A "System" of Torture?: 'DMZ's' Argument Through Comment, and Comics

Dominic Umile

Brian Wood's DMZ is a work of extremes, but its parallels to our real-life "civil liberties crackdown" are integral to the story.

A loss of freedom of speech, a central theme in Channel Zero, used to be the worst thing your government could do to you. It was an almost unspeakable crime. Now, of course, our government can arrest, torture, and imprison you for no crime whatsoever.

-- Brian Wood, 2011

When you're nearly certain that things are turning a corner, that they've got a strong chance of improving, politics happen regardless. In an interview with Comics Alliance late last year, writer/artist Brian Wood recounted the origins of his Channel Zero, a certifiably punk, copy shop-born project set in a technology-driven "police state" in Manhattan. For years, Wood has characterized in comics form our modern, unprecedented expansion of executive power and what he’s labelled a “civil liberties crackdown”, rolled out annually under the blanketing guise of post-9/11 national security.

Years after his Channel Zero had come to fruition in 1997, Brian Wood set his sights on a comic series called DMZ, where the federal government infringes upon human rights at every turn. In arresting splash pages and perennially rich storytelling, DMZ chronicles journalist Matty Roth's travels across a devastated Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs over the course of a second civil war. The U.S. military in Wood's book is primarily battling the Free States Army, a secessionist group that originated in the middle of the country. The military plants snipers along the perimeters of New York City's Lower East Side, where freedom fighter groups face off for local control. Co-creator/artist Riccardo Burchielli brings crisp, precise details to the fore in establishing the setting of DMZ: storefronts are in shambles, debris clutters Manhattan sidewalks, and each character is clad in grimy, bloodstained clothes throughout the book.

Wood's DMZ is a 72-issue work of extremes, but the parallels to reality are integral to the story. Allusions to real-life run frequently across its grim pages. Perhaps most important of these is the series' characterization of a real-life "civil liberties crackdown." A particularly poignant chapter of DMZ takes place on Staten Island, where a depiction of the U.S. military engaging in torture techniques hits very close to home.

Artist Kristian Donaldson (now working on Wood's The Massive) fleshes out a weighty narrative in DMZ #35-36--these issues are collected in aptly titled trade War Powers. Donaldson's is a style much different to Burchielli's. Often it serves up a skewed perspective and hard, angular lines that follow squared jaws of American soldiers to axe-head points. Facial expressions here are plain and uncomplicated. Wood told writer Justin Giampaoli for his DMZ blog that Donaldson's work matched well the "slightly crazy, sorta’ darkly humorous, just-on-the-edge-of-chaos vibe" he needed for this arc.

During a ceasefire on Staten Island, the Free States Army trades pirated DVDs or booze with American soldiers for dog tags, code words, and more. The potential for hostility is enormous, as the arrangement between the men is governed simply by handshakes, shared beer, and as Matty Roth observes, an "extraordinary level of trust". Things degenerate rapidly when a chemical weapon goes unaccounted for.

When Free States Army grunts are tied and beaten behind locked doors in DMZ, the panels depicting soldiers administering "enhanced interrogation techniques" don't differ much from the photos of Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison that surfaced in 2004. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reviewed the images of barking attack dogs, the naked or hooded prisoners in orange jumpsuits, and dismissively branded those in charge a group of "bad apples" at the time. This was hardly the case.

PopMatters Comics has already written about this vivid parallel in 2010. We argued that this chapter of Wood's book doesn't showcase "simply torture pornography", rather it's that "Wood is making a clear statement about the overarching political system that allows for such horrors to exist." The soldiers aren’t suddenly pushed to the edge in DMZ before “resorting” to reckless behavior, a defense that Donald Rumsfeld posited for our own media when Abu Ghraib broke.

Brian Wood framed this part of his story so that the soldiers appear to be operating under a distinct set of rules, approved guidelines for a situation that requires "alternative techniques". The comic's creators needn't have looked further than to the system developed in the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel, where carefully crafted memoranda in 2002 set the tone for President George W. Bush, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and Vice President Dick Cheney to effectively authorize and establish a torture program.

Several months before DMZ #35 landed in comic shops, The New Yorker's Jane Mayer talked to Bill Moyers on PBS about Bush's torture program. She referenced then-Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Doug Feith's argument that following 9/11, "the Geneva Convention should no longer apply" to anyone that the U.S. government considered a terrorist suspect. This was Bush's assessment ten years ago this past February, when he signed an OLC-penned memo that excluded "war on terror" suspects (specifically "al Qaeda and Taliban detainees") from the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War.

In a New Yorker report on resistance at the Pentagon to halt the program from moving forward, Mayer cites the Bush administration's decision "that protecting the country required extraordinary measures, including the exercise of executive powers exceeding domestic and international norms." This post-9/11 condition is our "State of Exception", writes Mark Danner, who has covered foreign affairs and the U.S. torture program extensively for The New York Review of Books. The State of Exception is where American leaders appear to rely only on the principles of law to govern, when in fact it is on an area of exception that exists between legality and policy. President Obama, for his adamant refusal to investigate and efforts to normalize the previous administration's program, cannot escape this distinction.

The lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel were instrumental at the onset of Bush's torture program. The February 7, 2002 memo actually includes the phrase "the war against terrorism ushers in a new paradigm" in its argument for "new thinking in the law of war." White House Counsel at the time Alberto Gonzalez confirmed the legal arm's role to The Washington Post: "Anytime a discussion came up about interrogations with the president... the directive was, 'Make sure it is lawful. Make sure it meets all of our obligations under the Constitution, U.S. federal statutes and applicable treaties.' "

Jane Mayer explained to Bill Moyers that over the course of her reporting and in the development of her book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, she determined that "There's been a movement in conservative legal circles to try to push back international law… to not coddle criminals," and that this idea, along with the memos that stripped away rights traditionally granted to prisoners of war by the Geneva Convention (as well as by the Convention Against Torture of 1984, a United Nations treaty to which the U.S. is a state party) gave way to a veritable torture program.

What followed is now common knowledge: tactics administered by U.S. soldiers that involved countless human rights abuses like forced nudity, burning by electrical shock, suffocation by water, prolonged shackling, beating, and more. By definition, the implementation of these tactics is systemic and has been traced, by Mayer, all the way up the chain to the Oval Office, where it goes unquestioned no matter who is minding the store.

In DMZ #8, Matty Roth reviews a series of New York Times newspapers to reconstruct a timeline of the book's war. Burchielli's panels are nearly blacked-out. It's as if Roth is squatting on a darkened stage: Nothing behind him is discernible outside of more yellowed newspapers, each slugged with copy that's painfully close to our own real-life headlines. Brian Wood's chief character is despondent and sounds like many of us do today in the era of Occupy Wall Street, hostilities in Afghanistan, the Obama administration's drone campaign, and rampant corruption plaguing state and federal government, all amid an ever-theatric run-up to another presidential election.

Even as DMZ had another 64 issues and more than five years to go, Roth's thoughts are rendered with an undeniable degree of both prescience and finality: "I never paid attention to politics. Never seemed to be a point. Politics happened the way it happened regardless of what anyone thought or did. So why bother?"

* * *

Brian Wood's "Channel Zero" gets the deluxe reissue treatment from Dark Horse in May of 2012. Vertigo will make the 12th and final collected volume of his "DMZ" available in June.

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