(To read the entire "COIN is Boring” series, please click here.)
Like any good, card-carrying liberal, I love The Daily Show. Though I love it as a whole, I hate it when Jon Stewart rails against the media without ever offering any alternatives.
Watching the show, you’d think the entire media was an endless parade of nonsensical blabber. You’d think that 95% of all Americans got their news from Fox News, CNN or MSNBC, when, at most, only three to five million people watch a cable news channel each night (which is less than 2% of the adult population). Jon Stewart doesn’t hold up other media outlets as beacons of informational enlightenment, never pointing his viewers in the direction of NPR, The PBS Newshour, The New Yorker or The Economist. (Or any number of very intelligently and fairly written blogs, like The Dish or 538.)
In short, he dishes out criticism instead of offering solutions.
Starting On Violence five years ago, Michael C and I came up with an unofficial list of guiding principles: have a take, don’t chase the news, don’t make predictions, and most importantly, “offer solutions”.
If I’m being intellectually honest, so far in my “COIN is Boring” series, I haven’t offered a single solution. I’ve bemoaned video games, board games, cable channels and Hollywood films without discussing what mediums could or have depicted contemporary counter-insurgencies well. Without further ado, COIN media that actually work...or could work:
When a skilled writer has over 200 pages to write about an insurgency, I think they can do the topic justice. Sure, they can’t cover every angle, detail or insurgent group, but they can convey the scope, complexity and emotional feel on an insurgency. Off the top of my head, I’d recommend Dispatches by Michael Herr, The Forever War by Dexter Filkins, Victory Point by Ed Darack or Fiasco by Tom Ricks.
Counterinsurgency is a lot of things in those books; boring is not one of them.
Yeah, it’s a little self serving, but if you want to learn about counterinsurgencies, debate minutia, or read real life true stories, then the blogging world has you covered. Outside of the insanity of conservative milblogs, the blogging world can and does cover COIN very well. Check out our blogroll for a good idea of what to read. (We have a blogroll update coming soon, we promise).
Wait, I haven’t reviewed the new novels about Iraq and Afghanistan yet? Dammit.
That said, if one medium could cover the scope of an insurgency, it’s the novel. A piece of long fiction can show the experience of either a soldier or an insurgent, and the balances that must be maintained among various sides in a conflict. I’m thinking of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s The Ugly American, and, unexpectedly enough, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls as sterling examples. Still, we haven’t seen many novels by soldiers on the current wars yet...
They must have been blogging.
Have no doubt: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are some of the most photographed wars in history. On the one hand, no picture can convey the depths of an insurgency. (You just don’t have the time to cover the scope of an insurgency in one thousand words.) That said, four photographers have won Pulitzers for photography from insurgencies since 9/11. That’s pretty good, in my opinion.
Or watch Syria, Egypt or Tunisia. Citizen photography and citizen reporting defines these civil wars and revolutions. We know about war crimes in Egypt and Syria because of cell phone cameras.
If you look at the last ten years of Academy Award nominees for best documentary, you’ll find one subject more than any other: documentaries about counter-insurgencies, including three films on Iraq (Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, Iraq in Fragments, and My Country, My Country) a film on Afghanistan (Restrepo), two films on the larger politics of Iraq and 9/11 (No End in Sight and Taxi to the Dark Side), and two films on Vietnam (The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers and The Fog of War).
Though I had some issues with Restrepo, I think it offers a blueprint for making a film on a counter-insurgency: follow a group of soldiers or insurgents for an extended period of time.
Unlike fiction films, documentarians feel comfortable depicting the everyday existence of regular people, instead of having the plot lead up to one final, ultimate battle. (For example, Lone Survivor added a final battle that never happened. Oh, and its depiction of counter-insurgencies was abysmal.) Unlike fiction, non-fiction can use the stories of regular people to act as a microcosm for the larger conflict.
Could a film do this? Yes...but that film wouldn’t make money so it won’t get made.
A Cable Series or Miniseries
When I wrote about film and counterinsurgency, I made two points: 1. Films about insurgencies aren’t popular. 2. They don’t have the time.
But what if we gave them more time? I think that could work to depict an insurgency on the (small) screen. This hasn’t been done yet, but I have no doubt that a Wire-esque series on either Iraq, Afghanistan or the mountains of Pakistan could be critically acclaimed, if not popular. (Or as we wrote about last year, a multi-season cable drama about intelligence officials.) I think you could depict, one, two or three sides. In Iraq, watch the inner workings of Sunni and Shiite insurgent groups and the local government and the US military as each group struggles for power. Now that sounds intriguing…
Except The Wire wasn’t popular when HBO first aired it. And this series sounds expensive as hell, filming in a place that looks like Iraq or Afghanistan.
I guess COIN is just expensive.