Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Rogue One: A Veteran's Star Wars Story

"Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" isn't a perfect movie and it fails to have the emotional impact of Empire Strikes Back, but it's close to beating it for the position of my favorite Star Wars film. The main reason why: I believe it has an esoteric nature meant to be appreciated by war veterans like myself.

While "Episode VII: The Force Awakens" attempts to capture a new generation of Star Wars fans, "Rogue One" treats older fans to a gritty, militaristic take on the franchise where the lead characters are more morally ambiguous. Protagonist Rebel Intelligence Officer Cassian Andor murders his source in order to evade capture. Partisans engage enemy Imperial forces in an urban environment, creating great collateral damage to buildings and putting innocent civilians at risk. As a war veteran and lifelong Star Wars fan, I appreciate this more nuanced view of war over the righteous fantasy storytelling of past Star Wars films. In some ways, I can relate to its story because I've lived it.

A few lines of dialog throughout the film resonate with me:

"We don't all have the luxury of deciding when and where we want to care about something. Suddenly the Rebellion is real for you. Some of us live it... Some of us just decided to do something about it."

I feel the frustration conveyed in this line of dialogue every day when I see people on Facebook cry about the war in Syria and Iraq or debate Counter Terrorism policies. There's nothing more annoying than someone who swears righteousness with zero experience and nothing to lose. I have dedicated my entire 20s to the Global War on Terror. I don't have the convenience to care whenever the war happens to make headlines again. Veterans also understand what how hard it is to take action. Over the last few years I've seen many posts on social media about the need to help refugees coming from the Middle East and Central Asia. But few people I know have taken action. Being a former soldier, I know that people live and die by action or the lack of. I dedicated the last six months in the army to getting the Afghan interpreter I served with to the United States. As Afghanistan's security situation worsens, those who helped Afghan and US government forces, like interpreters, become prime targets of the Taliban. My efforts to research, edit, and resubmit the interpreter's application to the State Department are close to being rewarded. He's in the final stages of receiving a Special Immigration Visa for himself and his wife and 10 month old daughter.  

"Some of us... most of us... we've all done terrible things for the Rebellion... Everything I did, I did for the Rebellion. And every time I walked away from something I wanted to forget, I told myself it was for a cause that I believed in. A cause that was worth it. Without that we're lost. Everything we've done would have been for nothing."

A lot of veterans can relate to this quote by Rebel Intelligence Captain Cassian Andor. Even if we weren't combat arms troops (I wasn't), there are many ways we carry the weight of responsibility for the violence that occurs in war. While I can't fully disclose my own activities in the War on Terror, I know that I've made decisions and have taken part in processes that resulted in the loss of human life. I've had to rationalize these processes by assessing their end state so that my decisions aren't something I regret. Your common Star Wars fan, especially those who are children, don't likely have the same life experiences.

"I couldn't face myself if I gave up now. None of us could."

Despite its darker tone, Rogue One is still a story about hope against great odds. In the real world, the war in Afghanistan is such a fight against odds that warrants our hope. We can't give up now. US presence in Afghanistan allows for a secure situation for Afghanistan's democratic government to survive against the influence and pressure of Sunni extremist groups like the Taliban and ISIS. US involvement in Afghanistan has caused the country's literacy and education rate to skyrocket, especially for girls. Secular schools now exist there unlike before. Still, the Taliban has a strong hold in the country, interwoven with the local population over decades. The local population sways, betting on which side they think will win. The US civilian population and jaded veterans alike are skeptical of a positive outcome, but I believe we need to keep fighting. I believe there is still hope.

By the way, I'm fully aware of the irony in that the US closer resembles the film's depiction of the antagonist Empire rather than the heroic Rebels.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Mist Misses Reality

Over the last two weeks, I've seen Americans come together amidst adversity in Texas following Hurricane Harvey. This is a region often stereotyped by controversial politics, racial tension, and people owning a lot of guns. But for a solid week, there was good news about everyday people helping out their neighbors regardless of race or faith.

This is why I think Netflix's "The Mist" is complete bullshit. Drawing from a steady stream of tired post-apocalypse tropes, the nihilistic drama just doesn't hold up in light of reality. In Houston, people were stuck in their homes waist deep in water for two to three days without reports of mass violence. However, characters in "the Mist" quickly resort to murder and religious zealotry after a day or two in the relative safety of a church and shopping mall.

The truth is that Americans aren't the easily triggered, quick-to-violence maniacs the media would like to have us believe. The writing simply needs to try harder and explore new terrotory. What happens when reasonable plans fail repeatedly due to conditions outside of their control? What about the possibility of a character's faith actually inspiring acts of good?

Also, the writing is simply garbage. The characters act not only illogically, but also inconsistently to their personalities. For example, the supposedly rational and caring protagonist decides to mercifully release a strange woman from a jail cell as the Mist appraoches. But he continues to trust her after she shoots a badly injured neighbor who tackles him, crying for help. Nevermind that he has probably known this neighbor for years and that the guy was clearly distraught and seeking help.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Comic-ally Bad Love Lives

by Hugh Pham

The lack of content romantic relationships in superhero comics is quite possibly a metaphor for America's professionally-minded society. How many superheroes have successful, emotionally fulfilling relationships in comics and film? Despite their many talents and extraordinary abilities, many seem to end up bitter and alone. I see the same for many personal acquaintances who are devoted to their professions and it is not occurring to me that there might be a connection.

Superheroes have unique, demanding career paths that are un-relatable to many ordinary people. I witnessed similar relationships while in the military. Many relationships in the military struggle because the service member is constantly called on deployment, other duties in garrison, or mentally suffering from the innate hazards of the profession.

Look at Batman, the World's Greatest Detective. The original writers must have thought that there is not logical way for someone so focused on his training and quests to have a functional love life. So what would a single person of means do as they progress in life and age? Adopt a sidekick. And almost comically similar to real life single adults who adopt, there was much speculation into the Batman's sexuality by readers and critics. More recent Batman comics have given him an estranged biological son, but I'm not aware of any imaging of the character with a traditional family.

Not to fear, there are exceptions. One of the most successful relationships in comics is the interracial couple of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. To two characters both work together and embark on their own missions in both film and on page. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are partners both pursuing the same career so there's a mutual understanding of the duties and requirements of the job. How important is this to real relationships? I honestly don't know, but I'm wiling to do more research on it. Conversely, plenty of people have spouses in the same profession, only to find that relationship ending like any other.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe also glimpsed over another successful relationship in Avengers: Age of Ultron. It is revealed in that film that the character Hawkeye has a normal wife and kids living out in the country, almost wholly removed from his life as an Avenger. I'm no marriage counselor, so I'm only going to speculate why these examples work and how they might correspond to the real world. There's likely a large degree of trust, understanding, and respect that allows this relationship to be successful.

There is also the possibility that the issue behind the lacking love lives is a particular mindset founded upon personal ego. Superheroes may find themselves so devoted to their cause that they are unwilling to place priority on the feelings and needs of a particular individual. This would leave any partner to feel unwanted, unfulfilled, and unloved. We working professionals have dedicated so much of our time towards developing skills and pursuing promotions as if "leveling up" in a game. This might make us superheroes in our own minds, which may be a cool thought at first. However, I doubt we've thought much about the consequences on how that would leave us in the end.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Hanging Up the Suit

by Hugh Pham

I've thought about displaying my Army uniform and plate carrier on a mannequin in my apartment. I used to call it my Superhero Suit. Was there a better way to describe it when you're 11 years old? The sleek lines, the colors, the Red White Blue emblem on the shoulder that represented hope... And for a while I wore it. I earned it.

Why do comics and movies rarely show the internal struggle a superhero has with his or her uniform? Has one ever questioned, "Do I deserve this?" Has a hero ever been told by his caped peers, "You don't belong in this business. You don't belong in this suit." I often struggled with these questions as a military man. My eccentricities and passion for things like writing sometimes had peers and superiors questioning my commitment to the profession. One Captain asked me, "Isn't there something else you'd rather be doing?"

"I want to serve my country, sir. I believe in our mission down to my bones and that's more than a lot can say," I told him.

In the Dark Knight Rises, the film starts at a point where Bruce Wayne has already hung up the cowl for eight years, the price he pays for peace in Gotham City. What did he do in the eight years between films? He didn't move on. Is it possible to? It's an interesting dilemma, to go from a purposeful mission and then transition to being a normal citizen. His butler and friend Alfred believes his return to crime fighting was a death wish. How much of that is true for those of us who continue to wear a uniform?

My transition mirrors the journey of another character in one of my favorite graphic novels. The character Dan Dreiberg in the graphic novel Watchmen is a former costumed hero called Nite Owl, forced into early retirement by government policies. At first it appears he has taken well to being a normal citizen. When meeting with another former crime fighter, he says, "Y'know, this must be how ordinary people feel. This must be how ordinary people feel around us." Reading Watchmen, I came to an epiphany: a suit doesn't hide an identity for the hero's safety or the safety of his or her loved ones; a suit builds an identity for the one wearing it. Later in the book, Dreiberg admits to the feeling of powerlessness in being an ordinary individual in a world so bent on tearing itself apart. "I'm tired of being afraid, afraid of war, afraid of the mask-killer... and afraid of this goddamn suit, and how much I need it."

Monday, May 9, 2016

Lieutenant America

by Hugh Pham

I remember trying to hold back tears as I watched Captain America: the First Avenger in the theater. I was a brand new Second Lieutenant then. A lot of Soldiers and Officers have felt a connection to the patriotic superhero over the years, but I feel I have always understood the character more than most. In the first twenty minutes of the film, I didn't just relate to Captain America, but to his shrimpy alter-ego Steve Rogers, repeatedly turned away when attempting to enlist during World War II. This is a character that I have related to physically, morally, and through my career as a US Army Officer.

At 5'2, I knew what it was like to want to do the right thing but have people doubt you due to your stature. I also understood the personal insecurities that come from girls passing you over for taller, stronger men. I tried not to get emotional watching Steve Rogers lag behind in a running formation, stumble through an obstacle course, and resort to using personal bravery, determination, and his intelligence to succeed. There's a crushing feeling you get when you do your hardest and you look over to see how damn easy it is for the guy next to you. It's a shadow hanging over you when you know that your gear and many facilities literally were not made for you. Unlike Steve, there was no Super Soldier Serum for me. I had to earn my commission through grit. I can't honestly say I was ever the best, but did try to be and I can honestly say I earned it.

What probably draws people to Captain America the most is his unwavering sense of morality and humility. Every ethically charged bit of dialogue can easily come off as cheesy, but people buy it because it touches a part of us that wants to believe people can be good and pure in the face of evil. When Steve was quizzically asked if he wanted to enlist in order to kill Nazis, he replied, "I don't want to kill anyone. I just don't like bullies; I don't care where they're from." I want to believe that's why people join the military, motivated by a sense of good rather than the urge to do harm to another human being. I often held this quote as a moral compass in Afghanistan. I wasn't there to kill Muslims or even Taliban. I was simply there hoping that bad things would happen to bad people and that good things would happen to good people. Steve Roger's humility is also a magnificent characteristic that remained unchanged well into his career as Captain America and leader of the Howling Commandos. Despite however many people held him up as a symbol of hope, he was always "just a kid from Brooklyn." My short career was honestly unremarkable. In my final farewell speech marking the end of my career I said, "However you spin it, I'm just a guy who loved his country and wanted to serve it in a time of war."

What made seeing the most recent film Captain America: Civil War personally hard was seeing Steve Roger's career mirror my own in a conflict between idealism and the reality of modern military policy. It is it coincidental that I saw the first film at the beginning of my career and this most recent just days after becoming a civilian. I won't say either of us became disillusioned, but his journey did mirror my own frustrations in dealing with overbearing accountability, the felt influence of higher echelons, all while ensuring the well-fare of those under my leadership. We both did what we felt was right. We had to made tough choices in little time. In the end, we both had someone we trusted and respected tell us, "You're not fit to wear that shield."

From here on out things will be tough for both us. Steve Rogers is no longer Captain America. I'm no longer a Lieutenant. We might get a chance to keep fighting the wars around us, but maybe not. The path ahead is unclear. What's important is that we are in the end who we were when we started: a good man.    

Monday, April 11, 2016

Can the Punisher Fight Veteran Suicide?

by Hugh Pham

When I was a Platoon Leader, I wasn't just an Army Officer, but also a social worker. I had Soldiers dealing with marital stress, domestic violence, illness, depression, parenthood, drugs, and financial issues. As a leader, it was my job to be empathetic and direct them to the proper experts and resources.

Marvel's Daredevil on Netflix introduced Frank Castle the Punisher this season. Specifically, they introduced former Lieutenant Frank Castle. I was also a Lieutenant when I led a platoon of 21 Soldiers. While the show focuses on Frank Castle as a lone wolf hunting for vengeance, it neglects to tell of his likely past as a leader, a leader that can serve an important purpose on screen and off screen. Suicide is a major issue for today's US military veterans. A recent article by the LA Times cited a study that concluded military veterans have a rough 50% higher suicide rate than other civilians.

So how can a fictional comic book character help? The Punisher has resonated and served as an important symbol to fans in the US military for years. For example, the famed American Sniper author Chris Kyle's SEAL platoon famously painted Punisher skull logos on their body armor and vehicles. Punisher skull logo Velcro patches are also a popular morale item seen on uniforms and tactical gear. Actor Jon Bernthal knows this. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the actor acknowledged, "People go into battle for our country with the Punisher logo on their equipment, their body armor, their vehicles, and they die for their country with that logo on them. There's no words for how much that means to me."

The Punisher isn't an un-relatable superman, but rather a person, a fellow warrior who has shared the same experiences of many veterans. In a recent article, American Geek Blog wrote about a very realistic career path to obtain the same kind of training possessed by Frank Castle. Furthermore, while he doesn't have PTSD, he understands it. Regardless of whatever specialty we held in the military, he's one of us. To us, he represents what it means to live with a purpose and mission, carrying it out without the aid of the supernatural abilities possessed by many other comic book heroes. He is powered by sheer will and the strength of belief.

A possible way forward for Marvel is to depict the Punisher as a leader in its rumored spin-off. This can give the audience a glimpse into a more empathic side of the character. Make him a leader of a small team, providing mentorship to other veterans joining his crusade against crime. Some of these new comrades may be struggling with PTSD or suicidal ideations. This can illustrate the message that leaders need to be perceptive and caring, while service members with PTSD do not need to suffer alone. Teamwork is a key tenant of the warrior profession and this dynamic in a show will surely resonate with veterans.

Having the Punisher tackle an important social issue is in keeping with the Marvel fare currently offered on Netflix. Daredevil Season 1 place gentrification at the forefront, while Jessica Jones brought awareness to sexual trauma. Daredevil Season 2, however, was lacking in terms of offering perspective on an important social issue. Not many average Americans are conscious enough to feel the impacts of organized crime. I sincerely hope that if Marvel pursues a Punisher spin-off, it will give this very human character the mission to put an end to veteran suicide.       

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Diagnosing the Punisher

by Hugh Pham

I am so damn glad they didn't make Frank Castle a character suffering from PTSD in Marvel's second season of Daredevil on Netflix. I can imagine some asshole proposing the idea at a long table surrounded by directors, writers, and producers. I want to shake the hand of whoever shut that person down.

SPOILER WARNING: In the show, Frank Castle AKA the Punisher is put on trial after being caught and is accused of murdering over 30 gangsters of various flavors.  His representation, our protagonists' law firm Nelson and Murdock considers using Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a defense. Frank is quick to say, "It's an insult. ...It's an insult to them, people who are actually going through it. I know what you wanna do, you wanna sit here and label me just another case of some crazy-ass combat vet who lost his mind, huh?" He might has well have been talking to all of Hollywood.

It's true. It's an insult to evoke PTSD in a comic book character. Hell, there's enough groaning in the actual military about veterans who falsely claim PTSD for an early discharge or the VA benefits. PTSD is a serious issue. Anyone who wants to depict it needs to do it right (for the right reasons) and so far no veteran I know can name a film that has done so.

By avoiding a PTSD diagnosis, Frank Castle is also empowered as a character by being allowed to consciously choose the violent path he is on. It creates a more interesting story when a character sanely makes morally ambiguous decisions. Characters who are driven by an ailment can be interesting, but their biggest fallacy is that they are denied choice when presented with a predicament. Should they stray from their established inclinations, then the character is ruined by inconsistency.