The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 148 | The Sequential Art of War: Karl Zinsmeister’s Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq

Leaving Proof 148 | The Sequential Art of War: Karl Zinsmeister’s Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq
Published on Wednesday, September 19, 2012 by
Seven years ago, Marvel Comics published Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq, a graphic novel that met with a fair amount of controversy. How has it aged in the years since its release? Join us as we re-visit the book in our second entry in The Sequential Art of War.

… the United States continues to struggle in its efforts to explain to the world why a global war on terror is necessary. Moreover, US attempts to justify the way it conducts this war have too often been inept.

- James R. Arnold, Jungle of Snakes: A Century of Counterinsurgency Warfare from the Philippines to Iraq

In November of 2004, Marvel Comics announced that it would publish a mini-series written by Karl Zinsmeister entitled Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq. The solicitation was met with some controversy in certain quarters of the comics community, and with arguably good reason. Domestic and international reservations about—if not outright opposition to—the American occupation of Iraq were on a pronounced upswing in light of an American fatality rate that had almost doubled from the previous year despite the assurances of George W. Bush’s 2003 Mission Accomplished speech. Earlier that year, the Taguba Report was released to the public, detailing the appalling physical and sexual abuse of male and female detainees by members of the 800th Military Police Brigade at Abu Ghraib prison, further tarring the American military’s reputation in the region. The shaky contention that Saddam Hussein harbored working weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) had become an international punchline, even spawning its own Google bomb. Seymour Hersh’s series of investigations for The New Yorker revealed one intelligence failure after another that led defense planners and policy-makers to make spurious connections between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks. New reports detailing human rights abuses allegedly committed by Coalition forces battered the popular image of counterinsurgency and stabilization efforts in post-invasion Iraq on what seemed like a monthly basis. Over in Afghanistan, the death of NFL-linebacker-turned-US-Army-Ranger Pat Tillman in just one of many friendly fire incidents and the discovery of the ensuing Department of Defense cover-up of the circumstances of his demise helped strengthen and spread the notion that the Global War on Terror was built on the Big Lie.

The choice of Zinsmeister for the mini-series’ writer raised more than a few eyebrows as well. As comic industry muckraker Rich Johnston noted in the November 8, 2004 edition of Lying in the Gutters

[Zinsmeister is] the editor-in-chief of the American Enterprise Magazine. the in-house magazine of “The American Enterprise Institute” (AEI). The AEI is a neo-conservative think tank, with strong ties to the oil industry and the White House, and one of the most important architects of President Bush’s current foreign policy. Famous members include Richard Perle, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, ExxonMobile’s CEO Lee Raymond and the Vice-President’s wife Lynne Cheney.

In a subsequent edition of Lying in the Gutters, Johnston jokingly referred to Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq as a “New Marvel Comic On Iraq From Someone Who Helped Start The War In The First Place!”

A listing for the first issue allegedly appeared in a Diamond Comics Distributors shipping list dated for January 2005, and then again in March. No official reasons were given by Marvel for the first issue’s release getting delayed, although comic book forums bandied about rumors of disappointingly low pre-order numbers and Marvel’s difficulty in finding an artist willing to work on the book. Promotion for the mini-series was practically non-existent, with Zinsmeister declining a phone interview offer from The Guardian newspaper to discuss his comic book work and Marvel curiously not running house ads for the previously solicited title in their publications. Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq quietly made it out to shops in July of 2005 as a 120-page graphic novel comprising five chapters, the publisher seemingly having decided that drawing it out as a five-issue, monthly mini-series was not the best idea.

Defeating an enemy on the battlefield and winning a war are rarely synonymous.

- Hy Rothstein COL, US Army (ret.), as quoted in Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib

Understandably, Zinsmeister devotes much of Combat Zone to showing the extent to which American soldiers follow their rules of engagement, repeatedly driving home the point that they do their best to avoid civilian and friendly-fire casualties, even at the risk of increasing the danger to themselves in the process:

One of the core messages of the book is that US troops “play by the rules” of conventional warfare, combining tactical excellence, speedy maneuvering at the division level, and technological and logistical superiority to great effect against an opponent who has no compunctions about fighting dirty, using civilians as human shields and employing people’s homes and crowded public structures as cover:

These are all fair portrayals on Zinsmeister’s part, and any suggestion that these scenes are excessively skewed to serve a propagandist’s agenda is in direct denial of certain salient facts as they were known at the time. In its inexorable march to Baghdad, the Coalition did indeed make relatively quick work of the vastly outgunned and outclassed Republican Guard and Fedayeen Saddam units defending southern Iraq—and those forces did have an established history of placing military installations and command-and-control posts in civilian population centers as a means of deterring attack. The disappointing reports of Coalition friendly fire incidents and abuses against Iraqi civilians aside, there is every indication that the vast majority of the military men and women who served in Iraq were committed to completing their mission with the utmost professionalism while respecting the welfare and human rights of the local civilian populace.

But just as important as what was shown in Combat Zone was what went unmentioned in the book. For all of the success of the Coalition’s rapid advance to Baghdad that saw leading invasion elements like the Marine Corps’ First Reconnaissance Battalion smashing through and blitzing past Iraqi defenses, there were doubts within the Coalition about the soundness of the immediate post-invasion strategy and its ability to effect a smooth transition to post-Saddam governance. First Recon Battalion commanding officer LtCol Stephen A. Ferrando confided to embedded journalist Evan Wright—author of Generation Kill—that the decision to power through southern Iraq with an overwhelming show of force without immediately putting in place sufficient personnel to preserve civil order in those areas would “create in the minds of the civilians more mistrust and uncertainty of our intentions.” Retired US Army Special Forces officer and current Naval Postgraduate School professor Hy Rothstein, one of the world’s leading experts in counterinsurgency and unconventional warfare, later said that a misplaced institutional emphasis on conventional quantitative measures of “victory” (such as enemy casualty counts and miles advanced into hostile territory) devalued and undermined efforts to bolster qualitative considerations of stability and local support. As writer David Donovan (the pen name of scientist Terry T. Turner)—a former MACV Advisory Team officer who briefly advised then-Lieutenant General David Petraeus on counterinsurgency matters in 2006—opined in a recent article analyzing the impact of Coalition strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan

… large US units, simply because of their size and American nature, can perturb a local culture and make friends into enemies without really meaning to.

At a time when the public-at-large had increasing doubts about the aptitude and true intentions of the Global War on Terror’s planners and backers, a more candid, nuanced, and incisive graphic novel no less supportive of Coalition personnel and goals would have probably been better received by the comics community than Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq, which turned out to be a competent but ultimately sapless exercise in graphic novel puffery with all the depth of an Army recruitment poster.

All warfare is based on deception.

- Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Much of the criticism lobbed against Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq in the lead-up to and at the time of its publication can be boiled down to the argument that it was nothing more than a bald-faced attempt at propaganda written by a hawkish pundit targeting the American public, a countermove to the reportage that cast a particularly bad light on how the administration was conducting the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. To many of its detractors, Combat Zone was just another puff piece meant to deflect criticism of the administration’s handling of the occupation of Iraq, a graphic novel extension of the multimedia apparatus the administration used to broadcast its justifications for invading Iraq despite contention over its merit under international law and awarding itself far-reaching powers that could be used to override Americans’ civil liberties in the name of national security.

But the reality of contemporary warfare isn’t so simple. Propaganda plays an important strategic role in what noted military historian James R. Arnold refers to as the information war at the heart of the Global War on Terror. A government can justify propaganda and even outright deception to “sell” a just war to its constituents, if such measures increase the likelihood of victory and reduce the potential for further loss of life.

Ultimately though, the disputable legal foundations of the Iraq invasion, a costly period of post-invasion reconstruction, and legitimate questions about whether or not the United States and the rest of the world are actually safer from the threat of terrorism after the invasion of Iraq—the recently declassified April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate concluded that US military operations in Iraq directly contribute to the spread of Islamic radicalism—continue to color my assessment of Karl Zinsmeister’s Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq, seven years after its release.

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