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Some Influence

So the manuscript for WAKE OF WAR is back with the agent I've been working with and my brain is doing its damnedest to convince me he's gonna throw it in the trash and curse the day he met me. In order to combat this rampant self-doubt, I figured I'd put my brain to better use and talk a little bit about a few of the works that either inspired, influenced or at least occupied my thoughts while I wrote WAKE OF WAR.

I have to start with one of my all-time favorite books, MARKET FORCES by Richard Morgan. In a not-too-distant future investment firms fund small wars across the globe by backing one side over the other in exchange for a share of the country's GDP. Employees of these "conflict investment" firms climb the corporate ladder by battling it out in televised road duels in up-armored cars, to the death of course, because human life isn't worth nearly as much as ratings and profit. The story mostly takes place in London where class disparity is out of control; corporate big-wigs live pampered lives in the cleaner parts of the city while the poor live in squalor in cordoned areas called 'Zones' that are ruled by crime and destitution.

One of the most interesting things about MARKET FORCES is the fact that it has no wild future technology, no space travel or laser guns, no robots or genetically enhanced super soldiers like in Morgan's other books. That's not to say those things aren't awesome, just that this one feels real. Like it could be on the news tomorrow kind of real.The future presented in this book is frighteningly plausible due mostly to the fact that a lot of these scenarios are already playing out in the world right now (minus the totally awesome Mad Max road battles). Of course, war profiteering isn't so openly acknowledged and celebrated in our real world as it is in the book, but lets not kid ourselves, this shit goes on all the time. And the examination of that unpleasant truth brings this one close to home. I love the unavoidable darkness of the story, the realness of it that grips you and forces you to keep reading as the main character, Chris Faulkner, falls deeper and deeper into the narcissistic, dog-eat-dog world of corporate hotshots, and starts to become a rather terrible person in the process. Not every story has a happy ending, nor does it have to. There are some real emotional turns in this one, though, and it's fascinating to watch the glorious train wreck that is the life of Chris Faulkner. Now, some people have a problem with this kind of story. They come into it hoping for an upward arc, some kind of redemption maybe, a good lesson learned by the end. But that's not this book. I mean, there're lessons, but they're for us and not necessarily for the characters in the book. Sort of a cautionary tale, if you will. I love those. And that's exactly what WAKE OF WAR is: a cautionary tale of a terrifyingly plausible future not that far away.

The next thing on the list is not a book but a movie. WALTZ WITH BASHIR, directed by Ari Folman and released in 2008, is an animated documentary about Folman's journey to figure out why he can't remember anything of his experience as a soldier in the Lebanon War in 1982.

[SPOILER WARNING: The story centers around the Sabra and Shatila Massacre that took place in a refugee camp in Beirut when a vengeful militia swept into the camp with orders to root out Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) fighters, but instead murdered thousands of innocent men, women, and children in response to the assassination of Lebanese President Bachir (or Bashir) Gemayel. All this while Israeli Defense Forces (in which Ari Folman served) kept watch around the camp's perimeter. END SPOILER].

This movie is unlike anything I've ever seen. It is nothing less than a knife in the guts. Maybe a hammer. Followed by a brick to the head. But you're conscious the whole time. I first saw it in a 'History Through Film' class I was taking at night (as all of the classes I've taken in adulthood have been). I'll be honest, I didn't always pay attention because most of the films we had to watch were so boring they made me want to shove toothpicks under my fingernails just to feel something. Luckily there were no toothpicks nearby. So the night the professor showed us WALTZ WITH BASHIR I slipped into class, waited for the lights to go off so I could zone out and daydream about whatever story I was writing at time. But then the film started.

And holy shit.

Just watch this opening. The animation drew me right in and the soundtrack...fucking amazing. I've always said that music either makes or breaks a movie and Max Richter's haunting score sets the hooks deep right from the start. As soon as this scene began, the film had my rapt attention. It is not an easy movie to watch; it demands that you give it your full focus and often presents images and themes that stay with you long after it's over. I actually convinced my wife to watch this with me once, and at first she was a bit reluctant (since she doesn't much care for violence and bloodshed and that seems to be all I watch...) but two days later she came up to me and said "You know, I'm still thinking about that movie." It just hits you. Right in the head. With a brick. Made out of reality. Because that's the thing, this movie, although it's animated, is based on Folman and his squad mates' actual experiences in a war that actually happened. You can't just turn the TV off and say "Whew, sure glad that's only fiction."

The movie is about the atrocities human beings commit against other human beings in times of war, and the incredible (see also: insane) ways the mind rationalizes the things one must do in order to preserve some shred of humanity. It plays with the idea of filtering what we see and do and how we store those memories. Any chance I get to recommend this film to people, I do it. So go watch it.

The last one on the list is both a book and an HBO series (no, not that one). Unlike the others on the list, Generation Kill is non-fiction, written by Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright in 2004, about his experience while he was embedded with the Marines of the First Recon Battalion during the invasion of Iraq. The HBO miniseries (watch the preview here) that followed is hands-down the most accurate portrayal of that war in film or television that I have ever seen. It's fast-paced and hard-hitting, loaded with as much profanity, vulgarity, and gallows humor as can be expected from young men who've been primed for violence, given a shit-ton of weapons and ammunition and thrust into a war zone.

After 9/11 and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan there was a flood of modern war documentaries, books, movies, tv shows, etc. The thing that makes this one stand above all is the care they took to make it right. It's painfully accurate. Like I get anxious when I watch this and remember some of that shit. There's not a single moment where I throw my hands up and say "well that's fucking stupid, they'd never do that" (I'm notorious for doing this with military films. I don't mean to be this way, but when they mess up it yanks me right out of the story. I imagine it's the same for medical personnel watching ER or lawyers watching courtroom dramas). It's so accurate, in fact, that I had to translate most of the dialogue in the show for my wife because they spoke in the clipped and confusing dialect of 'military jargon'. Now I wasn't a Recon Marine, I was Army artillery (among mostly other things because that's the Army for you) but this show captures the feel of what it was like to be an American on the front lines in Iraq in those early years. I believe they filmed in Africa, but man, I swear they just dropped right into Baghdad and said "ACTION!".

But it's not a Rambo story. It's not about the might of the American military and how wonderful and caring we all are and how much we just want to help the people of [insert name of country being invaded here]. It's about the people in the trenches, manning the front lines, trying to discern friend from foe, and getting shafted by the (often) insane logistics that bog down any significant (or insignificant) military operation while wondering when it was going to be their turn to eat a bullet. The book and the show dive deep into the psyche of the young men in the First Recon Battalion, showing both the hardened military professionals they were, and the rather normal people they'd once been and hope to be again. They're not invincible warriors, they're fallible human beings. We wouldn't care about the storming of an enemy airfield if we didn't first care about the people leading the charge. It's a must see and read.

Great books and movies linger with us long after the 'The End'. I hope I wrote something with WAKE OF WAR that sticks like these stories have stuck with me. I can't wait for the day when you can read it.

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