the crash, but they don't show up right away. When they do they're clearly tits on glass, cracking wise, admiring the Russians while still being very British and infinitely competent soldiers. Then there are some Apache gunships heading to the crash from the nearest FOB or whatever. Eventually everyone meets up at the crash site, and a bunch of bloodshed goes down. The old Russian Colonel is the only survivor (of course), and finds what everyone wants to grab at the crash site. It's some recording and papers that implicate a high-level corporate bad guy who's a crony of the President of some sort. The details don't really matter. The point is that good men's lives are being wasted just to protect some asshole corporate fat cat just so the Administration won't look bad. The Colonel all reflective as he leaves the site of battle. He realizes that he really needs to kill somebody special. He picks up the old .303-caliber Lee-Enfield rifle (the titular "303," of course), which is a British rifle, and starts walking out of Afghanistan. He eventually gets to America and a bunch of shit happens with Mexican immigrants and fat American industrialists, which I'm not going to talk about because I don't really care, and then he eventually assassinates the President of the United States. With the only round for the Lee-Enfield that he carried with him all the way from Afghanistan. From something like 1000 meters with iron sights. Yeah. Seriously.
I get his whole thing with Russian soldiers. It shows through in my favorite Punisher: Max arc, "Man of Stone." It's not a coincidence that both of these stories are set in Afghanistan and involve aging, badass ex-Soviet officers. There's definitely an appeal to the Cold Warriors on the other side of the Iron Curtain - especially when they're apolitical, super-fucking-tough commandos with giant brass balls. These guys aren't in it for any Collective and probably don't even know what the 5-Year Plan was. They just fight for Mother Russia because they really think of their country that way. I can admire that, because I see the United States the same way. I'm not here to talk about politics, those of my government or my own, though.
The American soldiers, on the other hand, they only come into this story briefly. You see a few B1 bombers carpet bombing some civilians, and the Apache pilots who kill the SAS boys. So they're all evil, ruthless bastards who only kill from safely in the air. Obviously that's going to piss me off, being a US Army Infantry Captain who's in Afghanistan as I type this. Now, I'm not saying unequivically that we've never done anything like that in this country, especially because it's portrayed as a black-ops thing and I wouldn't know anything about that. But I'm saying that I highly doubt it. We've done some things over here, sure, shit we probably shouldn't have, but right now I can say that we are 100% focused on the Afghan people and their government. Our Rules of Engagement are insane and sometimes dudes end up getting blown up because they're afraid of shooting a local who they pretty much know is bad and has a suicide vest under his mandress. My Battalion's main focus is "partnership," meaning developing the Afghan National Army and Police. And that shit's for real, this isn't some feel-good Fox News story about our boys helping build a school. We help train the ANA and ANP, help them get better at securing their own people, try to root out corruption, all that. We're mostly past the door-kicking shit these days. There's a lot of shooting ranges, driving school, generator maintenance classes, drinking chai with the locals and teaching Afghan military and police officers how to run this shit properly.
But what about the Russians? When the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan from December '79 to February of '89, they killed unarmed civilians all the fucking time. The Soviets weren't there to develop the Afghan government and military so they can take care of themselves, they were there to subjugate and annex the country. And I think we can all agree that's a bad thing. Estimates of Afghan deaths range from 1 to 2 million. And 5-10 million Afghans fled their homeland to Iran and Pakistan. That was one third of the national population at the time. I've seen old videos of Mi-24 gunships doing strafing runs on Afghan villages, just straight wasting women and children with 5000 rounds per minute of 12.7mm FMJ. So why are the Russians shown as being the stoic, "just fighting for their country" soldiers and the Americans are evil, ugly, heartless bastards? That's what pisses me off, it's like Ennis was just ignoring all the history that I know he's aware of. All you have to do is read the massacre flashback scene in "Man of Stone" to see that Ennis knows the Russians did that shit.
The scene with the Apache pilots is also just shitty writing - a clear case of not doing the research. Usually you can tell how much Ennis reads up on a subject before writing about it. But this time, I don't think he did. The scene goes down like this: the aforementioned SAS team finds the crashed plane that everyone is looking for first. The Spetsnaz team shows up not long after and the SAS masterfully outfight them, killing all but the old Colonel. The Colonel hides behind some rocks and takes out a few SAS guys before the Apaches show up. When they do, they hover in full view of two SAS operators - clearly friendlies - and open fire anyway, shredding both the good British Boys. Believing that everyone is dead after a few strafing runs, the Apaches land near the crashed plane and get out to look around. This is when the Colonel and the SAS team leader kill the Apache pilots. Anybody who knows anything about US Army doctrine and especially about aviators could immediately point out how very, very ridiculous this is. First of all, Apaches engage targets from as far away as possible. They would have been looking at the SAS operators through forward-looking infrared scopes from hundreds of meters away, and then shred them from that distant. Even worse, Apache pilots dont ever land anywhere outside the wire. Kiowas do that sometimes, and they also kill people from close range, so he could have used OH-58 pilots for this scene and I would have almost believed it. But even if he did, you're really going to tell me that a US Army pilot is going to look a couple of British SAS guys in the eye and then waste them from fifty meters away? No way. Friendly fire happens, sure, and sometimes it might not be accidental, but those are cases of personal vengeance and shit like that. No American soldier is just going to cold-bloodedly murder friendly soldiers, and especially not the British. Yeah, us and the Brits talk plenty of shit to and about each other. But when it comes right down to it there isn't another military that we have a better relationship, or more admiration for. Maybe the IDF, but nobody else. I don't care what special, black-bag, evil, snake-and-baby-eating unit those pilots were from, but I just can't buy them doing what they did in that scene. And the only black-ops aviators out there are the 160th SOAR, who don't even have Apaches anyway. Or Kiowas, for that matter. Didn't Ennis watch Blackhawk Down?
Then there's the Presidential assassination. Okay, I can cosign the whole long-range iron-sights shooting to show how old-school and skilled the Colonel is. But what the fuck does assassinating him even do? It sure as hell won't stop the War on Terror. We elected Barak Obama for that and he's only sent more troops to Afghanistan. Ennis kind of acknowledges that at the end, but then what the fuck's the point?
Ultimately, I feel like Garth Ennis shoehorned American soldiers into a villain role that my brothers don't deserve or fit, and he threw in an assassination of a President that has to be George W. Bush as an obvious and almost grotesquely childish fantasy kill. It reads like sloppy writing, and I can't stand that. He's really better than that.